Picture Rachel and Ross from Friends, who fell in and out of love for 10 years. Envision Jim and Pam from The Office, when Jim would flirt daily with the already-engaged Pam. Or Ted and Robin from How I Met Your Mother, when Ted steals a blue French horn for a first date.
TV shows in particular have a special effect on us as viewers. Compared to movies, TV lives and grows with us. We watch love blossom and decay over the course of a series as we develop our own relationships with the characters.
“We see a lot of romance and a lot of sex because it sells,” said Tufts professor of Film and Media Studies Julie Dobrow. “Romance always has these narrative elements of tension and it’s a basic human interest, both of which make it an ideal topic for TV.” Romance and love are a captivating part of human life, and always provide intrigue and drama that unites audiences worldwide. However, the popular television plotlines are often clichéd and unrealistic, skewing our personal romantic beliefs and relationships. TV shows are beginning to broadcast more grounded romance, but we might have to look a little harder to find them.
The most common romantic conflict in TV sitcoms is the “will they/won’t they” situation, in which the two love interests vacillate between ‘just friends’ and ‘something more.’ Because these relationships are focal points of the show, writers risk losing viewers once the two fated characters finally kiss. TV shows drag these dynamics out for as long as possible because the human brain craves this constant tension and networks crave consistent ratings. In an interview with the Huffington Post, psychologist Dr. Jared DeFife of Emory University explains that fans get invested in the blossoming of the romance. “We’re wired to really connect to each other in that way,” he said.
This often results in the popular habit of “shipping,” where fans fervently root for two characters to be in a relationship. DeFife explains this as the Zeigarnik Effect, which refers to the notion that an unresolved issue will keep us cognitively engaged. For the constant “will they/won’t they” shows, this unresolved issue goes on for seasons. A common form of “shipping” manifests in fan-fiction writing as a way for viewers to resolve the tension themselves. In fact, DeFife explains it as completely normal rather than pathological, merely revealing that you care deeply about relationships and human connections.
However, there is a drawback to becoming over-invested in these relationships. Romance in real life is rarely the glamorous display as seen on television. “TV shows often don’t show how much work real relationships are, the many ways in which romance takes a back seat to everyday life, or how much compromise is involved in staying on even keel in most relationships,” said Dobrow. TV gives the impression that romance is the most important thing in life, but there are a few happy characters who choose to put work first. For those who have not yet been exposed to relationships in real life, love is distorted from reality. “I do think that for children having a steady diet of things like Disney princesses who live for the prince on the white horse sets kids up for unrealistic and idealistic notions of what romance is,” said Dobrow.
This exposure to unhealthy or unattainable types of love can seriously influence one’s romantic expectations later in life. The University of Michigan decided to test exactly how much college students’ perceptions of love are affected by the types of TV they regularly watch. Students heavily exposed to marriage-themed reality TV, like The Bachelor, were more likely to believe in concepts of “Love at First Sight” and “Idealization.” They were more likely to not only idealize the moment of falling in love, but believe it could happen in an instant. Interestingly, even though the “love” on reality TV is often fabricated and contrived, many still fall under its spell. However, frequent viewers of sitcoms like Friends and How I Met Your Mother were less likely to idealize that there was “the one” out there waiting to be found. These results suggest that perhaps exposure to these sitcoms makes us more cynical about love.
This cynicism can be interpreted as realism. There has been a recent rise in television shows that eschew the traditional formula and reveal the reality of relationships. Master of None, a Netflix original series, presents trials of dating in today’s age. People will not always find “the one” so easily—or perhaps ever. They suggest that finding “the one” does not need to be life’s ultimate goal. According to Indiewire, this is seen in shows such as You’re the Worst, The Mindy Project, and Catastrophe. However, these television shows, similar to Master of None, are not aired on the big broadcast networks that require high ratings, but instead by smaller niche-market networks and streaming services like FX, Hulu, Amazon, and Netflix. The Mindy Project previously aired on FOX, a big TV network, but was dropped because of low ratings. Hulu then picked it up because of its strong—but not large—fan base. These more realistic shows will continue to exist with interested fans, but the prototypical romance tropes will persist on network television as long as they return high ratings.
Perhaps one day these shows about complex, real love will appeal to mainstream audiences, but as Dobrow concludes wisely, “we still like to sit back and watch those idealized relationships because they’re easier, less messy…and so much more beautiful than most of us could ever hope for.”