Look at Sitcom ClichÃ©s: The Break-Up
Sitcoms, and other TV shows, always seem to hate it when characters are happy in relationships. You may have noticed that relationships follow three criteria:
1. Unrequited love which I have talked a lot about. This is when a character loves another, but the other is oblivious
2. Happy relationship. This is when the creators decide that they want a character to have a relationship so they let it develop. Think Jesse and Rebecca on Full Hour or Howard and Bernadette on Big Bang Theory.
3. And this one, which is today’s subject. When the creators want the character to have a relationship but do not want it to last. They just want the character to have the story arc, often going so far as to get them engaged to be married and in some instances married, and it always ends with a break up. And very often, the reason for the break-up is lame!
Why does it always end in a break up? We will talk more about it as we go but essentially itâ€™s to maintain the status quo. So that the characters donâ€™t change so much that fans lose interest. One classic example was Moonlighting. The show was based around the sexual tension around the two leads and once they hooked up the show got dull. Of course, once in a while there is an off screen reason for this as you will see in the examples below. But usually this was the plan from day one, let the character be happy until they have used up all the story they can (or they no longer have the actor available) then do the break-up which of course crushes the character. Good story telling engine or lame clichÃ©? You be the judge!
Now let me specify I am not talking about single episodes where we discover a character is dating someone and then some goofy thing breaks them up by the end of the show. These are long term relationships which had the new character coming back several times in arcs that would go three episode or much longer so that we could get to know them and feel the main characterâ€™s pain when the relationship falls apart. Also, no discussion of relationships that ended with a sudden death because I have already gone over that.
There are several romance tropes these fall into including True Love is Boring and Off-Screen Breakup. Here are some examples:
What better show to start with than this? If you don’t know, this was the spin-off of the very successful Mary Tyler Moore Show. Rhoda was, among other things, a very single girl. Until someone had the bright idea of getting her married. She met, got engaged to, and in a very big episode married the man. Seriously, the wedding episode was a HUGE deal. It became the highest-rated television episode of the 1970â€™s when it aired. I saw it once on TV Land and it was a good episode. Then in Season 3 they broke up. Why? From what I read the producers felt this was essential to the development of the characters. Yeah because we all know when youâ€™re married life stops and nothing interesting happens! After years of Rhoda the single girl on MTM wouldnâ€™t having her evolve on her own show make sense? Was Joe Quesada the producer? They divorced and the fans were incensed. The show managed to survive a few more years but Rhoda went back to being a single girl making the whole wedding pointless.
I may need someone to comment and fill me in on this one. I do know that Fonzie had a relationship with a woman named Pinky Tuscadero. She was around for a three episode arc but I remember little about it. I know she was kind of hot and kind of cool, sort of a female Fonzie, and I decided to include it since it was probably the most significant relationship Fonzie had. They were even engaged! But decided to break it off.
Wasn’t sure if this counted but I guess it does even if it lasted seasons rather than just an arc over one season. Sam and Diane. Do I need to continue? Even when I didnâ€™t watch Cheers I knew who these two were. I am going to skip ahead and talk about how it ended. Shelly Long decided to leave the series for a movie career (good move there Shelly), and so the producers had to break them up rather than marry them. How would it have ended if Long had stayed? Not even sure they knew. The final episode has Diane getting a chance to go to LA and write her book, and even though she promises to come back in six weeks she never does. Which Sam knows as he watches her leave. Itâ€™s a very somber moment and in the next episode we discover Sam was so distraught he sold the bar and lived on a boat for a while. Thankfully Kirstie Alley filled the void, but the Sam and Diane romance was quite a big deal in the 80â€™s.
The Golden Girls
I talked about this one before but it bares mentioning here. Rose was in a long term relationship with a teacher named Miles. For some reason one season the creators decided to retcon the character, and suddenly he was in fact a wanted man living under the witness protection program. Long story short he has to leave which breaks Roseâ€™s heart. Unlike other examples he does come back, only to break up with her again in The Golden Palace. With all the dating the girls did on this series youâ€™d think I could come up with one or two more.
The Cosby Show
Believe it or not, this show gives us the anti-trope! When we first meet Sondra and Elvin they are already a couple having trouble. You would think the show would get some gags out of the two and then finally break them up. Instead, Elvin stuck around and actually evolved as a character. One simple reason for this may have been that there was no status quo for Sondra that is usually the reason these relationships ultimately end because the creators don’t want to evolve the character to far in fear of turning off fans. Theo had his share of heartbreak on this series including Lana. I was surprised they never sent him off while in a serious relationship.
An absolutely perfect example. Around Season 8 the creators finally decided it was time for Harry to have a girlfriend. So he finally met someone, a reporter named Margaret. They dated for several episodes and even moved in together (which was NEVER explored and forgotten almost immediately). Then in one episode she decided to testify against some mobsters, and enter the witness protection program. Yep, this was a favorite plot device in the 80’s I think. Margaret left and Harry was crushed. For a whole episode. You just know this was the plan from day 1. But the thing is that when Harry was with Margaret, his character went from being goofy and fun to straight and…well, boring! There was also Christine and her relationship with Tony, and I have already ranted about that one!
This is one of the more famous cases. Alex was dating Ellen, played by Tracy Pollan, in a relationship that got lots of build up. How much build up? The scene where they confess their feelings was so popular it made the song played in the scene famous. The next season Tracy Pollan chose not to return, so the season premiered with an episode where Alex is hurting after Ellen had run off to Paris. They eventually brought in Courtney Cox but the chemistry between Alex and Ellen was real unique. I can’t have been the only one who noticed, the two actors married in real life and are still married to this day.
Here’s one where the plan was to keep the romance going but things changed. After Chrissy was born Mike and Maggie hired a nanny, named Julie and played by Julie McCullough. Mike was interested in her but she rejected him, at first. They kept their relationship a secret until one day on a cruise Mike announces they are together and wants to marry Julie! The next season it looked like the wedding would happen…but something changed. What? It’s a long story. Maybe the fact McCullough a playboy bunny had something to do with it. Or maybe it was because Kirk Cameron was a jerk at the time. Either way, Mike gets dumped by Julie just before they are about to wed, and frankly I think it was for the best since Julie was a boring character and her departure paced the way for the much more interesting Kate to join the show.
Here’s one that I don’t think was in the plan originally. Though I can’t be sure. Danny met Vicky when she subbed on his talk show. They hit it off and dated for a whole season long distance. Danny proposed in the series finale, and it all looked good until she got a job in Chicago. They decided they wanted different things and split. Though I liked Vicki and thought she fit in well. But I can see why the creators ended it, since having her would have thrown the whole premise of the show off. Adding Becky was risky enough. Also, D.J.’s first hot and heavy boyfriend Steve was around for awhile until things cooled off and they decided to just be friends. I hated Steve so was glad to see him go.
Here’s yet another case of “we’ve used up all the stories we can think of so break them up!” Haydenâ€™s daughter Kelly met and fell in love with another student named Stuart. The gag was that Stuart was emotional and sensitive, so of course Hayden hated him! They stayed together and got married, until Stuart found fame and decided to break up with Kelly. According to Wikipedia the actor decided to leave so maybe it wasnâ€™t the writers fault. So Stuart broke up with Kelly and he was kind of a jerk when he did it, the creators had to change the character in order to make the story work. Maybe thatâ€™s why they did a follow up where Kelly confronts Stewart and we see the original character shine through. Kelly stays divorced from him though. I like the end of the episode where he breaks up with her. Through the series Kelly and Hayden were at odds because they were different people. But experiencing heartbreak she goes to her father, and thereâ€™s something about that moment I always liked.
Itâ€™s hard for me to talk about this show because I remember so little of it. I do know Jackie went through several boyfriends. The only one I really recall was Fred. A one night stand ended up with Jackie pregnant. She refused to marry Fred despite Roseanneâ€™s insisting. After the baby was born she finally did marry them. Only for them to realize they had no fire in their marriage and broke up. Fred was around for a while before ultimately disappearing.
Poor Murphy, they really didn’t want her to be happy. First there was Jerry Gold who left for his own talk show. And then Peter Hunt who was played by Scott Bakula. I am guessing one of the reasons this didn’t last is because they didn’t want to bring Bakula aboard full time. Not sure, but they were engaged to be married briefly. There was a whole running arc in the series about how she had trouble keeping a boyfriend. And in the end of the series she still didnâ€™t have on. Also on this show was Corky meeting and falling in love with Will Forrest. They got married very fast and were together for awhile until the two finally broke up and divorced. Whatâ€™s the point of having a huge wedding episode if youâ€™re just going to undo it two years later? Maybe I used my Joe Quesada joke to early.
Here’s another case of the breakup happening because the actor left the show. Except that in this case it wasn’t her own choice. Brian had an on and off thing with Alex (Farah Forke) until she vanished at the start of the 6th season. They were replacing the actress with Amy Yasbeck.
Mad About You
A small one but a good example of this clichÃ©. Sometimes the girlfriend or boyfriend just vanishes. No reason, no explanation…they are just gone as if the relationship never happened. That’s what happened here when Cousin Ira met Jamie’s friend Suzanne. They dated very seriously for the latter half of a season. Then when the next season came along…she was gone. No mention, no word…Ira was just a single guy again. I can buy that the creators felt the character of Ira just worked better single, but some explanation would have been nice for those of us who liked Suzanne and thought she made a good addition to the show.
Oh you knew this was coming, this series OWNED this clichÃ©. I need bullet points for this one.
-Monica met and fell in love with Richard despite the 21 year age gap. They were getting along real great until Monica realized they wanted different things. They broke up in one of the series saddest moment. Kudos to the creators, Monica spent several episodes getting over this relationship which is far normal than the usual â€œone episode the character feels bad and then is fineâ€ crap.
-Monica also had a long term thing with Pete until it turned out the guy was nuts. In fact her relationship with Chandler wasnâ€™t supposed to take but the fan response kept it going. Speaking of Chandlerâ€¦..
-Chandler and Janice had a relationship with lasted several episodes. It ended after Joey caught her kissing her ex, and Chandler was devastated but let her go.
-Chandler then met Kathyâ€¦after she had started dating Joey. This was a story arc about Chandler having secret feelings for her. They almost ended their friendship but Joey is just to sweet a guy for that. So after that was resolved Chandler was free to date Kathy and be happy. Well we canâ€™t have that so despite the hype they ended up breaking up.
-Ross & Rachel. Do I really need to say more? There breakup episode is one of the most heartbreaking ever.
-Phoebe fell for a guy named Mike and was devastated when they ended things because Mike didnâ€™t was to get married. She also had her scientist guy break up with her. I said before no â€œone episodeâ€ romances but this is an exception because he did come back a few times.
Ok, last one. I should mention that Joey felt for an actress named Kate and while they went back and forth she ended up leaving.
Will & Grace
Oh poor Grace! For a show basically about her she sure gets put through the wringer. In the pilot episode she leaves her longtime boyfriend at the altar. Then she goes through several other guys. There was Ben, which was really a plot device and vanished when that story arc was over. She dated Josh who was boring. Nathan was played by Woody Harrelson and I was surprised how long he stuck around. When they broke up Grace was so depressed she couldnâ€™t even get out of bed. And then of course we had Leo. What were the creators thinking??? Didnâ€™t they know marrying Grace off in the middle of the series run was STUPID? It hurt the whole focus of the show. Maybe they thought because it was Harry Conncik Jr who would never appear in every episode they could get away with it. Nope instead to keep the show alive they had to have Leo cheat on Grace and they ended up divorced. Why do I think this was a gimmick? Because in the series finale he came back and they were together again. They really liked making Grace suffer, especially considering even Will broke her heart.
Everybody Loves Raymond
When Robert met Amy you knew that they were going break up eventually. In fact they ended up breaking up like four times. The creators just kept bringing them back together. Was it the fan reaction? Was the fact the women who played Amy was also the wife of the producer? Their last break up was pretty heated after Amy found out what Robert had been doing in Italy. But she forgave him and in the end married him. Since Robert was the only single adult character on the show, he had to bear the burden of the bad breakups and crazy relationships.
Believe it or not, when this show first came one the air Mike was in a serious relationship with a journalist named Carla. In fact that was the original focus of the show. Ads for the show even demonstrated that this was a major part of the series. Then the show evolved into a workplace comedy and she vanished after the first twelve episodes. Though to be fair, they did explain that Mike and Carla had mutually separated. I watched some of that episode and they kept waiting for Mike to be crushed but he refused to show that he was. I did not see how the episode ended so someone who did will have to fill me in.
The Big Bang Theory
Of course Leonard and Penny have been on and off, but there was a point during a period they were off that Leonard started dating Rajâ€™s sister Priya. This was obviously the writers trying to mix the dynamic up a bit. We had Penny jealous of Leonard for once, and she also affected the other characters especially Sheldon. Iâ€™ll admit Priya was kind of an interesting character, the way she acted so strong until someone challenged her than she we turned into a wimp. But the character did not fit and whether due to the actress or just the writers running of ideas, or the fact the writers truly wanted Penny and Leonard together, she and Leonard broke up and has never been spoken of since. Leonard took it hardâ€¦for a whole of an episode. In fact he seemed more crushed by the way Leslie Winkle used him for sex.
Well folks those are the only ones I could think of. I am sure there are plenty more but this article is long enough already. Feel free to comment and let me know.