Bad (Office) Romance

TV's Most Enduring Trope

by Cary O'Dell

18 April 2013

Mixing business with pleasure is now, as ever, the norm on TV... even if it shouldn't be.

Ironically, at a time when most businesses and corporations are doing there best to discourage interoffice dating and fraternization, and sexual harassment is still a hot button topic—still being defined and still devolving into a series of angry “he said/she said” confrontations—television can’t seem to get enough of love in the workplace.

For decades now, we’ve seen an endless parade of television series—both comedy and drama—that have as their one overarching theme:  When are these two going to finally get together? 
I’m not sure when the trend began (Mr. PeepersThe Farmer’s Daughter?) but it was certainly all over the airwaves in the 1980s thanks to such long-running series as Who’s the Boss?, Remington Steele, Cheers, and Moonlighting.  The trend continued throughout the ‘90s and the early ‘00s thanks to The X-Files, The Nanny, Caroline in the City, and even Fraiser.  And today, it’s still very much with us thanks to The Office, Castle, Bones, and The Mindy Project.  Ample relationship (and bed hopping) meanwhile can also be found on Grey’s Anatomy, CSI, and Man Men.

In every one of these programs co-workers (often bosses and subordinates) flirt, kiss, fight, break up, make up and (of course) hook up.  Sometimes series end with a marriage and/or kids between the two principals.  And, along the way, no one ever seems to gets fired, written up or hauled into HR.  We also seldom see the effect that these characters’ various interpersonal dramas have on their co-workers or their own overall job performance.

Interestingly, though the majority of the female characters in these latter-day series are supposed to be college-educated and deeply capable, we still seem to prefer them only as romantic archetypes, not seasoned professionals.  Such resounding and confident workingwomen of early television (like Eve Arden on Our Miss Brooks and Ann Sothern on Private Secretary) are often regularly—and erroneously—dismissed for being shallow “husband hunters” at the same time that Sam and Diane are making googly eyes at each other, or Brennan and Booth are bedding down on Bones.

Obviously, judging by this subgenre’s endurance, there’s a profound audience for this sort of plot. In fact, even in various series where the principals don’t have any overt interpersonal relationship, that doesn’t stop their fans from speculating.  Such romantic longings have gotten superimposed onto all sorts of series from Superman to Perry Mason, The Avengers, Hunter, and Silk Stalkings. If enough evidence of a relationship isn’t there in the series, it ultimately doesn’t matter.  We’ll just turn to wild speculation and fan fiction to make sure a connection is made.

What is the reason?  Is it a modern fairy tale?—see how smoothly love can run its course once it has actually been spoken aloud.  Is it modern wish fulfillment?—that love will find us, that our “soul mate” is someone we see everyday, or at least Monday through Friday. (If that’s true, then that come as good news. Now we can cancel that Match account.)

Actually, I think a lot of these workplace romances derives from limited thinking and/or lazy storytelling; i.e. writers that cannot conceive of a single man and woman working together without flirtation and the specter of sex floating about.  At this time, I think it would be much more innovative and refreshing, for both TV and film, to show us a modern day man and woman interact on a strictly professional level, even at the risk of turning off some fans. (Something that Law & Order: SVU, thankfully, steadfastly adhered to throughout their long-running Stabler and Benson years.)

Ironically, though, for all the lovey-dovey-ness that TV writers find in the workplace and in the early days of a budding romance, they still remain pretty cynical when it comes to long-term relationships and (egads!) marriage. After the initial hook-up, it can be a long slog to the altar (if the TV super couple make it that far before cancellation) mostly due to the so-called “David and Maddie Curse”, the TV phenomenon named after Moonlighting’s golden couple who lost all their romantic tension and every other interesting thing about them once they finally “did it”. Hopefully, Leslie and her new hubby on Parks and Rec will avoid such a fate.

And if they don’t? There’s no reason to worry, TV’s next inappropriately close co-workers, and their nascent relationship, are only going to be a flip of the channel away.

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