Bad (Office) Romance: TV's Most Enduring Trope

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. Peepers? The 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.





PM Picks Playlist 1: Rett Madison, Folk Devils + More

The first PopMatters Picks Playlist column features searing Americana from Rett Madison, synthpop from Everything and Everybody, the stunning electropop of Jodie Nicholson, the return of post-punk's Folk Devils, and the glammy pop of Baby FuzZ.


David Lazar's 'Celeste Holm  Syndrome' Appreciates Hollywood's Unsung Character Actors

David Lazar's Celeste Holm Syndrome documents how character actor work is about scene-defining, not scene-stealing.


David Lord Salutes Collaborators With "Cloud Ear" (premiere)

David Lord teams with Jeff Parker (Tortoise) and Chad Taylor (Chicago Underground) for a new collection of sweeping, frequently meditative compositions. The results are jazz for a still-distant future that's still rooted in tradition.


Laraaji Takes a "Quiet Journey" (premiere +interview)

Afro Transcendentalist Laraaji prepares his second album of 2020, the meditative Moon Piano, recorded inside a Brooklyn church. The record is an example of what the artist refers to as "pulling music from the sky".


Blues' Johnny Ray Daniels Sings About "Somewhere to Lay My Head" (premiere)

Johnny Ray Daniels' "Somewhere to Lay My Head" is from new compilation that's a companion to a book detailing the work of artist/musician/folklorist Freeman Vines. Vines chronicles racism and injustice via his work.


The Band of Heathens Find That Life Keeps Getting 'Stranger'

The tracks on the Band of Heathens' Stranger are mostly fun, even when on serious topics, because what other choice is there? We all may have different ideas on how to deal with problems, but we are all in this together.


Landowner's 'Consultant' Is OCD-Post-Punk With Obsessive Precision

Landowner's Consultant has all the energy of a punk-rock record but none of the distorted power chords.


NYFF: 'American Utopia' Sets a Glorious Tone for Our Difficult Times

Spike Lee's crisp concert film of David Byrne's Broadway show, American Utopia, embraces the hopes and anxieties of the present moment.


South Africa's Phelimuncasi Thrill with Their Gqom Beats on '2013-2019'

A new Phelimuncasi anthology from Nyege Nyege Tapes introduces listeners to gqom and the dancefloors of Durban, South Africa.


Wolf Parade's 'Apologies to the Queen Mary' Turns 15

Wolf Parade's debut, Apologies to the Queen Mary, is an indie rock classic. It's a testament to how creative, vital, and exciting the indie rock scene felt in the 2000s.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Literary Scholar Andrew H. Miller On Solitude As a Common Bond

Andrew H. Miller's On Not Being Someone Else considers how contemplating other possibilities for one's life is a way of creating meaning in the life one leads.


Fransancisco's "This Woman's Work" Cover Is Inspired By Heartache (premiere)

Indie-folk brothers Fransancisco dedicate their take on Kate Bush's "This Woman's Work" to all mothers who have lost a child.


Rodd Rathjen Discusses 'Buoyancy', His Film About Modern Slavery

Rodd Rathjen's directorial feature debut, Buoyancy, seeks to give a voice to the voiceless men and boys who are victims of slavery in Southeast Asia.


Hear the New, Classic Pop of the Parson Red Heads' "Turn Around" (premiere)

The Parson Red Heads' "Turn Around" is a pop tune, but pop as heard through ears more attuned to AM radio's glory days rather than streaming playlists and studio trickery.


Blitzen Trapper on the Afterlife, Schizophrenia, Civil Unrest and Our Place in the Cosmos

Influenced by the Tibetan Book of the Dead, Blitzen Trapper's new album Holy Smokes, Future Jokes plumbs the comedic horror of the human condition.


Chris Smither's "What I Do" Is an Honest Response to Old Questions (premiere + interview)

How does Chris Smither play guitar that way? What impact does New Orleans have on his music? He might not be able to answer those questions directly but he can sure write a song about it.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Fire in the Time of Coronavirus

If we venture out our front door we might inhale both a deadly virus and pinpoint flakes of ash. If we turn back in fear we may no longer have a door behind us.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.