Does ‘Marry Me’ Mark the Year of the Rom-Sitcom?

Why shouldn’t a maligned genre -- and romantic comedies are nothing if not maligned -- follow in drama's footsteps?

It appears that 2014 is the year that the romantic comedy makes the switch to the small screen. Call it the rom-sitcom. It makes sense. As big blockbusters are taking up all of the money, time, and attention in theaters, television has become a refuge for at least one genre that used to dominate cinema: the nuanced adult drama. As shows like The Good Wife and The Americans continue to gain respect on television, why shouldn’t a maligned genre — and romantic comedies are nothing if not maligned — follow in drama’s footsteps?

Of course, differences between dramas and romantic comedies mean this latest shift isn’t the same as the one mapped by its predecessor. For one thing, romantic comedy movies tend to wrap themselves up neatly and quickly: protagonists are alone, they meet, they provide some laughs, they overcome an obstacle or two, and then they’re together. It’s not a formula that requires 22 episodes.

Even if The New Girl and The Mindy Project have modeled some success, 2014’s crop of TV rom-sitcoms — A to Z, Manhattan Love Story, and Selfie — will have to figure out what they would do if they were lucky enough to make it to a second season. Do they extend the will-they-or-won’t-they tensions, or is that just stringing audiences along? Or, might the couples get together in a season finalé, fundamentally changing the blueprint of the show for a sophomore season?

These longer-term questions aside, the single-camera Marry Me distinguishes itself by focusing on a couple who is together from the beginning. In the premiere episode, airing 14 October, Annie (Casey Wilson) and Jake (Ken Marino) have already been through their meet-cute, fallen in love, and spent six years together. The series premiere focuses on their bumpy engagement.

With this history in place, the show is free to focus on the comedy portion of the relationship, rather than the earliest, more sentimental stage. That doesn’t mean this rom-sitcom leaves out emotional moments; it’s clear that Annie and Jake really care for each other. Flashbacks to their initial meeting and the first time each says, “I love you” briefly deliver blushing first moments of love for viewers interested in that stage. That said, these early moments look ahead to the problems ahead, as Annie and Jake’s awkwardness gives way to scenes of abject embarrassment.

Wilson and Marino are skilled enough performers that they can sell the tender scenes as well as the more exaggerated comedy. Of course, they’ve had practice — especially Wilson, who co-starred on Happy Endings, the previous show from Marry Me executive producer David Caspe. In fact, Annie is a lot like her Happy Endings predecessor, Penny Hartz. Both are hyper (a little too?), marriage-minded, and intense to the point where they often, as Annie puts it, “explode” their lives.

Still, Annie’s situation is different from Penny’s in a significant way, meaning that Annie isn’t surrounded by an ensemble cast. In Penny’s case, this helped to deflect attention from her when she became a bit too much. In Marry Me, Annie and Jake are front-and-center, all the time. If you find her intensity overwhelming at times, or can’t get behind Jake’s selfishness, there is no refuge.

This change in formula is more in keeping with movie rom-coms, which, like Marry Me, include secondary characters to frame and develop the couple’s relationship. Jake and Annie have their requisite best friends (Sarah Wright Olsen and John Gemberling), wacky neighbor (Tymberlee Hill), and parents (JoBeth Williams as Jake’s mom, plus Tim Meadows and Dan Bucatinsky as Annie’s dads, both named Kevin). It’s a credit to Caspe and Marry Me’s other creators that the series premiere introduces all of these characters and their relationships seamlessly, without clunky, expositional dialogue about how they all met. In the same way that the show starts mid-stride in Annie and Jake’s romance, it trusts the audience is smart enough to catch up on their friends and family. In stark contract with most other sitcoms, which typically take a few episodes to find their footing, this show has a refreshing confidence.

In fact, Marry Me is so sure of itself that the premiere doesn’t quite give a full picture of what’s coming. We know Annie and Jake are engaged. We know how their friends and family see them. And that’s about it. A to Z, Manhattan Love Story, and Selfie should keep an eye on Marry Me, because if Caspe and his crew can pull it off, they’ll have a model of rom-sitcom that’s still funny after its characters have fumbled through falling in love.

RATING 6 / 10