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TV is better placed to tell love stories than cinema – and its writers have finally realised that

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You can fall in love in 100 minutes but it takes 100 episodes to see love as it is really lived, says Helen O’Hara

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By Helen O'Hara on

Movie love is easy. Two beautiful people meet, sparks fly and before you know it they’re kissing against a sunset as the credits roll. The great romances – Casablanca, Singing In The Rain, The Princess Bride – play out in about 100 minutes, and satisfy everyone. But real love isn’t like the movies, and it should be much better suited to television’s long-running format. After all, a great relationship can last a lifetime. It should take much more than 100 minutes to get to the nub of it. Yet what’s surprising is that TV took the best part of 70 years to start getting honest about love.

In the early years, women on TV were all married. Almost every female character was a wife first and foremost, even if she was also a genie, or a witch. Permed hair, a poodle skirt and a flowered apron were the hallmarks of the TV leading lady for two decades, in drama and comedy alike. Love was displayed through pie-baking and slipper-warming; the warm and fuzzy patriarchy depicted by a husband and father coming home from breadwinning to the loving arms of his family. There were vanishingly few exceptions to the rule: there might be a mean old spinster next door, or a maiden aunt who’d be merrily coupled off with a new suitor by the end of the episode, but in the post-War years, television focused to the exclusion of all else on the nuclear family. In the better class of long-running drama – Coronation Street, for example – there were memorable couples; but it was a limited, stifling portrayal of love.

The single girl didn’t truly get a look in until The Mary Tyler Moore show debuted in 1970, with a heroine who never married, supported herself and placed her career at the heart of her life. Heroine Mary Richards (the show was named after star rather than character) dated around, sometimes seriously, but her life revolved around friends, work and serious issues (feminism, equal pay and homosexuality were among the hot-button topics dealt with). In what’s still a quietly radical turn, the show’s finale left Mary still single – something that even today’s dramas rarely have the guts to do.

It was one of the most influential shows of all time, directly shaping modern classics like Friends and 30 Rock. But while few shows could find such a successful groove, The Mary Tyler Moore Show established the single girl lead as a formula for success. A career gal offered the chance for a string of romantic entanglements and career-based stories, as well: a golden combination when trying to come up with fresh plotlines for a long-running show.

That’s not to say that fantasy romance didn’t have its place. In the late 1970s and 1980s, the rise of huge American soap opera hits like Dynasty and Dallas showed a glossier kind of love. This one was all passionate kisses between beautiful people with teased hair and enormous shoulder-pads. Drinks would be thrown, claws came out and – when things got really intense – fully-dressed women would wrestle in fountains. Meanwhile, Moonlighting illustrated the thrills and perils of will-they-won’t-they sexual chemistry: the first two and a half seasons where Cybill Shepherd’s Maddie and Bruce Willis’ David flirted with one another were sizzling TV dynamite, but the show’s decline was popularly pegged to the consummation of their relationship in season three.

As TV’s female leads became more vivid and memorable, their love stories had to become more complex to keep up

Through the 1990s, TV played with romance in new ways. The X-Files followed Moonlighting’s lead, as did Friends to some extent, and kept their true lovers eternally apart. Where love was front and centre, singletons dominated, but the formula widened to embrace slightly older women (Cybill) and at last gay women (Ellen, making history by coming out as a character and actress). The neurotic legal comedy of Ally McBeal initially had an unrequited true love as its guiding light (remember when Ally was in love with her ex, Billy Thomas?), as did Buffy and Angel in Buffy The Vampire Slayer. But in both cases, that proved too restrictive, because the logic of following a woman’s story means that sometimes men fall by the wayside when your lead develops in new and unexpected directions. As TV’s female leads became more vivid and memorable, their love stories had to become more complex to keep up.

But far more complexity was to come. Sex And The City debuted in 1998, and took a no-holds-barred approach to love, sex and all the mess we make of both. The show’s central quartet dealt with everything the dating world could throw at them, from fetishes to unplanned pregnancy and the failure of cherished romantic dreams. It wasn’t perfect – some of its sexual politics have already dated, and it sometimes put fashion above realism – but SATC was revolutionary in its daring. Its four friends soldiered on because of one another’s unwavering support. If this were Carrie writing, I’d have to wonder if the real love story wasn’t really between Carrie, Miranda, Charlotte and Samantha, and not with their ostensible love interests at all.

After a tiny pause for breath, that show has given birth to a TV golden age for honest, often disastrous love stories. Girls went one step further than Sex And The City, stripping out the glamour and upping the honesty even further in its portrayal of four twenty-something New Yorkers. Cellulite, abortion, bodily functions: nothing was off-limits anymore, and brutal, emotionally resonant honesty was an absolute must. Somehow it makes the moments of real connection and real romance all the sweeter. It remains to be seen if the last season will see everyone live happily ever after – but it’s a fair bet it won’t be smooth sailing to the finale.

And in shouting about the things that SATC only whispered, Girls opened doors that people didn’t even realise had been closed. Broad City, You’re The Worst, Catastrophe and the comic genius that is Fleabag barged after in Lena Dunham’s footsteps and ripped the hinges from the door frame.

What’s great about all this is that it has only widened our options. If you want to watch married couples live happily ever after, those shows still exist (Friday Night Lights portrays a particularly strong marriage, as does Madam Secretary). If you want non-heterosexual love, there’s Transparent and Orange Is The New Black. We still have sexual tension between beautiful people in, say, Jane The Virgin, The Good Wife and just above every glossy network drama made. And if your particular fetish is for surreal yet disastrous romances where the characters occasionally break into inspired musical numbers – an oddly specific fetish on your part – you can even get that in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. We may get fewer happy couples in frilly aprons on TV these days, but we’ve exchanged those shiny fairytales for an endless variety of texture, honesty and depth that’s far closer to home as we look for, or try to maintain, our real love lives.

Love Stories: This week on The Pool, our writers are discussing love and relationships


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