TV’s Best Romantic Comedy Couples Are Living Messily Ever After

6 minute read

The happily-ever-after montage is a romantic comedy cliché—a way to end a fairy-tale courtship with the spectacle of a lavish wedding while reassuring viewers that many joyous vacations, births, McMansion purchases and other upper-middle-class luxuries await the central couple. So it figures that You’re the Worst, a cult FXX dramedy about two irreparably broken millennials in love that aired its series finale on April 3, would conclude with not only abortive nuptials, but also a subversive flash-forward montage of its own.

When the wordless sequence begins, Gretchen (Aya Cash) and Jimmy (Chris Geere) are dancing at a wedding; it just isn’t their wedding, which explains why they look so blissful. A series of tableaus shows them awaiting their first child, then Jimmy reading him an inappropriate bedtime story, then the family sitting serenely at a bar, then the new parents having sex as the baby giggles in noise-blocking headphones a few feet away, then chronic depressive Gretchen bawling in bed next to her crying son as an oblivious Jimmy sleeps. Scoring these images of contentment and despair is The Mountain Goats’ “No Children”—a sort of indie-rock standard about a codependent couple who will never break up despite their mutual misery. The refrain: “I hope you die/I hope we both die.”

It’s a poignant and, at times, funny denouement. But is it happy? After four seasons of love, rage, self-destruction and battles with their own and each other’s demons, it may well be the happiest possible ending that’s true to these characters. “Who wants to lie in front of everyone they know that they’re gonna love each other forever? How can you know that?” Jimmy howls, as their already-in-progress wedding falls apart. In a final reminder that they can both be monsters, they ditch their guests to eat pancakes at the diner where they’ve shared many hungover breakfasts and vow to simply keep making the daily choice to be together. That’s an old saw of couples who refuse to marry, of course. Yet for Gretchen and Jimmy, this acknowledgment of uncertainty serves the paradoxical purpose of giving two commitment-phobic self-saboteurs space to create a stable future.

They may be a unique pair, but You’re the Worst isn’t the only beloved TV romantic comedy to go out on an ambiguous note this year. Taken together, these unorthodox finales suggest an awareness that the classic marriage plot—as deployed by Shakespeare, Austen and, yes, Sex and the City before the first movie made enough money to demand a sequel—oversimplifies long-term relationships. In reality, not all soulmates can be life partners. Love doesn’t always last forever. And if it does, it may not be enough to inoculate two people against unforeseeable circumstances or their own personalities.

In March, fans of Amazon’s beloved British import Catastrophe watched 40-something parents Rob (Rob Delaney) and Sharon (Sharon Horgan) weather the sudden death of his mother, fight viciously about the prospect of an intercontinental move and finally reconcile, improbably excited to welcome their third unplanned baby, while wading into metaphorical oblivion at a beach where signs caution: “Rip currents. No swimming.” They’re already married, and they’re much kinder, more conscientious people than Gretchen and Jimmy will ever be. But Rob will always be a recovering alcoholic; Sharon will always be reckless and selfish. Like the pregnancy that turned their one-week stand into a lifelong commitment in season 1, the years ahead are sure to bring surprise crises they’ll need to stick together to survive. Even then, they run the risk of drowning.

The recent final episode of Comedy Central’s Broad City—a show best understood as a nonsexual romance between two women and the city they love—was more upbeat. After years of aimless frolicking through the streets of New York, high on weed, friendship and the precarity of their broke urban existences, Abbi (Abbi Jacobson) and Ilana (Ilana Glazer) go their separate ways. In an arc that feels true to both characters, Ilana is preparing for grad school in the city she can’t imagine leaving. But Abbi, who turned 30 in the season premiere, realizes that if she keeps struggling to survive in such an unforgiving place, she’ll never get serious about her art career. So she uses a residency in Colorado as an opportunity move across the country. Once Ilana gets over the shock of her departure, they keep in constant contact via phone; this is how they grow up without growing apart. In the lovely closing shot, a parade of femme best friends of all races, ethnicities and gender identities streaming out of the subway to start their own youthful love affair with New York and each other.

Ultimately, these finales succeed (and by “succeed,” I may or may not mean “made me tear up”) for the same reason the shows themselves did: they revolve around unique, vividly drawn characters and relationships. From Bridget Jones to Crazy Rich Asians, most romantic comedies are designed to fulfill the one-size-fits-all fantasies of millions of women around the world who’ve absorbed a lifetime’s worth of propaganda from the wedding-industrial complex. That means down-to-earth heroines just flawed enough to be relatable, and just bland enough for the viewer to project her own qualities onto. Not everyone can identify with Ilana or Sharon or Gretchen, but after four or five seasons, they’re as familiar as old friends. I know them all well enough to be proud of the strides they’ve made and lament how far they still have to go—and to care how they end up.

Yet, barring untimely death, modern romances don’t necessarily have a clear result. Now that it’s possible to take or leave marriage, child-rearing, polyamory, serial monogamy or perpetual singledom, realistic love stories can’t all culminate in a wedding—or even a breakup of Eat, Pray, Love proportions. Raised after the normalization of divorce, then thrust into adulthood amid two decades of political, social and environmental chaos bracketed by the Clinton-Lewinsky saga and Donald Trump (not to mention ongoing economic flux that has rendered home ownership and other trappings of stability impossible), TV creators in their 30s and 40s seem to understand that the only certainty that awaits most couples in the far future is uncertainty. Now that happily ever after is a lie, messily ever after has begun to look like the best-case scenario.

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