In Sitcoms, Cupid Is Often Only a Tease [ - ]
Table of Contents [Report This]
- Text Size +
Author: Ellen Pall
Source: New York Times
Date | Issue: 01/28/1990 | NA
Topic: Tony & Angela
Submitted by: mich_l81
In Sitcoms, Cupid Is Often Only a Tease
By Ellen Pall
After half a decade of denying, deploring, hinting at, acknowledging and sheepishly celebrating their mutual sexual attraction, Tony Micelli and Angela Bower have agreed they don't know their feelings well enough to discuss the future. Sam Malone, having spent five years getting together and breaking up with Diane Chambers, has been chasing Rebecca Howe for 28 months - to no avail. And earlier this month, Hannah Miller and Marty Gold trotted into their first New Year together in a state of carefully cultivated ambiguity. These virtuosos of irresolution are, of course, couples in sitcoms (NBC's ''Cheers'' and ABC's ''Who's the Boss?'' and ''Anything but Love'') whose plots depend on endless sexual tension between their protagonists.
Soap-opera characters pair and part, tiny bits of glass in an incessantly turning kaleidoscope of romance. The leading figures of such detective comedy/dramas as ''Moonlighting'' and ''Remington Steele'' had at least a fig leaf of mystery to cover the teasing quasi romances that kept many viewers coming back for more. But pity the writers of sitcoms whose very backbone is perpetual flirtation. Week after week, they must keep the question ''Will they or won't they?'' up in the air, tapping it back and forth eternally over the fatal abyss of denouement like a Sisyphean volleyball. At the same time, they have to get an average of three laughs per script-page (at least they have to crack up the laugh track that often), some 50 to 100 laughs each show.
Luckily, they needn't hurl their star-crossed protagonists directly at one another every week. Episodes often center on supporting characters or turn on mishaps that overtake the whole ensemble. The principals can date other people, pretend they don't care for each other ''that way,'' can even - for a while - stop pretending and admit the truth. But no matter what else happens, when the last frame freezes at the end of the show, the attraction/obstacle seesaw that is its centerpiece must be in motion.
To keep it teetering, writers use - with varying degrees of panache - an abundance of readily identifiable plot devices. For example: Trapped by a storm, a deadline, an automobile breakdown, etc., the characters involuntarily spend a night in each other's company. This particular device has long been a favorite - think of Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in Frank Capra's 1934 comedy ''It Happened One Night.'' For the protagonists of endless-love sitcoms, the experience is practically de rigueur: Tony (played by Tony Danza) and Angela (Judith Light) did it in a two-part season opener of ''Who's the Boss?'' some years ago, Rebecca (Kirstie Alley) and Sam (Ted Danson) did it this fall on ''Cheers,'' and just a couple of weeks ago on ''Anything but Love'' Marty (Richard Lewis) and Hannah (Jamie Lee Curtis) did it, too.
Of course, not one of these couples actually did It, which is exactly the point: Once having managed to throw their protagonists together, the scriptwriters must call on other elements - incompatible personality traits, mistrust, shyness, another (temporary) involvement, even a till-then hidden deeper caring for each other - to keep them apart. (A peculiar variation on this theme showed up not long ago in NBC's ''Dear John,'' a program with what looks to be another of these eternally unsettled romances developing between the title character and the attractive Kate. Played by Judd Hirsch and Isabella Hofmann, these two spent a night together but were both so blotto at the time that afterward neither remembered what, if anything, happened.) Another staple plot device is the Accidental Glimpse: Recently on ''Anything but Love,'' Marty walked in on Hannah unannounced, catching a glimpse of her stepping out of the shower. The moment worked efficiently to create a brief flare of sexual innuendo. It worked just as efficiently a few months ago on ''Cheers,'' when the wolfish Sam stumbled a bit less accidentally onto an unclothed Rebecca. And when, in the first season of ''Who's the Boss?,'' Tony happened upon Angela in the tub. For that matter, it worked three or four millenniums ago, when Actaeon chanced on the bathing goddess Artemis.
There are also the kisses on-a-dare, the kisses to-prove-they-won't-affect-us, the hugs that begin as huddling together from fear or cold or friendship but end in passion. Anger promotes useful blurtings-out of smoldering attachments; jealousy is good to compel a reluctant acknowledgment of desire. These elements recur so relentlessly not, of course, because the scriptwriters lack imagination but because they work: audiences enjoy seeing them. Among other things, they confirm the pleasant suspicion that the neighbor (or shop clerk or colleague) who always smiles so warmly harbors flattering desires; to the involuntarily unattached, they suggest that love - or sex - is just around the corner. And though it may be the latter, sometimes leering suggestion that gives these comedies their surface glitter, in these days of the single-adult household it is just as likely the former - the peep show of hidden intimacy, the genuine caring revealed in sudden flashes between the characters - that keeps viewers tuning in.
And what will the new decade bring - besides, inevitably, more of the same? If the differences between ''Anything but Love'' and its predecessors (''Cheers'' was first telecast in 1982; ''Who's the Boss?'' in 1984, and ''Anything but Love'' came on as a midseason replacement last year) are any indication, there will be at least a few changes. For one, in the 80's it was the women (Angela, Diane and Rebecca) who were neurotic and uptight. On ''Anything but Love,'' it's Marty who is angst-ridden, Hannah who is the chirpy optimist. To the extent that accepting vulnerability in men - and confidence in women - represents an advance in civilization, that's progress. On the other hand, while Rebecca is Sam's employer and Angela is Tony's, the novice Hannah (though lately she's gaining on him) launched her journalistic careeer by using the established Marty as a mentor - an altogether more traditional female/male relationship, and arguably a step backward.
But the biggest difference between the older shows and ''Anything but Love'' is the contrast between Sam Malone's almost antediluvian woman-chasing - one thinks of him as a sort of woolly mammoth of sexism sunk in a tar pit full of Playboy magazines - and Marty's emancipation. Tony of ''Who's the Boss?'' is no woman-chaser - in fact, he's notably tender and nurturing - but the show has always been shot through with the sliest of double-entendres and man-chasing jokes, courtesy of Angela's randy mother. ''Anything but Love,'' on the other hand, though it stands in danger of falling into that same trap (Joseph Maher has recently been brought in to play the critic Brian Alquist, who leers and smirks at every opportunity) has in Marty a shining example of a sexually liberated hero, one who is drawn to women whose ambitions and accomplishments match his own.Marty is perfectly comfortable with both a female boss and a female friend.
The exact nature of that friendship, of course, has yet to be worked out. But who knows? By the turn of the millennium, perhaps Marty and Hannah will be professional equals. Indeed, they may be lovers and friends. Rebecca and Sam could be living together. Tony and Angela might even (gasp) be married. Only one thing is certain: Until their shows are canceled, none of them will live happily ever after.