Romance on Television: Friday Night Lights

There’s a long-running truism about romance on TV: writers shouldn’t have the will-they-or-won’t-they couple get together because doing so ruins shows. It’s known as the Moonlighting Rule, and many smart critics have dismantled it (see here). But in my opinion, the best evidence that contravenes the Moonlighting Rule is the show with the most effective and most intimate portrait of an American marriage: Friday Night Lights.

Of the series I’ve talked about so far, Mozart in the Jungle and Grey’s Anatomy, this is no doubt the hardest sell because it’s all about football and small-town Texas.

Okay, yes, I could hear the record scratch noise there. For years, I refused to watch Friday Night Lights too, but when I finally gave in, immediately before the fifth and final season aired, what I found was a sprawling and novelistic portrait of a community and the violent sport that serves as its organizing principle.

It’s fundamentally an optimistic show, though it also believes that to understand someone, you have to know where they come from. For romance fans, it not only has many compelling stories of young love, but the main draw is the mature and complex marriage between the coach and his wife.

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Romance on Television: Grey’s Anatomy

I didn’t intend for this to be a series, but after writing about Mozart in the Jungle, I have more things to say about the long-form romances that play out on TV. This fascinating profile of Ellen Pompeo from The Hollywood Reporter gave me thinky thoughts about Grey’s Anatomy.

In the piece, Pompeo makes an unapologetic case for why she’s the highest-paid actress in primetime–and of course it’s the kind of argument I’ve never heard an actor have to make. She’s remarkably clear eyed about her career and thoughtful about what it means to make art long-term and still keep your work exciting and meaningful.

The profile reminded me of my rewatch of the first three seasons of Grey’s Anatomy a few months ago. I continue to find it odd that Grey’s is often omitted from conversations about peak TV. It’s not included in Alan Sepinwall’s (admittedly still interesting) The Revolution Was Televised, for example. While Shonda Rhimes herself often gets shout outs as a powerful showrunner (see here), it’s often as if she’s interesting in spite of the television she makes not because of it.

My own history with Grey’s is complicated. I started watching during the second season, quit a few episodes into the fourth, and then got reeled in again during season six/early season seven.

I’m not watching it right now, and I definitely don’t think it’s a perfect show. But when it’s good, Grey’s can be so good. It can also fail and falter and be preachy and reductive and go to some wacky bad places. The romantic drama in the first 2.5 seasons, however, was top notch, and I want to talk about what I think the show does well.

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Romance on Television: Mozart in the Jungle

I want to recommend you consider watching a thing, a thing that I think has one of the most interesting romances on the small screen. Plus if you take me up on this, you’ll get to listen great classical music and consider artistic union-management politics. I have a lot of caveats as you’ll see below, but here’s the trailer for the forthcoming season.

Yes, I’m recommending Mozart in the Jungle, which is available on Amazon Prime. It’s a strange, quirky, and sometimes uneven comedy. As I’m certain my husband would want to interject, it’s not really funny, it gets some of the details wrong, and it traffics in some tropes and stereotypes that grate, but it’s still worth your time because it takes the clash between art and commerce seriously and it builds lovely human moments in along the way.

When it’s good, Mozart in the Jungle is different from everything else on television. And when it’s bad, at least it’s short. (Seriously, the episodes are less than half an hour each. You can pretty easily blow through a season in two nights and the extant three seasons in less than a week.)

Mozart in the Jungle tells the story of a fictional New York City orchestra. In the pilot episode, the board brings in a hot new conductor, roughly modeled on Gustavo Dudamel, to shake things up and in the process, deep schisms in the orchestra grow wider and the characters are forced to clarify their relationships to the institution and to music itself.

To be more granular, more romancelandia folks should take a look because of the show’s central relationship: a slow-burn romance between the new conductor, Rodrigo (Gael Garcia Bernal), and a struggling oboist named Hailey (Lola Kirk).

On paper, Hailey sounds a bit like a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. She’s much younger than the rest of the ensemble, she’s pretty, and she drives Rodrigo’s emotional development/arc. But the character is specifically written and sympathetically portrayed. She has an inner life and her own desires, and so, for me, she transcends the trope.

Most interestingly, at least from my perspective, Hailey struggles with the question of whether she’s talented enough to achieve her dreams and as a result, as the show marches on, she tries to reimagine her life and eventually takes up conducting.

I don’t know what will happen with this storyline, but if anything, I find the show the compelling because of the female characters: Hailey; her roommate, Lizzie; her friend the cellist/union rep, Cynthia; Hailey’s rival, the first chair oboist Betty; and the president of the orchestra board, Gloria. I like the men, but they aren’t as central for me.

Since Hailey’s story is basically the one I keep writing over and over and over again, I’m smitten with the show, and I can’t wait to finally, finally see Hailey and Rodrigo together as a couple. I couldn’t be more excited for the show’s upcoming fourth season, so you should catch up so we can squee together.

That’s my spoiler-free pitch, but I’ll make a longer and more complicated one after the break.

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