‘Girls,’ ‘You’re the Worst’ Probe Relationship Drama in the Modern Age

It’s no secret that dating and relationships come with tons of drama. So it’s ironic that TV’s comedies are the ones that often have the most realistic examples of modern courtship.

“Obviously our characters are extreme. I always say we’re presenting a heightened version of reality, but I think we try to represent the messiness, and I think people can relate to it because there’s bad in everything that’s good,” says Stephen Falk, the creator of FXX’s “You’re the Worst,” a “romantic comedy” that has seen couples struggle with open relationships, faltering careers, PTSD, depression and, by the end of its third season, commitment. “I think people relate to the flawed nature of everyone … there’s also probably a bit of, ‘Well,
sh–t, these characters are absolute messes, so at least I am healthy, comparatively.’”

Those extra hits of authenticity can also be seen in creator-star Donald Glover’s take on co-parenting in FX’s “Atlanta,” and Netflix’s reboot of “One Day at a Time,” which stars Justina Machado as Penelope Alvarez, an Army Nurse Corps vet whose estranged husband, Victor (played by James Martinez), is also former military and is struggling with PTSD.

“Now that women can go to war, it’s changed the narrative of so many American families that now not only have one veteran in their families, but two,” says “One Day” co-creator and co-showrunner Gloria Calderón Kellett. She adds that the military storyline is an homage to executive producer Norman Lear, who fought in World War II. “I don’t know how you go to war and don’t come back with some form of PTSD, so being able to direct it from her point of view as a medic and her husband, who went into combat … it seemed like a great opportunity to highlight that everyone now is touched by that. Everyone knows someone who has gone off to war; that’s the new American reality.”

This notion of grappling with unjustifiable loss also hit CW telenovela “Jane the Virgin,” which this season saw Gina Rodriguez’s titular heroine finally get the dream marriage she’d so hoped for, only to suddenly find herself a widow. “Jane” creator Jennie Snyder Urman says the writers worked with Southern California-based grief support center Our House to properly reflect this emotional gut-wrench and decided to include a midseason time jump because she says “the pain of the immediate aftermath would be unbearable and we wouldn’t know how to work with that in a comedy.”

“I always knew from the first moment that the identity of ‘Fargo’ was female…in terms of the moral spectrum.”
Noah Hawley

These series have also served as teaching tools; amongst jokes and absurd situations, writers can drop in examples of relationships and families not packaged on “The Donna Reed Show” or “Brady Bunch” assembly lines. Our Lady J was the first trans writer hired onto creator Jill Soloway’s Emmy-winning Amazon series, “Transparent.” In addition to penning episodes including last year’s game-changing, “If I Were a Bell,” which features emotional backstories for both Jeffrey Tambor’s Maura and her ex-wife, Judith Light’s Shelly, she’s also offered input and real-life experiences when it comes to the trans characters’ dating lives.

“As a trans person when you’re treated so badly by so many people, you just kind of forget that there’s a lot of love out there as well,” Lady J says, adding that she calls those people “transamorous.” She acknowledges that this show’s subject matter is serious, making it hard to look for levity, but she likes to think that the way they “tell it is comedic because we tell it in such a frank and, often, absurd way. Our characters are going through something that is so challenging that you have to laugh about it.”

This season’s comedies, in particular, have also reminded that women aren’t always the innocent bystanders when it comes to adultery. Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney’s Amazon series “Catastrophe,” Horgan’s HBO series “Divorce,” the Issa Rae and Larry Wilmore-created HBO series “Insecure” and even “I Love Dick,” Soloway’s new Amazon series that she co-created with Sarah Gubbins, are just some that have dealt with the female wandering eye.

“Yeah, you don’t typically see it, but you’d be lying if you said women didn’t have these thoughts,” says “Insecure” showrunner Prentice Penny. “With all of our episodes, we’re always asking ourselves, what’s the most real version of this? What’s the most grounded version of this? … For us, in the [writers’] room, it’s all about making these relationships feel real, feel flawed, but also beautiful in their imperfections in some way.”

This isn’t to say that all of television’s relationships have to be depressing or broken if they’re not depicted in Instagram-filtered coupledom — and oddly, it took a series all about changing alliances to prove this. The last episodes of HBO’s “Girls” only showed one character seemingly headed for happily married bliss — Zosia Mamet’s Shoshanna — while the others, including creator Lena Dunham’s Hannah who ultimately accepted her decision to become a single mother, explored other paths. Marnie (Allison Williams) finally acknowledged her narcissism, and Jessa (Jemina Kirke) remained in a relationship with Adam, Hannah’s ex.

“Shoshanna has always been, by a landslide, the most driven of all of the [main characters],” says Jenni Konner, Dunham’s co-showrunner on “Girls.” “It just made sense that Shoshanna would have figured out a way to make her life work, despite everything.”

Alas, that show has concluded and audiences have lost the chance for Shoshanna to see just how hysterical, sad, awkward and awesome marriage can be.

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