Blame it on How I Met Your Mother: Fall 2014 sitcoms are all about romance. It’s true that love stories often drive comedy narratives on television — how many will-they/won’t-they couples can you name in under 60 seconds? — but this season, a number of shows are making romance their first priority. These aren’t sitcoms with a love subplot but romantic comedies told in weekly, half-hour bursts. Selfie and Manhattan Love Story are both new rom-com sitcoms, while The Mindy Project recently began its third season. The quality varies from show to show, but most rom-com sitcoms seem to borrow one obnoxious trend from their movie counterparts: The women tend to be terrible.
OK, so maybe “terrible” is too harsh of a word, but you can tell that many writers of these shows don’t exactly have very strong feelings toward the women characters that they created. Three seasons in, and Mindy on The Mindy Project is as inconsistent as ever, somehow managing to be both a barely functional adult who can’t do anything and a brilliant doctor. Sometimes it seems her job as an OB-GYN only exists to prove that Mindy isn’t dumb, just in case any critics try to make that point. And it’s true that she isn’t — in the character’s own words: “I’m not dumb. I’m ignorant, sure. Very. But I’m not dumb!” — even though the show too often puts her in the “dumb/crazy” category of romantic-comedy women. She’s unstable and overly emotional in a way that can be funny (and sometimes Kaling does nail this trope) but is mostly just bizarre to watch.
ABC’s Selfie, which is promising but not great yet, focuses on a character that is supposed to be terrible: selfish and narcissistic. It doesn’t make her — or the pilot — any less irritating, but at least the show isn’t pretending. Eliza only cares about herself and the Internet, she doesn’t know the names of her coworkers, and she’s painted as nothing more than an Instagram-addicted ditz who has to enlist the help of a man, Henry, to teach her how to be a normal human being.
The problem is that Eliza is terrible in the silliest of ways: She cares a lot about her public image, she likes to wear designer clothing, she has sex, and she is obsessed with the Internet. There are worse things in the world than liking a nice dress or checking Twitter, but here they’re taken to such an awful extreme that they basically require an intervention. And they’re all strange characteristics to pin on a person, even though this is a show called Selfie, but, well, she’s just one flavor of rom-com fixer-upper.
Manhattan Love Story has the most egregious Dumb Woman character in Dana (charmingly played by Analeigh Tipton). She is the-unlucky-in-love (and life) type, who uses dating sites and goes on terrible blind dates. She also is not intelligent enough to do basic things like navigate the Internet. In the pilot, she types her blind date’s name into her Facebook status instead of the Facebook search bar, and then her friend has to use Dana’s password to change it because Dana, for some reason, doesn’t even know how to hit a delete button. Later, she tries to text Peter but somehow accidentally calls him. After that awkward phone call, she texts her friend about what happens… but, oh no, she texted Peter about it instead!
I don’t necessarily look for realism in my romantic comedies, but let’s at least pretend that a grown-ass woman, who is sitting at her desk at her office job, knows how to use a phone. I’m not asking that she be a computer whiz or even fluent in Emoji, just that she understands the very basic difference between calling and texting — or can read two different names in her contact list.
The pilot continues to pile on Dana: She is bullied by her coworkers, caught sniffing her armpits by her date, and later sobs in front of him. She is awkward and ridiculous in every exchange, but not once is it endearing rather than just painful to watch. The second episode, “In the Mix, on the Books, and in the Freezer” doesn’t show much promise, either. Again, we see Dana in awkward situation after awkward situation. Dana isn’t an adult woman but a confused toddler playing the role of an adult in a school play.
In romantic comedies, the fun is rooting for these couples to finally get together (even when it’s clear they’re doomed, as in NBC’s new show A to Z). Unfortunately, the women of Selfie and Manhattan Love Story have yet to give us any reason to cheer them on.