In Say Anything, Lili Taylor’s character Corey famously said, “I’m single now. Everything’s changed. I hate it.”
She, like the rest of us, probably did a lifetime’s worth of research on singlehood by watching movies and TV.
For many of us, most everything we know about social conventions is learned via sitcoms or movies, particularly the rules of dating. The path is ingrained at a young age: two people meet at a bar, they go to dinner, they have awkward surface small talk and then they go to her place and he puts his thing in her thing, and then the whole thing starts over again and I don’t like it. I don’t mean to judge a surely lovely unknown person, but I don’t want some stranger rando up in my bits.
To explain: I haven’t been single (or single and mentally sound, at least) since I was 18. This is uncharted territory, and frankly, in addition to too many sit- and rom-coms, I’ve watched way to much Law & Order: SVU, so I’m pretty certain that it’s fucking dangerous territory.
My very bizarre obsession with the film Fear doesn’t help matters either. Nor does personal experience and the experiences of my friends. Basically, I’m pretty sure everyone I know has had at least one terrifying dating experience. My best friend is actually as we speak in the throes of one of the scariest I’ve ever heard of, and I don’t want to give too many details just in case I have to go incognito and get Rorshach-y on this guy, flamethrower-style, but let’s just say that it’s bad. And stories like hers are the interesting ones, so those are the only ones that inspire film and television, so on one hand you’ve got the “trust no one, even if it’s Marky Mark, because his abs will attempt to murder your family.”
On the other hand, we have the Sex and the City line of thought, which essentially amounts to “bone everyone. Like all the time. It’s how you get boys to like you. JUST DO IT OMG SHOES.”
Somewhere in between, we have our standard twenty-two minute multi-camera kind of love. It involves a lot (like a season’s worth at least) of strong will-they-or-won’t-they tension followed by the big climactic union, then a couple ep’s worth of “oh snap, what do we do now?” then they get together, then the show sucks so they break up, then fans clamor so they get back together, lather rinse repeat, then they have a baby and babies are TV killers so the show gets canceled, and it just seems like a lot of work. I don’t know how anyone even finds time to date.
The great philosopher Stacy Ferguson once said, “It’s like errytime I get up on the dude, paparazzi put my business in the news.” You are a stronger woman than I, Miss Ferguson. That’s why you Fergie-Ferg and they love you long time. Dating just seems complicated.
Well we are wired from too much media influence to expect life to be complicated. Then usually it’s way more complicated, because we don’t see real life coming. Relationships in film and television fall into three easy categories:
The On Again/Off Again
This is the standard. See Ross and Rachel, Dave Nelson and Lisa Miller, Zack and Kelly (that makes three straight weeks of SBTB references), Lloyd Dobler and Diane Court. Two people fall in love and get together, usually bothering their friends and loved ones with their smoochy-kissy-lovey bullshit, but sometimes genuinely the kind of adorable that invariably causes viewers to want to kill themselves (see proof). Then something inevitably comes between them. Maybe an overbearing father, an ex-boyfriend or stagnant ratings. The pair will without a doubt get together in the end (except for Dave and Lisa, damn you Patrick Warburton!).
The Bored Couple
This is more typical of film and hour-drama, or far worse, as the best friend character in a dumb comedy spouting incredibly hacky things about no longer having sex. Here you have the couple who has lost all excitement in their marriage. Maybe their focus is all on the kids and work and they don’t have time for each other, maybe they’re lashing out against growing up. Things have become stale and compulsory. One of them will have an affair, perhaps with the brunette co-ed that becomes enamored with the male of the relationship (The Last Kiss), or with an incredibly hairy Robert Downey, Jr. (Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus). More often than not, the affair cures them of their wanderlust and they live bitterly ever after, or in the “comedy” case, they defy 90+ minutes of hatefulness and show the main character that they really are in love after all so that s/he (usually he) makes the right decision to run after the female lead. Probably through an airport.
The Happy Couple
This is a rarity. Done right, even more so. The good couples that come to mind: Sandy and Kirsten Cohen, Marshall Eriksen and Lily Aldrin, Steve and Susan from Coupling, and … I can’t think of any others. You can. That’s why Jesus invented the comments section. Anyway, this category refers to couples that are together for the whole of the series, perhaps with one short-lived breakup or minor hitch (Kirsten’s alcoholism, Lily’s move to San Francisco, Steve being Dick Darlington [Netflix it if you don’t get the reference, trust me]), but in the end, they’re happy. They’re our hope.
There’s a fourth category, too. Technically it’s a precursor to The On Again/Off Again, but sometimes that point is only reached at the very end: it’s the “We Can’t Be Together”s. This is the most common, and the reason we are all as fucked up as we are. I’m talking Chuck Bartowski and Sarah Walker, I’m talking Tom and Meg in Sleepless in Seattle, I’m talking Bridget Jones and Mark Darcy, I’m talking Lucy Moderatz and Jack Callaghan (While You Were Sleeping, people, try to keep up), I’m talking talking Love Actually and all the beauty it stands for, I’m talking every couple in every 80s teen comedy. These movies involve long bouts of (sometimes wacky) suffering and (sometimes wacky) confusion and (sometimes melodramatically wacky) sadness. That is what we expect from love, and it’s generally what we get, it’s just not as awesome or wacky, and unfortunately, that’s the good part that we want.
But on the brighter side, I refuse to believe that singlehood is the miserable state of lonely cat lady-ness that it’s made out to be in these same movies and TV shows. Singlehood is awesome. You get to watch a lot of TV without movement and never be judged for it. You get to always cook what you want and eat less carbs. It’s cheaper. You don’t have to share your shampoo or toothpaste.
You never see that show. That show would be dull. But for real life, until Bill Pullman circa 1994 comes a-callin’, it’s not bad.
Courtney Enlow is a writer living in Chicago and working as a corporate shill to pay the bills. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.