The ‘Will They/Won’t They’ Arc Has A Long History in Sitcoms. ‘Hey! They Just Did’ Is Underrated
Abbott Elementary is a mockumentary about the titular school, in an underserved Philadelphia neighborhood, as told by almost-brand-new teacher Janine (Quinta Brunson, who also created the show). As the series begins, a new teacher arrives: Gregory (Tyler James Williams), officially a substitute taking over for a colleague who got physical with a student. Gregory is quietly resentful of the fact that he’d applied to be the principal at Abbott, a post that went to the chaotic and unqualified Ava (Janelle James) because, unbeknownst to Gregory, Ava blackmailed an unfaithful superintendent.
Then again, Gregory does everything quietly. Holding himself apart from the rest of the staff in the belief that he’s only passing through, the taciturn Gregory is still drawn to the earnest and enthusiastic Janine. Over the show’s two seasons, Janine and Gregory’s relationship stays at a low simmer. They date other people; Gregory tells their fellow teacher Jacob (Chris Perfetti) that he likes Janine; Jacob accidentally tells Janine; Janine and Gregory kiss; beyond that, the timing still isn’t right.
And then, the school year is winding down, conveniently just as we arrive at the second-season finale. Gregory’s father has offered him a summer job at his landscaping company in Baltimore, but he’s been thinking it might be cool to stay in Philadelphia and hang out with Janine. Unfortunately, he suggests this to her moments after her ex, Mo (Vince Staples) has accused her of being selfish in their relationship, and Janine is shook; she doesn’t want to hurt Gregory accidentally the way Mo says she hurt him. When they finally both admit their feelings to one another, they’re not ready to risk their friendship in pursuit of their romantic spark. For now? Forever? Who can say? You’ll be back for next season, though, right?
The “Will They/Won’t They” arc is a sitcom classic for many reasons. Romantic yearning can drive a variety of dramatically and comedically compelling stories. Will a crush object realize someone’s obsessed with them? When? How? Will a crusher, despite their devotion, meet someone else who’s nearly as perfect for them before the one true pairing comes to pass? Frenemies’ moderately hostile banter can show off the characters’ wit even if they still haven’t figured out that their mutual animosity is driven by sublimated sexual desire. But ultimately, it’s not that complicated: We want to see a couple of cuties kiss, and if they’re not going to, we want to see why.
Sam and Diane of Cheers made it a whole season before their first kiss. Jim and Pam’s didn’t happen until the Season Two finale of The Office; it took another whole season before he finally asked her out. Ross and Rachel of Friends; J.D. and Elliot of Scrubs; Nick and Jess and Schmidt and Cece of New Girl — all of them did, then didn’t, then did again. Sometimes for legitimate reasons, but usually because another season was coming and conflict between exes drives the story. In the case of Abbott Elementary, however, delaying romantic gratification at this juncture feels earned, based on what we know about the characters. Gregory has achieved a level of self-abnegation such that he finds Grape-Nuts too sugary; Janine’s lack of impulsivity is, as we learned in the season’s penultimate episode, a survival mechanism developed during a probably scary childhood with her erratic mother. Romantic love is great; platonic love, particularly for two characters who seem like they’ve had to be their own best friends for long stretches of their lives, shouldn’t be underestimated. Our lack of a dopamine rush isn’t their problem.
There are, of course, other variations sitcom romances can take with couples that have a one true pairing vibe but are not, in fact, fated. Sometimes “They Did Before The Show Started,” like Jerry and Elaine of Seinfeld, or Mark and Leslie on Parks and Recreation. Sometimes “They Did, But Never Mind,” like Frank and Jenna on 30 Rock, or Frasier and Roz on Frasier. But can we talk about “Hey! They Just Did”?
There are instances where a couple’s chemistry is so undeniable that we’ve barely had time to think about them hooking up before it’s happened. Younger’s 40-year-old Liza (Sutton Foster), trying to pass for 26, only takes a couple of episodes to end up in bed with twentysomething Josh (Nico Tortorella). On You’re the Worst, Jimmy (Chris Geere) and Gretchen (Aya Cash) meet outside a wedding they’re both ditching early, and head back to his place for the most acrobatic sex a basic cable show could get away with in 2014 — and that’s the first night they meet. Similarly, Catastrophe’s Rob (Rob Delaney) and Sharon (Sharon Horgan) hook up after a chance meeting in a London bar, and never expect to see each other again after their six days of horny bliss. Then Rob, having returned home to Boston, gets a call from “Sharon London Sex” letting him know they’re pregnant. The conventional wisdom as to why writers keep couples apart is that once a couple has committed to each other, their relationship is settled and they’re too dull for a TV show to revolve around. All of these couples leave conventional wisdom dead in a ditch.
Long before any of these “Hey!”s, we had Dave (Dave Foley) and Lisa (Maura Tierney) of NewsRadio. When Dave arrives for his first day as the news director at New York City’s WNYX, it’s a secret to every person in the office except the station owner, Jimmy James (Stephen Root); Dave’s first assignment is to fire his predecessor, Ed (Kurt Fuller). While Dave is trying to figure out how to do this, he spends the day posing as “the new sports guy,” in which capacity reporter Lisa tells him she’s pretty sure she’s going to be replacing Ed soon — so, straight out of the gate, it seems like their rivalry over the job Dave has that Lisa wants is going to animate their sparring banter. Nope! Lisa and Dave hook up in the second episode.
Dave and Lisa continue dating in secret until midway through Season Two, and stay together, with a couple of breaks, until early in Season Four. Granted, NewsRadio is a workplace sitcom in which we rarely see any characters outside of a professional context, Dave and Lisa’s chemistry keeps sparking through the series — and this scene suggests why.
So: even this couple’s sexiest moments are tinged with hostility — and, on top of that, Lisa never does give up her ambitions of usurping Dave’s job, which also adds crackle to their romantic partnership. All of this is built on a foundation of no friendship for them to worry about ruining. It’s… perfect?
Abbott Elementary’s love story works because its writers have very intentionally based it on a delicate friendship between two very self-protective characters; much though I, personally, would have loved to head into the summer hiatus on the promise that Janine and Gregory would be spending it enjoying very unseasoned meals in front of a Night at the Museum marathon, I trust the show’s staff to get the character there when the time is right.
While we wait, I won’t be mad if any new sitcoms go the “Hey!” route. You don’t always have to make us wait: Just smash your hot characters together and see where you end up.