I don’t quote him often enough here, but Maclean’s critic Jamie Weinman is one of the people whose work I’m always most interested to read. And this meditation on how, narratively, popular cuture tends to overvalue looks because movies and television don’t do enough to establish other aspects of characters’ personalities, is a great illustration of why I feel that way about his work. Weinman argues persuasively that it’s actually quite hard to translate why couples come together for a mass audience without going to looks as a primary motivator:
The main reason for this is that in real life there are many different reasons why people would get together, beyond looks – which, after all, are subjective. But the actors are often playing characters who don’t have any of the redeeming qualities they have in real life. Woody Allen in real life is smart, talented and successful. But the people he plays in films are usually not very smart, talented or successful. (He was most plausible as a romantic lead in Annie Hall, one of the few movies where he really played someone on more or less his own level.) You can believe that the real Larry David could attract someone for reasons other than his money, while it’s hard to believe that of the fictional Larry David, since his bad qualities are so exaggerated.
It’s also very hard to establish any other reason beyond looks why characters are attracted to each other. It can be done, it’s just very hard, and maybe impossible to judge until you see the actors on film together. Writers try to do this all the time; any time there’s a couple, they try to establish some reasons why they’re in love, so it’s not just a superficial physical attraction. And a lot of the time, the reasons are unconvincing: they’re compatible because they engage in “witty” banter that isn’t witty at all, or they both like some poet the scriptwriter vaguely remembers hearing of.
This is probably also one of the reasons that so many shows in particular get themselves stuck on implausible will-they-or-won’t-they relationships. People have a lot of intangible reasons for staying apart from people who would actually be a good match for them—a newly-single Jess and Nick on New Girl are a good example of this apparent irrationality—but it’s very hard to communicate that kind of internal hedging. But because will-they-or-won’t-they relationships are one of the biggest form of stakes that comedies in particular can play with, sitcoms will keep going to that well, even if it’s something that’s hard to do well.