We’ve learned television keeps viewers on their toes, returning week after week for the smallest hint of progress – it even gets television shows renewed for more seasons – only when there is something looming between two characters that threatens the certainty of their shared happiness.
I used to love that crap. All of my favorite shows over the years have employed this tactic in some form or another, either romantic or platonic, and I thrived on it. Would Joey ever see the way Pacey loved her from the sidelines and realize he was the one for her? Would Bones and Booth get their act together on the job enough to start something away from it? Would Luke and Lorelai ever get their timing right? Would Sam and Dean ever put actions to their words and trust each other the way they kept insisting they did? These were the kind of screen relationships that kept me coming back for more. It was like media crack. I was hooked on the potential of happiness somewhere at the end of the tunnel, despite the fact that week after week, as Metallica’s James Hetfield famously sings, it was just another freight train coming my way, ready to give me that rush of glorious angst.
But then, as life would have it, I went and turned thirty. The irony here does not allude me.
Wong Fu Productions has been using YouTube as a platform for their short film work for a little over a decade now, which is where Single By 30 first appeared as a 17 minute pilot on the back of 2015’s New Form Digital Incubator program, which funds projects and aims them at distribution partners. Conceived from the idea of high school expectations meeting the societal pressure of adulthood love, the story of Peter (Harry Shum Jr) and Joanna (Kina Grannis) and an innocent high school pact landed with YouTube’s latest streaming platform YouTube Red, who then funded that 17 minute pilot into an 8 episode original series.
The premise is a simple one: two high school best friends (played again by Shum Jr and Grannis) make a pact to marry each other at thirty, should they be single. What follows is inevitable drifting apart and years of lost contact, until chance – of which takes the form of Peter’s boisterous Tinder-Savvy, Wingman-Bestie, Mark (Eric Ochoa) – unknowingly taps fate when he hijacks Peter’s social media account and makes moves to help him celebrate his thirtieth birthday in style. Chance then takes the form of fate when an online party invite finds itself with the hilariously pragmatic Lisa (Manon Mathews) who is newly reunited life-buds with Joanna, who happens to have moved back home indefinitely and decides to surprise Peter by making an appearance.
The first two episodes went hand in hand by introducing our main gang and putting their pawns on the chessboard. Aside from a host of wonderfully quirky, authentic supporting characters, series premiere Too Fast, Too Thirteous acquainted me most prominently with Peter, the typical nice guy with the big heart. He’s genuinely thoughtful, funny, charmingly unassuming, and he’d be perfect – if he had the courage to grab life by the balls instead of letting it pass him by. His fatal flaw is his sense of timing, and his unfailing knack to think too hard or think too less or pause too long painfully rips the seconds of opportunity right out from under him, rendering him the eternal high schooler with a crush, always believing in a ‘next time.’ In episode 2’s Dot Dot Dot, I learned more about Joanna – namely that for all intents and purposes, she is exactly the same. Therein lay the biggest obstacle to this nearly-there romance. I buckled in for the long haul. Getting these two together was going to be one hell of a mission.
I wanted to like this series. I wanted to watch it through to the end, happy sigh, tick it off my extensive to-watch list and move on with my life. Instead, I ended up with a show that had me banging my head against the wall throughout its duration so much that by the time I could think and breathe again, I was left with the unsettling certainty that the show I’d spent the last several weeks of my life on had pulled me in and slugged me in the chest a lot deeper than I’d anticipated. I dug it, just not for the reasons one might expect.
The secondary cast stole the show. Lisa (Mathews) is my spirit animal. I am neither married nor pregnant nor planning on either anytime soon, but she is my inner voice in human form, and I loved her. Mark and Chloe also consistently surprised me, playing out in ways I didn’t expect but ultimately adored. The little road blocks they hit and swerved were adorable little stepping stones of relationship growth, and as my thirty-year-old self, apparently that’s what I like to see in a show about romance now – just good old fashioned healthy communication, mutual compromise and oodles of teamwork which is often so sadly lacking in shows or movies about relationships. My thirty-year-old self no longer appreciates the constant ‘Will they? Won’t they?’ angst wrapped up in petty problems that could quite literally be fixed with a five-minute chat. Mark and Chloe gave me everything I had hoped I’d experience through Joanna and Peter, and cheered me up immensely when that simply wasn’t the case.
I guess that’s kind of where the show works, though. As a viewer, I was a bystander to Joanna’s and Peter’s constant zig-zagging, much like their group of friends. And just like their group of friends, I began to itch when things came up that I didn’t agree with. I found myself constantly nodding and throwing my hands up in praise whenever someone warned Joanna about her ambiguous intentions, or Peter about his spinelessness. I was in full support of their relationship before it got there, wanting the best for these two people because they were the characters I was supposed to rally behind. But after the fact, I found myself becoming wary. ‘Be honest’ I would think, ‘Tell him/her,’ ‘Don’t play games,’ ‘Go in there and make yourself heard,’ ‘Take the opportunity!’, ‘Say what you mean and mean what you say, goddammit!’ And I was annoyed and devastated when all of those hopes went unanswered.
I’m not a fan of drama for drama’s sake, and while I could argue that Peter and Joanna have a high school romance because of their long history together, as a thirty-year-old watching thirty-year-olds behave like emotionally stunted teenagers, I wasn’t feeling it. Joanna and Peter felt largely incompatible throughout the series, and I couldn’t help but think that there was someone out there better suited for both of them. I wanted Peter to get his one true love for his sake, namely because I’ve been Peter before, but I wanted Joanna to go away and find herself. I felt like she needed it.
I was overjoyed to watch Peter state clearly for the record what he wanted, and I was satisfied when he walked away. I’ve been there. It sucked. I let go of what didn’t serve me and I fist-bumped my television screen when Peter finally put his happiness and wellbeing first and made an empowering choice to do the same. As for Joanna, she got the raw end of the deal with me. I’ve been helplessly in love with people like her. I can’t stand people like her, which meant she really didn’t stand a chance with me. So imagine my thirty year old upset when Peter went and did to someone else what Joanna had done to him. At that point, I was ready to throw in the towel. I remained watching for Mark and Chloe, and Lisa and her adorable husband to see how their stories finished. It’s really not fair in a sense – countless of others enjoyed it, countless others who saw it hadn’t just turned thirty and hadn’t had enough of their Joannas and Peters and Dawson’s Creeks. I can’t fault the show for its writing or directing or acting or characterisations. In fact, all of it felt very down to earth, organic, a little jaded – real, like me. The only thing I can really blame is the fact that I have grown up, and my crack of choice is now seeing two characters trust, respect, commit, communicate and put the yards in together to make it work. Ultimately I got what I wanted; it just wasn’t via the characters I’d tuned in for.
“You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take,” is a fitting statement for this show, and in the end, Joanna and Peter met halfway, albeit due to third party interference which, come on. Still, Lisa was my home girl, and I couldn’t fault her for wanting to smack some sense into the two of them (the same way I’d wanted to for weeks on end), and our main couple got an optimistic, fresh beginning and started again making all the right moves. I forgave the show in the end, because characters are allowed to be flawed, and frustrating, and annoyingly indecisive because that’s what makes them real. My frustration in the show rested in how close to home it was, in the emotions, I was forced to face, which means that Wong Fu Productions ultimately did what they intended – they told a relatable story with characters capable of making me laugh and cry and scream until I was blue in the face. I’d imagine hearing that would please them. I hope they know I loved the show for the messy, hopeful, hopeless, quirky, real story it was, even though it slowly drained away my will to live.
So bravo, guys. Thank you for the laughs, thank you for the tears, thank you for making me feel and think and ponder.
Just know that I’m going to pretend I didn’t see the finale’s post-credit scene.