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TV Loves to Celebrate Valentine's Day With Anything But Love

Bad dates, breakups, violent stabbings — it's far from heartwarming.
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Mad Men, 30 Rock, ER (photo: The WB, AMC, NBC)
    Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Mad Men, 30 Rock, ER (photo: The WB, AMC, NBC)

    There are few holidays where it's more acceptable to throw the entire premise out the window than Valentine's Day. Sure, other holidays have their curmudgeons, those who loudly complain that Thanksgiving turkey is bland or that adults who celebrate Halloween in costume are desperately clinging to their youth. But those perspectives tend to stay on the margins with the cranks and malcontents.

    There's an entire industry of Christmas movies about the Grinches, Scrooges, and George Baileys of the world who have to come around and find their "Christmas spirit." Not so on Valentine's Day. You can be as cynical, lovelorn, and resentful as you want on Valentine's Day, and Cupid is probably not going to show up in a dream to show you the error of your ways.

    This very much extends to the TV episodes that are dedicated to the holiday of love. More often than not, Valentine's Day on TV operates from a position of heartbreak rather than something more heartwarming. Romantic love has somehow eluded our main characters, and Valentine's Day is a reminder of it, or a continuing relationship finds a particularly vexing obstacle on Valentine's Day, or else something truly awful (read: Violent or dangerous) happens.

    This makes a certain kind of sense — TV plots need conflict, and something going wrong in the romance department seems fitting for Valentine’s. But whereas a Christmas episode will be about overcoming that conflict by finding the true spirit of the holiday, Valentine's Day episodes are far more free to wallow in the ruin. It's no coincidence that a plethora of Valentine's Day-themed TV episodes — on Grey's Anatomy, The Wonder Years, Dawson's Creek, and Married … With Children, among others — have been titled some variation on "Valentine's Day Massacre."

    This past summer, And Just Like That… acknowledged the expectations and disappointment inherent in Valentine's Day. Both Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker) and Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) have disappointing dates. Charlotte's daughter Lily is throwing an "F the Boys" party, while Nya (Karen Pittman) defiantly opts for a night in with a chocolate soufflé. On the scale of Valentine's Day misery, these all rank pretty low, but it's notable that the sequel to one of TV's preeminent shows about dating and relationships made no effort to rehabilitate these various displays of un-romance on V-Day. Nobody's hearts grew three sizes, and nobody called Nya a Scrooge.

    Bad dates and breakups are staples of the Valentine's Day TV episode. Mad Men's Season 2 premiere, "For Those Who Think Young," saw Don (Jon Hamm) and Betty (January Jones) on a date, only Don is intimidated by Betty's sexual forthrightness, and he can't perform. Rather than spend the rest of the episode getting Don and Betty back on track, the hour ends with Don making up for his impotence in the bedroom by pushing some new hires around, while Betty flirts with a mechanic. That's Mad Men for you, but it's also Valentine's Day for you.

    Romantic catastrophe on Valentine's Day has shown up everywhere from Friends — in "The One with the Candy Hearts,” Chandler sleeps with and then quickly dumps Janice on the holiday — to The Office, where Ryan (B.J. Novak) regrets starting a relationship with Kelly (Mindy Kaling) right before an expectations-laden Valentine's Day. This goes back to the '90s, when Lisa Simpson broke Ralph Wiggum's heart after her pity-inspired Valentine's Day card to him was misconstrued. The Real World: London's Neil was unexpectedly on trend when he received a pig's heart with a nail through it from his discontented girlfriend on V-Day. The heartwarming conclusion? Neil gifted her back a heart fashioned out of barbed wire. Okay, that one was actually sweet, in a Sid and Nancy kind of way.

    30 Rock made a tradition out of bad dates and relationships gone south for its Valentine's Day episodes. In Season 1’s "Up All Night," Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) finalizes his divorce with Bianca (Isabella Rossellini, forever making her feelings known about Arby's big beef and cheddar), before spinning out and crashing Tracy's (Tracey Morgan) romantic date with his wife (Sherri Shepherd). In "St. Valentine's Day," Liz (Tina Fey) has a disaster date with Drew (Jon Hamm), while Kenneth (Jack McBrayer) gets dumped by a blind woman once she feels the shape of his face. In the show's sixth season, Liz and her boyfriend Criss (James Marsden) take a Valentine's Day trip to IKEA, which is a bit like taking an Arbor Day trip to the lumber mill.

    30 Rock made Valentine's Day cynicism a recurring bit. Onscreen, Liz hated Valentine's Day so much that she created an alternative holiday, Anna Howard Shaw Day, to honor the contributions of single women. It's an episode that dovetails well with Amy Poehler's recurring "Galentine's Day" episodes in Parks and Recreation and hearkens back to the Friends episode where Rachel (Jennifer Aniston), Monica (Courteney Cox), and Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow) burn all their romantic memorabilia. The idea is that romantic couplehood is an instrument of state control, and defying its requirements is an act of rebellion. Or else it's just more fun and less pressure to have a night out with the gals rather than a pressure-packed date.

    Of course, both of those things are preferable to some of the other truly terrible things that happen elsewhere on Valentine's Day TV. Grey's Anatomy's Shonda Rhimes never met a romantic relationship that she didn't want to undercut with a moment of life-threatening violence, so she set Grey's's Season 6 V-Day episode around a roof collapse at a romantic restaurant. Mike Delfino (James Denton) got shot while snooping around in the first ever Desperate Housewives Valentine's Day episode. Buffy the Vampire Slayer celebrated the holiday with a spell that made all of the women in the show desperately — and eventually violently — attracted to Xander (Nicholas Brendon). In consecutive seasons, Beverly Hills, 90210's Kelly Taylor (Jennie Garth) spent Valentine's Day getting mixed up with a campus cult leader — in a storyline that estranged her from her boyfriend, Brandon (Jason Priestley) — and then the next year going on a coke bender, getting abducted, and crashing her car.

    The worst TV Valentine's Day of all time was undoubtedly the one on ER, when a boisterous workplace holiday party was spoiled by a schizophrenic patient (David Krumholtz) attacking Carter (Noah Wyle) and Lucy (Kellie Martin), killing the latter after one of the most harrowing TV cliffhangers in history.

    In a way, this dedication to strife, heartbreak, and misery makes Valentine's Day the most fertile holiday when it comes to TV episodes. Christmas and Thanksgiving episodes tend to be boxed in by our cultural need to adhere to the spirit of the season. New Year's Eve episodes, when they happen, are too laser focused on things like a midnight kiss or New Year's Rockin' Eve. But Valentine's Day episodes have long been free to reject the premise of the holiday, and by doing so, force characters to face the disappointment (and sometimes terror) of the ways life doesn't live up to our romantic ideals. Pig hearts and all.

    Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: Valentine's Day, 30 Rock, And Just Like That, Beverly Hills, 90210, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Desperate Housewives, Friends, Mad Men, The Office (US), Parks and Recreation, The Real World