See Part 1--in which we discuss the way a serial element changed prime-time television romance forever, and the illusory comfort of blaming a "Moonlighting Curse"--HERE
So Wait... There IS A Curse?
No. A problem? Yes. But the only "curse" for television characters who advance their relationship to the next stage rises from the deceptive ease of initiating that relationship.
See, almost anyone can write Unresolved Sexual Tension. Go ahead. Try it:
Jane looks across the room at John. John meets her gaze, holds it. Then he turns, too quickly, back to his work.
There ya' go.
If the actors have chemistry (and good actors can feign chemistry with a can of soda), the show will generate UST. Romance novels work similarly. If you want the quick-and-dirty method of sexual tension, you a) consistently show that the hero/heroine notice and admire each other, and b) keep interrupting their chances to discuss or act on those feelings for at least two hundred pages.
I don't necessarily recommend this, BTW. I'm just repeating what I've heard at countless writing conferences.
I can hear you asking, How's ease of writing a problem, Vaughn?
Ever see a kitten go up a tree the first time? Easy sneezy! And then—it has to come down. Suddenly kitty must work with the gravity, not against it, and things go too fast, and they get complicated.
Yeah. Resolving the romantic tension—that's the bugbear. And the contrast to the ease with which it was established doesn’t help.
Not only does consummation (or commitment) rob the writers of their UST by making it RST. Writers now must plot something new and different for the relationship, something that fulfills those myriad hopes and dreams they stirred up in the audience, something without so simple a template.
Maybe, they think, it’s easier to stay up the tree—even if that results in starving the relationship beyond help:
The Romantic Foil - Romantic triangles have been big since The Iliad and King Arthur, right? Just throw in Another Man (or Another Woman—or both!) Look at Friends, with Ross and Rachel… and Julie, and Emily, and Paulo, and Joshua, and oh yeah, Joey…
PROBLEM: How much sympathy does anyone have for either Helen or Guinevere, in the classics? And those marriages were (probably) arranged! Wedge a heroine between two great guys, and we dislike her for hurting them. Distract a hero from his true love with a poor substitute, and we scorn him for idiocy. Either way, the characters come across as desperate, any-partner-will-do types. Compared to the viewers' longing for an "only you," "when I fall in love, it will be forever" pairing, this sucks. With sucky sauce. And sucky sprinkles. WARNING: Extra damage if a character marries someone else (Maddie on Moonlighting, Hyde on That 70's Show, even Ross on Friends.)
The Physical Separation - How about we send one of the characters away—that will buy us some time, right? Scarecrow and Mrs. King did this for reasons listed in part 1; the show suffered. Jim Halpert transferred to Connecticut for several months in The Office, in part to draw out his pre-relationship Pam (who was also engaged—a double whammy!) Luckily, they survived this, but I'd be curious to hear from viewers about whether they liked that twist. The recent desertion of Izzie to parts unknown, on Grey's Anatomy, helped doom the Izzie/Alex 'ship even before Katherine Heigl's announced departure.
PROBLEM: If the audience watches the show for to see this pair together, you disappoint them. Also, sending a main characters away hardly helps the organic unity.
The Break Up (aka Off Again) - Couples break up all the time in real life! It's not like they can't get back together later and start the whole UST thing all over, right? Like a reboot! Right?
PROBLEM: Wrong! First of all—and need I tell you this?--television isn't real life. Even reality television isn't real life, but that's another topic. Revisit your Joseph Campbell, your Christopher Vogler, your Carl freakin' Jung. The best entertainments (even sitcoms) contain elements of myth. Viewers hoping for epic, who instead get law-of-averages, are not happy viewers, especially if the reasons to break up stretch credulity. A couple separates so she can finish writing a book (Cheers)? Because he’s moving and they haven’t even discussed long-distance romance (ER)? They deserve scorn. Relationships rarely grow stronger at the break, certainly not at repeated breaks. If the characters couldn't make it work the first two times, we ask, why should we imagine they will do any better the third or fourth? Eventually, even the most die-hard 'shippers move on, no longer caring who ends up with whom.
Try finding the buzz in that.
So the Answer is…?
Guess what? After years of concern and weeks of writing and rewriting, I may actually have cracked the code! I started by examining at ways I've noticed to achieve a happy(ish) relationship on television.
We've got the Been There, Done That Solution, in which the characters jump into bed very quickly (or have even slept together before the series starts). Michael and Fiona on Burn Notice. Meredith and Derek on Grey's Anatomy. Take that, Unresolved Sexual Tension!
But it doesn't do much for how to proceed to a commitment.
Then there's the It's Not Really Him/Her Solution, stumbled into on Smallville with Clark and Lana* and executed brilliantly for Ted and Robin on How I Met Your Mother ("And that, kids, is how I met your Aunt Robin." “What?!”) If the show admits from the get-go that the relationship won’t work out, the audience won't break their own hearts. Everyone knows Clark Kent's true love is Lois Lane, so how much hope can they hold for Clark and Lana? (And we're still waiting to meet Ted's true love, the "Mother" prophecized in the series title).
On the downside? It's not really him/her. We romantics dream of a mythic pairing more Odysseus and Penelope than Odysseus and Calypso.
Particularly enjoyable is the Established Relationship Solution, in which the characters start the show engaged or married, and stay more or less happily together from that point on. Remember all those pre-70's couples I listed in Part 1, like Rob & Laura Petrie and Ozzie and Harriet Nelson? Them. More current examples include Marshall and Lily on How I Met Your Mother. Peter and Elizabeth on White Collar. Paul and Jamie on Mad About You. Melinda and Jim on Ghost Whisperer. Allison and Joe on Medium. Wash and Zoe on Firefly**. Tim and Jill on Home Improvement. Dharma and Greg. Arguably Perry & Jordan, on Scrubs** * Most recently, Peter and Kristina on Parenthood.
Because I despise the "bickering spouses" bit we so often get with Married With Children type shows, I'm especially delighted by these great couples. The problem is, because they started their shows married, they give us little instruction on how they got there.
How can television writers take characters from one end of the spectrum, the will-they/won't-they, all the way to the happily ever after? UST to HEA?
Far fewer examples of bridge couples exist—and, unnervingly, have little in common. Monica & Chandler, on Friends, came as a complete surprise well into the series and worked beautifully. In contrast, Jim & Pam, on The Office, were popular from the start and survived emotional gymnastics before their happy marriage.
Piper & Leo, on Charmed, achieved one of the most chaotic of married lives, full of angst and separations and reunions and deaths and resurrections, but it stayed interesting. In contrast Niles & Daphne, on Frasier, achieved a surprisingly normal married life, her relatives bringing the most complications. Helo & Athena on Battlestar Galactica… well, it's safe to assume that nobody else's relationship will mimic Helo and Athena's from BSG.
What the hell did any of them have in common? Hardly anything--except that they did work!
That… and the characters were well drawn.
Exceptionally well drawn.
And here, here I think we have it. You know how, when you start dating, people keep telling you to Be Yourself? "This above all: to thine own self be true, / And it must follow, as the night the day, / Thou canst not then be false to any man." * * * *
The characters who best succeed in making the transition from singletons to couples do so by maturing while not significantly changing who or what they are.
(More examples of that in Part 3 of this Three-part series on TV Romance: "The Way if Writers Will.")
* Ironically, the creators of Smallville were especially fearful of the Moonlighting Curse if they were to let Clark and Lana hook up.
* * And then came the movie, Serenity (whimper)
* * * Perry and Jordan are only happy when divorced from each other. It's a delightfully unconventional romance that I wish had informed the handling of Barney/Robin on How I Met Your Mother.
* * * * Seriously? It’s Shakespeare. Hamlet.