Part Three of a 3-part series.
Part one of this three-part series, "TV Romance," looked at the how romance on television changed with the introduction of serial elements, as well as the myth! myth! it's a myth! of the Moonlighting Curse. Myths in television—especially the symbolic underpinnings powering the One True Pairing—are great. But myths about television, especially this one? Not so much.
Part two explored ways television writers—in the fear of losing their precious Unresolved Sexual Tension (UST)—have destroyed far too many character romances and disappointed too many fans by refusing to let the characters move on to sex or commitment.)
This final chapter provides assurance that we need not fear advancing the shows' romance. A good relationship needn't destroy a show. It needn't tank the ratings. It can, if handled right, work.
Yeah. "If handled right." You caught that, huh?
Well, that's why writers get paid the big bucks (hee! inside writing joke).
We learn through precedent. A handful of TV couples have actually made the transition: Jim and Pam from The Office. Piper and Leo from Charmed. I'll tentatively add Brenda and Fritz from The Closer (I don't wholly trust the show or TNT not to submarine them, but my fingers are crossed) and—too recent a development, but promising—Sarah and Chuck. Niles and Daphne from Frasier. Seth and Summer from The OC. Dr. Mike and Sully from Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. And Monica and Chandler from Friends.
Other than pleasing their 'shippers, what do these pairings have in common? Married Niles Crane adored physical therapist Daphne from the start, but took seasons to act on that. In contrast, Dr. Mike and Sully's relationship followed old-fashioned tradition from interest through marriage and baby. Summer and Seth ricocheted back and forth with melodramatic flair. However, Chandler and Monica's relationship, once ventured, stayed surprisingly steady.. They're all different—except for one obvious, forest-for-the-trees thing. And that?
Is that they achieved successful, healthy(ish) relationships!
Since TV shows keep screwing it up, so I'll define that:
- Friendship (and thus love) comes before sex.
- But the sex works too.
- True Pairings do not cheat on each other.
- And the romance enhances, instead of changing, the characters.
With few exceptions, if shows break any of these rules, they may still have an interesting couple. You know—in a cool-if-you-catch-it, but not appointment-viewing way. But they'll lose the mythic underpinnings that drew devoted watchers to care.
Yes, those underpinnings. The "nobody but you," "when I fall in love / it will be forever," "wild horses / couldn't drag me away" foundation. Not just sex. Not just engagement rings or white dresses. Actual love.
TV writers? Break these rules at your own peril.
Sometimes a couple starts with the sex—especially on Grey's Anatomy, for example. Derek is Meredith's one-night-stand; she doesn't even want to know his name. Behold: the exception. Almost all other favorite TV couples start as friends.
You know. The order your parents, Dr. Laura, and any number of counselors suggest?
Friendship isn't enough, of course. Romantic consummation can come too late in the series (Mulder and Scully of The X-Files). It can arrive and flee too quickly (Vincent and Catherine of Beauty and the Beast). But it's, quite literally, a start.
Byron Sully and Dr. Mike, from Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, most definitely begin as friends (as a recent widower, Sully is in no place for a romance when he first meets the woman doctor from Boston). Chandler and Monica begin as titular Friends until the end of Season 4 ("The One Where Ross Says Rachel"). Jim and Pam, Brenda and Fritz, Sarah and Chuck, even Jeff and Ginger and Gina and Charlie, from the brief but brilliant Homefront, all begin as friends before trying for more.
On Frasier, Daphne Moon might have immediately enraptured Dr. Niles Crane, but he doesn't let her know that. Fantasy crush aside, Niles remains devoted to his cold little wife, whom he usually refers to as "my Maris." By the time she demands a divorce, several seasons later, Niles and Daphne are good friends.
In the pilot of The OC, we learn geeky Seth Cohen has loved Summer Roberts from the margins of her life for years. Luckily, his youth blunts the stalker overtones. As he says of the men she's pursuing, "They don't know that in the third grade, everyday, you shared your lunch with this little squirrel whose lunch kept getting stolen by a fat squirrel… and they don't know how your hand shook when you had to read that poem aloud in class."
Summer: What poem?
Seth: 'I Want to Be a Mermaid'
Summer: That was, like, in sixth grade
The idea here is that Seth sees the real Summer, the softness she tries to hide. Even that doesn't stop her fairly healthy response when she learns, in the pilot, that this geek she barely knows named his boat after her: "Eww. Who are you?" They bond over their friends' relationship, and only then sex. They're engaged three seasons later and marry in the series epilogue.
Without friendship, the couple aren't really in love. They're in a fantasy which can't last. Why isn't this obvious?
The Sex? Rocks!
Yes, healthy couples have healthy love lives, but this is TV. We demand more. Our couple's first time should be so great, it explodes with clichés. Fireworks. Choirs of angels. Goofy grins. Even later in the romance, despite the sit-com exception of either a he-can't-get-it-up or she-fell-asleep episode, the sex stays really good.
What’s that, you say? That’s not realistic? Let me remind you. Again. Television is not reality.
Monica: How could we have let this happen?
Chandler: Seven Times! (Friends, "The One After Ross Says Rachel")
Sex can be recreation. Making love, though? That needs, you know--love. Love turns a great lover phenomenal, a good lover great, and an unskilled lover…
Well, here we hit a fascinating exception.
The first time Seth makes love to Summer, on The OC, it is "a little weird. And not like kinky weird, more like awkward. But hey, you know what? It was my first time, she’s a more experienced woman, that’s to be expected. But I did make some faces in the middle that I wish I could take back, but I can’t, and there was also a sort of whiny noise that came out at the end that probably wasn’t my finest hour, and… I sucked so bad! I was like a fish flopping around on dry land. I was Nemo, and I just wanted to go home" ("The Heartbreak").
When their second attempt flounders, even Seth understands the implications. As he tells Summer, "Believe me, I get it. Uh, clearly… something’s not working, and it’s me, and it’s fine, it’s my fault…. Maybe in a few years, you know… I’ll be, uh… I guess I’ll be ready for you. I don’t know, but, uh… in the meantime, I think I’m just gonna… just gonna bow out."
So why does this work, when this season's The Big Bang Theory alienated so many of us with the awkward, booze-laden start of the Penny/Leonard affair?
Because it turns out Seth wasn’t "the only virgin in the room. I’m… a virgin," admits Summer. "Or, I was a virgin…. It should’ve been special, and we rushed it." As this was only Season 1, they did rush it. Seth decides to "slow it down a little bit, maybe, um, start from the beginning." They dance. Summer accuses him of being cheesy, but he insists he’s sweeping her off her feet. Summer admits, "The sad part is… you kind of are."
And all is well again. Why? Because we've replaced one myth (with nobody but you is it this good) with another myth (I've been with nobody but you. Ever).
In Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, Dr. Mike (Michaela) was a virgin on her wedding night. Upon returning from her honeymoon she answers her friends’ question of "Well?" with a shy, delighted smile ("A New Life"). Several episodes later ("Mothers and Daughters"), she admits that her mother called sex "‘the wifely duty.’ At first, I was inclined to agree, but… things improved." This works fine for us romantics. For one thing, the show stressed the satisfaction (the pleased smile) first. For another? Virgin.
Surprised at herself, Dr. Mike asks her friends, "Do you think most women find it… agreeable?"
Myra—a former prostitute—clarifies, "If they’re in love, they do."
My point exactly, Myra. My. Point. Exactly.
True Pairings Do Not Cheat. Except Perhaps wih Clones or Patrick Dempsey.
We don't like watching half of "our" couple sleeping with another, even before the relationship (or "on a break"). Once they’re truly together, the undercurrent of "nobody but you" demands fidelity… with the occasional SciFi exception of an exact duplicate fooling his or her lover. Hero being seduced by Boomer (the same model Cylon as his wife Athena) on Battlestar Galactica? Forgivable. And you can't deny the myth, there—it also worked in Arthurian literature (Morgause seducing Arthur as Guinevere, Elaine seducing Lancelot as Guinevere, Uther Pendragon seducing Ygraine as Gorlois).
Even cheating on someone else--a romantic foil—with the One True Love throws caltrops on the road toward redemption. Grey's Anatomy's Mere and Der managed it, in part because we didn't know Derek was married until we'd committed to the pairing. Also, Addison cheated on Derek first—in no way an argument that would please your parents, Dr. Laura, or counselors, but common on TV shows nevertheless (the old "meanies deserve what they get" trope). Most significantly? They were separated when Derek and Meredith met.
For some reason, in TV world, if a character tells his lover that "it's over," the audience generally considers him free. A married Will Schuester kisses Emma in the "Sectionals" episode of Glee, but because he "left his wife," most fans approve. In Frasier's "Something Borrowed, Someone Blue,"
a remarried Niles and Daphne confess their love and kiss the night before her wedding, putting seven years of 'shipping at risk. The two flee in a Winnebago—but only to the end of the inn driveway. In the next episode, they return to face their jilted groom and wife before going further. And even that is taken seriously by the show, as in this later episode, "The First Temptation of Daphne"):
Niles: You don't trust me. How could you possibly think there could be somebody else?
Daphne: Because I was somebody else... You were married to two other women while you claimed to be in love with me. Now that we're together, how can I be sure, really sure, that there won't ever be another "somebody else?"
Luckily, Niles is able to put her at ease: "When I was with Maris, or with Mel, I found myself thinking about you. Going about my day or even when I was in a session, I found myself thinking about you. Well, now we're together. I find myself thinking about you. It's not going to stop."
More importantly for the audience, beyond the kiss, he never actually cheated on Maris or Mel. Cheating might add drama. But it destroys mythic resonance for the character or the pairing.
Even in make-believe, it's rarely worth it.
To Thine Own Characters Be True
Finally and most importantly? If we liked characters before they moved their relationship forward, we'll like them afterward—if they remain themselves.
'shippers, non-'shippers, and anti-'shippers tuned into a series first and foremost to watch the characters solve crimes, investigate aliens, survive the Old West, face off against aliens, or hang with their friends and chat. Characters who become lovers or marry ought not change that. Graduating from high school requires more revision.
If a character regularly had coffee with his brother before marrying the love of his life, he should continue to do so after (thank you, Niles). If a pair solved mysteries before hooking up, they shouldn't then stop solving mysteries (Maddie Hayes of Moonlighting, I'm glaring at you!) The adventurous heroine shouldn't suddenly decide she wants to be a housewife.
And for the love of all things holy—the playboy and the no-commitments single woman ought not leap into a traditional, brunch and ski-trips kind of relationship. Robin and Barney of How I Met Your Mother proved one of the greater 'shipping disappointments of the decade and not because "they didn't work." Viewers never learned if they worked, because after the first two episodes of the season, they stopped being Robin and Barney. Suddenly, Robin resented strippers and porn. Barney got used to her sleeping at his apartment without a word. If you want to test how perfect they were together, for those brief minutes before friend Lily forced them to define their relationship as girlfriend/boyfriend, consider this word: "Flugelhorn."*
Then they redefined themselves in traditional terms, "upgraded" to Barney and Robin 2.0, and imploded.
In contrast, the couples that work, stay themselves. Niles remains his same overeducated-yet-whimsical self, telling Daphne's pregnant tummy, "Hello in there! It's your pater," and referring to Daphne as "at once my huggle-bunny and my rock." When he begins to back down to a workman who wants to quit early before finishing installing the chandelier, it's Daphne who takes charge, as usual: "Oh, no you don't. You said 'One day' when I hired you, and that's what it's going to be. So get cracking, because something's going to be hanging from that rafter by the end of the day." Niles classically delighted reply: "Daphne, you handled that so masterfully! As if he weren't wearing that authoritative tool belt at all!" ("Daphne Does Dinner").
Or, on Friends:
Chandler: So I really don't get to win [fights] anymore?
Monica: "How often did you ever really win anyway?"
The best TV couples make the transition by remaining the same--and, in a classic paradox, better:
Sully: We're the same two people we were before we got married. Nothin's changed.
Dr. Mike: But it has. Everything's changed. It's no longer 'you' and 'me,' it's 'us.'"
Friends first. Good sex lives. No cheating. And sharply drawn characters who remain consistent and compelling. It wasn't hard for characters like Lucy and Ricky Ricardo, Rob and Laura Petrie, or Gomez and Morticia Addams (even in the conservative sixties, these couples seemed passionate enough to put those twin bed sets of theirs to work). It shouldn't be hard for the couples we root for today.
If only TV writers would fighting the inevitable, and use it instead.
Sooner or later, enough shows will make romance work that the myth of the Moonlighting Curse will gasp its last breath.
And 'shippers everywhere will breathe a sigh of relief.
* "We've been over this, unless I say 'flugelhorn' you haven't gone too far." – Robin "Definitions"