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Canon Schmanon -- the Joy of Non-Canon Pairings


Some of it's made up, and some of it can't be quantified, and there's secrets... - River Tam, "Safe," Firefly

I adore fan fiction. I could write a book on the stuff (though not, you know, a definitive book). Ever wonder if fanfic pushes romance ('ships) because of the mainly female base? I have. Or does the romance maybe come from fiction giving us a more intimate point of view than do works of drama? That's worth exploring.

r, today: why do Non-Canon Pairings rule?

Oh, I've 'shipped many a canon pairing: Doug/Carol (ER), and Buffy/Angel (BTVS), and Alice/Jasper (Twilight), to name so very few.

But lately, my favorite couples are not "original flavor": Sheldon & Penny from The Big Bang Theory, River & Jayne from Firefly, and Robin & Barney (before they became canon, briefly and badly) from How I Met Your Mother.

Even discounting slash (for the purpose of this piece, not in general) I am so not alone. In fact, as jl in the lane discovered recently, the LiveJournal Leonard/Penny community has 185 members, while the Sheldon/Penny community has 2468. Food for thought, huh?

It's fascinating, because NCP fans fly in the face of the creators' wishes. Chuck Lorre (TBBT) rejects romance for Sheldon. Bays/Thomas (HIMYM) insist that viewers prefer Manwhore!Barney to Relationship!Barney. Heck, Joss Whedon (Firefly) gave us three solid couples on a ship of nine people! But as Jayne says to his captain in the movie Serenity, "Yeah, well, what you plan and what takes place ain't ever exactly been similar."

Because here we multitudes are, 'shipping unofficial or even fantasy matches. We find and feed each other our imaginings at sites like Copper for a Kiss (R/J), and Paradox (S/P), and the self-explanatory Barney/Robin Shippers .

And we apparently confuse the hell out of many other fans. So--how to explain ourselves?

Of course, each pairing carries its own specific, if subjective, logic. River is a human weapon, and Jayne loves weapons. Sheldon and Penny challenge each other, and she's quickly become one of his "closest friends" (his words), despite him being something of a misanthrope. Both Barney and Robin are relationship non-conformists, so if any pair could redefine and modernize the concept of "couple," they could (and it would be "Legen--wait for it--dary!"). But the general draw must go deeper than the individual 'ships. So I've plopped my imaginary thinking hat on (it looks a lot like Jayne's hat on Firefly) and stared intently at my screen (to the imaginary notes of "Eye of the Tiger") and I've hit on a couple of "awesome" possibilities. Care to contribute more?

Non-Canon Pairings Are More Participatory

How much work does it take to recognize a traditional pairing? Zoe says, "Captain was looking for a pilot. I found a husband" (Firefly, "Bushwhacked"). Aaand we're good. We might examine why the relationship works so well (Marshall and Lily on HIMYM). We may protest that it doesn't work well at all (Leonard and Penny on TBBT). We might explore the couples' downtime in very enjoyable fics, videos, or works of art (Wash & Zoe). But that's about as interactive as it gets.

The very nature of the NCP, however, demands constant participation. In each episode, fans read between the lines, trying to differentiate deliberate foreshadowing from throw-away comments (sitcoms are particularly problematic this way, because the "Rule of Funny" often flies in the face of consistency).

We note patterns (you know the guideline: if something happens once, it could be throwaway; twice, look harder; three times, and it's deliberate? Penny and Sheldon have hugged twice). We collect details (Sheldon can shoot a rifle, and Penny can skin a deer). We note commonalities (Jayne and River become the two toughest fighters on Serenity). We question motivations (is Barney's man-whore relapse a cry for help?)

It's an intellectual and artistic exercise, little different from the Literary Analysis I teach in my college classrooms, just focused on a different medium. For example: "Heathcliff may be Mr. Earnshaw's illegitimate son, making his attraction to Cathy incestuous" is a valid (if arguable) literary insight. How is "As a mind reader, River may find a certain peace through intimacy with a a simple-thinking man," though equally arguable, any less valid?

Subtext can be so blatant it's clearly deliberate--Xena and Gabrielle's increasingly Sapphic double-entendres during the run of Xena: Warrior Princess, or Howard and Raj's "ersatz homosexual marriage" in TBBT. Sometimes it's wholly self-created--few within the "Rayne" fandom believe Firefly meant us to go there. Sometimes it taunts us with mixed messages (Sheldon/Penny). And sometimes initial subtext proves out--Fans who saw the Barney/Robin spark as far back as "Zip, Zip, Zip" were rewarded for their insights with the hook-up in "Sandcastles in the Sand" and Barney's case of "feelings" throughout Season 4. But at some point, all of it is hypothetical.

Where's the line? (And does it matter?)

Is it with the story screenplay writers? And if so, which ones? In "The Middle Earth Paradigm" episode of TBBT, pick-up artist Howard explains what body language studies call "synchrony" -- "I'm going to use the mirror technique. She brushes her hair back, I brush my hair back. She shrugs, I shrug. Subconsciously she's thinking we're in sync, we belong together." So the idea cannot be foreign to the show-runners. Are they still accidentally showing countless examples of Penny and Sheldon synchrony? They each try to blow up someone's head, ala Scanners, in "The Cooper-Hofstadter Polarization." Penny echoes much of Sheldon's explanation about his "spot," from the pilot, to Bernadette in "The Gorilla Experiment." They look up and say "Yes?" in unison during "The Work Song Nanocluster." They wheel away from each other at the exact same time in "The Panty Piñata Polarization." She repeats his explanation of Schrödinger's cat to a date in "The Codpiece Topography," etc.

And if the writers/show-runners are doing this accidentally--and yet consistently--can the analysts be blamed for noticing?

Television shows need audiences for ratings, for survival. And of any audience, fans bring the best business. Fans buy DVDs, watch them until they wear out, and buy more DVDs. Fans spread the word about a new show on Facebook, on Twitter, or F2F. This is NOT a negative (if you're one of those "get a life" cretins, see this).

Fans create the all-important  "buzz."

But we don't do it from the kindness of our hearts. We do it because of our connection to a series and, more importantly, its characters. Our involvement with those characters, whom we see on a weekly basis. A Non-Canon Pairing, even more than a Canon Couple, brings out the strongest sense of ownership in the fans.

Metaphorically speaking, I mean. Not legally, as all the many fanfic disclaimers should clarify.

But that may not even be the biggest draw.

Non-Canon Pairings Give Us More Control

You'd think the opposite would be true, but consider: When a pairing is canon, the show's creators/writers are in charge. And, frankly? They sometimes screw the pooch. Consider how the Leonard/Penny relationship, in Season 3 of TBBT, has minimized Penny and disaffected Leonard? Look at the travesty that Barney/Robin quickly became once Bays/Thomas took it canon--they became fat and/or ugly, stopped caring about appearance (despite their high-status jobs), and gave up sex? Seriously?

Was that organic unity, or plot manipulation? Or is it just that unresolved sexual tension (UST) is exponentially easier to write than an interesting relationship? Heck, even in the hands of an amazingly skilled writer like Joss Whedon, a relationship can easily break the fans' hearts (see: Serenity).

Check out the UST problem first -- it's bigger than any of my three current examples. Show-runners apparently dread the (mislabeled) Moonlighting Curse. They start this "we cannot let them hook up or we'll lose all tension" mantra, sometimes pushing avoidance even as the show gasps its last breaths anyway. Characters get engaged or married (to a romantic foil, mind you) on a business trip (Friends), over the summer (That 70's Show), or even on a train ride (I'm looking at you, Moonlighting!) Characters dump each other at the altar for seemingly stupid reasons (Bones, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Cheers... what, Diane, you can't write a novel while married?). Sometimes they turn gay (Ellen, Buffy, Grey's Anatomy), after having a satisfying heterosexual love life. Characters freakin' die! (see again: Buffy, as well as the OC, as well as Beauty and the Beast).

Some shows play the will-they/won't they card for so long that, like an overused rubber band, it loses all tension and viewers stop giving a crap. Ross and Rachel on Friends became an afterthought. I hear Scully/Mulder may have gotten romantic by one of the movies, but I gave them up around Season 3. Even Remington Steel and Laura Holt only hooked up in a badly written, little-watched finale, with the camera focus on a ringing, unanswered phone--one of the most annoying sounds in the modern world to represent what's supposed to be a romantic consummation? Yech!

Or consider how well the Doug/Carol finale(s) on ER played. When Clooney left, the show wanted Margulies' Carol Hathaway to date the new Dr. Kovac (Goran Visnjic). Largely because of the actors (Margulies decided not to re-up her contract, and Clooney returned briefly to TV) we got a happy ending and even a sequel as the series wound down, years later. I've yet to meet a fan who wasn't delighted.

But that was the exception. Not the rule.

As Wash's dinosaur puts it on Firefly, "Curse your sudden but inevitable betrayal!" We fans know disappointment. Shows get cancelled prematurely (Firefly). Actors move on to new gigs (BTVS). Writers create new series, leaving the original show in subpar hands (Wings).

But with Non-Canon Pairings, the fanfiction writers hold all power. In BBT Penny/Sheldon fiction, Leonard sometimes moves on (back to Stephanie, back to Leslie, off to an Original Character). Sometimes Penny and Sheldon break Leonard's heart, and sometimes he cheers them on, all as one's vision dictates. The stories can be humorous, or dark, or sexy, or sweet, or apocalyptic, or revisionary--all of it neatly labeled, so readers can choose or ignore alternate universes as their tastes demand. People, there can be zombies!

All worlds are possible (and in none of them, so far, is Sheldon a clown made out of candy)--until the pairing becomes canonical, which shrinks those limitless ideas to one solid treatment. Oh, it doesn't destroy the alternate universes but it does diminish them.

Follow: As far as fictitious worlds can have a single truth, that truth is their canon. Canon is what we analyze to find the motives, the commonalities, the patterns. Despite stereotypes, fans know how to navigate multiple realities. We recognize instinctively that What Happens On-Screen (Barney gazes at Robin, and we all see it) has more validity than What Characters Say Happened Off-Screen (Barney and Robin became "Fatman and the Old Lady," supposedly over months, but shown in just one episode). That still has more validity than what the actors or writers say will probably happen, which still overpowers what we simply think might happen.

What happens on the series itself has real words, real background music, real sets. It can be double-checked and confirmed to win bets or trivia contests. It stars real actors creating the characters we love. It's closer to our own reality. That makes it most powerful.

And yet fallible

No series can satisfy anyone, especially viewers who get their hopes up. Some fans will find the actualization of our beloved pairing (should it happen) too slapstick, or too dark. Some will find it too sex-focused, and too innocent.

Some will miss the zombies.

No Lemon Law exists for disappointing television. But we can always find a piece of well-written fan fiction to make us feel better.

In the End...

Barney and Robin on HIMYM may eventually reunite, hopefully with better writing--in fact, I would put odds on it. Why should the show waste all of the Barney-pining subplots from Season 4?

Call a Sheldon/Penny pairing on TBBT a long-shot, but not without hope, because this is television (the Smallville creators swore "No flights, no tights," then kept finding loopholes to let Clark fly, at least a little).

Any River/Jayne pairing will likely exist only in the Rayne communities, and not only because Firefly was canceled and the actors have moved on.

But in the end, with Non-Canon Pairings, that doesn't matter. We can be on the losing side and "still not convinced it was the wrong one" (Firefly, "Bushwhacked") -- and why should we be? Just Google concepts like "participatory culture," "transmedia storytelling," and "Affinity spaces," and you might accept that we only seem "downright unsettlin'" because we're on the cutting edge of a still-newish entertainment paradigm.

I look forward to hearing what everyone else has to say about Non-Canon Pairings. I only ask that you try not to spit on other people's realities... because really, there are enough for everybody. As Sheldon Cooper tells us TBBT's "The Gothowitz Deviation," "I subscribe to the many worlds theory which posits the existence of an infinite number of Sheldons in an infinite number of universes [and] I assure you that in none of them am I dancing."

And yet in episode 3 of the entire series, "The Fuzzy Boots Corollary," Sheldon dances (in a salsa class, with his friends).

There really are no absolutes in the worlds of creativity.

That's why I, for one, like it.