There is a belief among many in the television industry that allowing two characters with tried-and-true sexual chemistry the opportunity to become an “us” is a bad thing. Ruin characters, bad. Ruin a storyline, bad. Bring about the downfall of an entire series, BAD.
This is bullshit. No, really. I know what you’re thinking. “But, Amanda! I used to watch Moonlighting, and I saw firsthand how crappy that show got once Dave and Maddie had sex all over the office!” To this I say, sure. But there are also many shows that have managed to pull it off successfully, and to use the failures as an excuse instead of a challenge is a fucking cop-out.
I’ve been galvanized by a recent addiction to The West Wing. Ah, yes, the will-they, won’t-they dynamic of Joshua Lyman and his trusty assistant Donna Moss has gotten under my skin, and I won’t have a second of rest until they have admitted that what they have is real. The show, of course, is conspiring against me.
Even in the face of episodes where he sulks longingly over her absence, or she makes half-confessions in a dark office, the writers have declared that Josh and Donna will never be, because it would “ruin the dynamic.” Even Bradley Whitford, the actor behind Josh, has come out against the couple, saying in TV Guide that “part of what’s fun to play – that you would put at risk by completely embracing a romantic relationship – is that Josh’s arrogance is constantly punctured by Donna. [She] very often sees things more clearly on sophisticated issues that Josh doesn’t see…” He further cites the wrongness of the would-be couple’s work hierarchy. Josh is Donna’s boss, and how clichéd would it be for a guy to sleep with his assistant?
To all this I say hooey. Talented writers and gifted actors – the first a little iffy in today’s WW world, but the second still in abundance – can make anything work. It is fear, fear that they WON’T pull it off that keeps them from trying. And it is this fear that keeps fans from connecting 100 percent with the show, because we know that we’ll be strung along – sometimes for years – without ever seeing a payoff. Or, in the case of The X-Files, we get what we want so late in the game that we realize we don’t actually want it anymore.
Listen up, all you scared little television naysayers! Your excuses aren’t going to fly. Need some inspiration? Perhaps you want to take a gander at some shows that have gotten it right.
This groundbreaking ensemble series managed to grab romance by the balls, and in the first season to boot. The chemistry between Sam and Diane grew over 20 episodes, and finally came fully alive in the two-part ep “Showdown.” To be truthful, the course of events that culminated in Sam and Diane’s first fiery kiss was rather ho-hum: Sam, threatened by the talents of his never-seen older brother, passive-aggressively woos Diane until she calls him on his passivity.
The path of true love never runs smooth, and in Season Two the couple fight, make up, threaten to break up, cause scenes in the bar, scream in Sam’s office, and still somehow manage to fall completely in love. While the couple does not ultimately end up together, the writers managed to walk the viewer through the relationship in a very real way: Two adults, coming from very different places, struggle to make sense out of why they should and shouldn’t be together. They covered all the angles, and for the most part (let’s ignore all the seasons in the middle with Rebecca, shall we?) it worked – AND sustained reasonable ratings – without dangling the romance in front of the fans with no payoff.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer
This show works for my argument in many different ways, but let’s use the obvious: Buffy and Angel. These two crazy kids have the best excuse in the world not to be together: He’s a vampire, and her job is to kill them. While fans were treated to a certain amount of will-they or won’t-they, the characters themselves were almost always in the “Oh, we’re going to” camp. Joss Whedon and his staff at Mutant Enemy Productions were very adept at creating roadblocks that didn’t feel like they were deliberately designed to put off the fans. Hell. When one of you is undead and the other is destined to kill the undead, there’s bound to be some complications.
The point though, for the sake of my argument, is that Buffy and Angel had the opportunity to choose each other. No writer ever said, “If Buffy admits she’s in love with Angel, it will kill the sexual tension and therefore the series.” There was no denying what they had – not even in the very end of the series when they were separated by the Angel spin-off on an entirely different network.
Joan of Arcadia
A fresh show for the ’03-’04 season, JoA ramped up to what would become an irresistible love story. Joan Girardi and her eventual boyfriend Adam Rove spent half a season courting in the bizarre subtextual way that only high school students can pull off. They spent still more time trying to figure out what everything meant in the context of being young and confused. When they were together, it produced some of the most breathtaking moments on TV, and when they weren’t, it provided some of the most heartbreaking. For me, the on-again, off-again in this relationship doesn’t feel like I’m being yanked around. It feels like it should, and reminds me of that horrible time in my life when hormones far outweighed reason.
In Season Two, the show has continued to take the high road – despite a rocky start, Joan and Adam appear to be in it for the long haul. Though Joan displays the occasional flip-flopping “I love you/I hate you” attitude typical of most teenagers, she usually realizes that (at least with Adam) she needs to eventually say that she’s sorry. Again, these hiccups in their relationship feel right, and not forced in an attempt to boost ratings. It’s because the writing and acting is so good that it works, but it’s also because the people involved with the show appear to have made a stand that they don’t have to pander to the naysayers.
My So-Called Life
This show can be used as an example in almost every discourse ever written on TV, but what I think is important to this article – and what I might just be realizing 10 years later – is that the couple you thought you were rooting for is maybe not the one you end up wanting. I am speaking, of course, about Angela and Jordan versus Angela and Brian. As a tormented 16-year-old, I yearned for Jordan Catalano just like Angela did. It was more than the way he leaned. It was the way he struggled to admit that he could be affected by someone like Angela, someone so far out of his experience. The fact that he was allowed to figure it out, and that Angela was allowed to have (even for a little bit) the boy of her dreams, made the show spark. It certainly didn’t drag it down.
On the other side is Brian, Jordan’s “brain,” the one who ghostwrites letters to Angela from Jordan that give away his own heart. Brian’s love for her is so obvious that even Angela has to see it in the series finale, and even though the show did not continue, I had confidence that her knowledge wouldn’t have damaged the show, had it continued. It would have just added another layer of reality to a series that was already so real as to be uncomfortable at times. The writers of MSCL knew that they had something special, and they treated it as such – they knew that the characters deserved a chance to get it right, and they didn’t back away from it.
The sad truth is, the list of shows willing to take a chance on the strength of their writing is short, and getting shorter. Too many shows run away from relationships between main characters, and use unresolved sexual tension as a way to keep viewers hanging in there. I wish that more shows – and The West Wing in particular – would trust in the quality of their writers and the ability of their actors to be able to pull off romantic storylines. It doesn’t have to bring about the downfall of the show. That’s just fear talking.