Will They/ Won’t They Ruin The Show: The Writers, Not the Couple
After two seasons of flirtation and sexual tension, the background music swells and the two leads crash into each other. Unable to keep their hands off each other, they grab at hair, clothes, arms, as their lips find each other and the camera fades out.
So many TV shows rely on the traditional Will They/Won’t They structure that, as an audience, we are conditioned to know what to expect and how long we need to wait for resolution. Cheers, Friends, Fraiser, Louis and Clark (*sigh* Dean Cain), The Office, Grey’s Anatomy, Chuck, Psych, Gilmore Girls, Castle, Parks and Recreation, and of course, Moonlighting all positioned their lead characters as potential partners and then teasingly kept them away from each other for seasons at a time. When these characters ultimately (finally!) got together, many of these shows faltered dramatically.
Much has been written about whether lead coupling ruins or doesn’t ruin a show. We Minored In Film did a great deep dive into debunking the so-called “Moonlighting Curse” two years ago and Entertainment Weekly makes a compelling and amusing demand for couples to “Have Sex Already!”
Moonlighting is the gold standard for shows that were ruined by the loss of sexual tension between the lead characters. Moonlighting, a popular 1980’s detective show, focused on the sexual tension between it’s two lead characters, played by Bruce Willis and Cybil Shepherd. The idea of the curse is simple: the successful coupling of the characters is what killed the show. That is, frankly, baloney. Yes, ratings plummeted after the characters got together. But you know what didn’t help the show’s cause? A writers strike, scheduling conflicts that didn’t allow for the two lead characters to film together and a real-live pregnancy. The chemistry between your leads is the best part of the show? Hard to maintain that chemistry if you can’t schedule them on the same sound stage. If they’re not physically together filming, it doesn’t matter much if they’re romantically together in the plot of the show.
Let’s focus on that idea. The idea that the chemistry between your leads is the best part of your show. Just because they’ve kissed/had sex/started dating/gotten married/(insert relationship milestone here) doesn’t mean that there can’t be chemistry and tension in their relationship. And I’m not saying they need to be in constant peril of never seeing each other again (I’m looking at you Downton Abbey with Bates and Anna). Good writers, good show runners, build characters that can withstand the force of plot development.
Before Shonda Rhimes started chewing through plot lines every three to six episodes, show runners could easily use lead couplings as a carrot to keep viewers invested and interested. You put two pretty people in amusing situations and pretty soon, we’re all going to be rooting for them to hook up. Proximity crushes are real and TV is not exempt. Just ask Psychology Today.
But that tension can only be amusing for so long. Audiences are only so patient with their blue balls. Eventually, and earlier and earlier in shows’ runs, the leads are going to hook up. What happens next is what defines a good show.
Take New Girl. At the end of the second season, leads Nick and Jess get together and run away to Mexico. The show plays around with the changing dynamic between the characters, and settles into a nice balance before breaking the two up three episodes shy of the end of Season Three. The chemistry and flirtation between Jess and Nick were foundational through-lines during Seasons One – Three. But the writers were, impressively, up for the task. Nick and Jess were fully realized characters, they had intimate relationships with other members of the cast individually that they were able to play with during different episodes. This flexibility of character pairings is critical to New Girl‘s continued success. Viewership may be down since the pair parted but it’s not for want of the show firing on all cylinders.
Of course, not all shows do this well. The playfulness of Pam and Jim’s courtship in The Office was replaced by a bickering, bitter, resentful married couple as the writers struggled to create drama and conflict between the couple. The shifting focus of the show, from their coupling to Michael, to the loss of Steve Carrell, left The Office reeling and on it’s heels trying to find footing. The last season was the last for many reasons, but the coupling of Jim and Pam was not the culprit.
Will They/Won’t They is a fun trope. It gives the audience the chance to know what’s coming, even if the characters don’t yet. But it’s no harder for a show to be successful after “they” do or “they” don’t get together (but really, when was they last time they didn’t?), than it is for a show to be successful in the first place. It takes good characters, written and realized well, working through situations that make us reflect on our selves and our world while forgetting our troubles, at least for a few minutes. If those things are working, it doesn’t matter in the slightest whether they’re schtooping or not.