Will They Or Won't They? Why Should They?

In comments, Alan asks:

Do you have any thoughts on the general tv sitcom (usually) formula of the will they or won’t they relationship? For example, Tony and Angela from Who’s the Boss?, Ross and Rachel from Friends, Chuck and Sarah from Chuck, etc. It just occurs to me that this is a formula we see repeated in show after show, and that there isn’t really any great resolution to it. On the one hand, if the entire series (say five or six seasons) keeps up the will they or won’t they, then people get really tired of the fact that they aren’t getting together. On the other hand, if they do get together then there’s really no place to go from a storytelling standpoint (e.g. Ross and Rachel).

I think the essential point about sexual tension is that while it’s a long-term trap for a show, it’s a short-term boost — and on a television series, the short term is what matters most. Shows will often start with ideas or relationships that are unsustainable beyond one or two seasons, if that, but the producers can’t afford to worry about what it’s going to do to the show five years from now: they’ll be very, very lucky if they last that long. More to the point, the only way the show will get to run five seasons is if the producers try every ratings-grabbing gimmick they can think of to make it successful, and that includes the sexual tension angle.

One very famous example: when Seinfeld was in danger of being canceled at the end of its first regular season, Larry David wrote an episode — a great episode, and by his own admission the only one with actual human emotion in it — where Jerry and Elaine discover their unresolved sexual tension, try sleeping together without emotional attachments, and then finally end the episode as boyfriend and girlfriend. It worked: the episode did well and the show was picked up for a full season of 22 episodes. When it came back, David simply dropped the whole relationship, because it had been only a stunt to get one good episode and a full-season pickup. But that’s Larry David, and he’s a law unto himself; most producers would feel obligated to stick with something like that, even if they didn’t think it was the right direction for the show. But they all do it, because the short-term interest of keeping a show on the air is the most important consideration. So it’s useful to have the will they/won’t they formula to call on when they need a sweeps stunt. Sure, Chuck will have some problems when Chuck and Sarah finally get together, but it wouldn’t even be around by now if they didn’t have that stuff to put in the promos.

Some shows have tried to defy the sexual-tension conventional wisdom, but it doesn’t usually work. The creator of NewsRadio, Paul Simms, broke NBC’s rules by having Dave and Lisa sleep together in the second episode (“in real life, when people are attracted to each other,” he said, “they tend to have sex”). But NBC insisted that he create a will-they/won’t-they angle in the show’s second (and first full) season by breaking them up and then getting them together again; that probably helped the show get a five-season run. Later on, Simms broke them up permanently and mostly banished their relationship from the show, and judging from the DVD commentaries is genuinely puzzled at the fact that many fans actually liked the relationship stuff and wanted to see Dave and Lisa together. But much as I hate ‘shipping, I have to say he was fighting a losing battle: ‘shipping is just a natural impulse, and many of us are rooting for certain characters to “get together.” If a show doesn’t demonstrate any interest in that stuff at all, a lot of viewers are going to lose interest as well.

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