Sinking ships: The inevitable disappointment of TV coupledom

Relationshipping, or “shipping” for short, is the act of rooting for the romantic pairing of the particular couple either in real life or within a fictional context. Shipping exists in all media, from young-adult novels and comic books to television and film and even real-life. If you’ve ever debated Team Edward and Team Jacob, wanted Buffy to end up with Spike instead of Angel or are invested in the saga of “Brangelina” or “Kimye,” you’re a shipper.

Long ago, television networks recognized the power of shipping, discovering that creating obstacles to these pairings created narrative tension that boosted ratings, dominated water-cooler conversation and kept viewers coming back week after week. With a proven formula in hand, network executives leaned on showrunners to build such relationships into their shows. Thus, the “will-they-won’t-they” romance trope was born.

While both dramas and comedies employ this trope, it’s a staple of the modern sitcom. There’s Sam and Diane (“Cheers”), David and Maddie (“Moonlighting”), Joe and Helen (“Wings”), Ross and Rachel (“Friends”), Eric and Donna (“That ’70s Show”), Carrie and Mr. Big (“Sex and the City”), Jim and Pam (“The Office”), Jess and Nick (“The New Girl”), Mindy and Danny (“The Mindy Project”), Leslie and Ben (“Parks and Recreation”) and many more.

(Before moving on, let’s take a moment to reflect on how white and straight the above list is. People of color and LGBTQ+ couples are troublingly scarce in the world of broadcast network sitcoms.)

“Cheers” is the original and, perhaps, most famous example of the “will-they-won’t-they?” romance. The Sam-Diane relationship, as portrayed by Ted Danson and Shelley Long, is the stuff of sitcom legend. The actors had a fantastic onscreen chemistry that made their tempestuous courtship enjoyable to watch.

Until it wasn’t. While Sam and Diane are deserving of their place in the pop-culture pantheon, the relationship also stands as an example of how prolonging a satisfying resolution can do irreparable damage to the characters and the show.

For five seasons, creators and showrunners Glen Charles, Les Charles and James Burrows found increasingly frustrating and preposterous ways to keep Sam and Diane apart. By the time Shelley Long departed the series at the end of season five, her character had become an unlikable caricature of the hysterical, capricious woman.

The treatment of Diane is difficult to watch in 2018 when shows of “Cheers’” caliber tend to write women characters with more care and nuance. Indeed, through a post-#MeToo lens, the writing feels nasty bordering on misogynistic. (And let’s not get into how horribly the freewheeling bachelor character of Sam Malone has aged.)

According to Long, her departure was motivated, in part, by the way her character was being written. She rightly believed the show’s refusal to resolve the Sam-Diane storyline was making the show stagnant. The show’s fifth season was especially disappointing as the writers ratcheted up Diane’s irrational behavior before finally writing her off the show in an episode that, to be fair, comes close to providing a satisfying, poignant resolution to the arc. If the series had ended there — with Sam reluctantly urging Diane to pursue her literary dream — it would have made for one of TV’s best and most bittersweet finales.

By that time, however, “Cheers” had become a rating beast. There was no way the network or the showrunners were going to walk away. And while the series is indisputably one of the best sitcoms in TV history, it never fully rebounded from Long’s exit. The addition of Kirstie Alley’s Rebecca character was a ham-fisted attempt to recreate the Sam-Diane chemistry, but it never felt the same.

(At this point, I’m obligated to mention “Friends.” Ross (David Schwimmer) and Rachel (Jennifer Aniston) were NBC’s second iteration of the will-they-won’t-they. Not wanting to mess with a good thing, the show ran the trope into the ground for 10 interminable seasons without bringing anything new to it. “Friends” may be a beloved 1990s sitcom, but on this topic it exists as a necessary but uninteresting footnote.)

As the sitcom has evolved, showrunners have found ways to either subvert the will-they-won’t-they trope or do away with it altogether. The U.S. version of “The Office” is an example of sustaining tension just long enough before providing a thoroughly satisfying payoff with Jim (John Krasinski) and Pam’s (Jenna Fischer) wedding in season six.

Like “Cheers,” that wedding marked a natural endpoint for the series — it’s where the British version concluded — but the show had, also like “Cheers,” become too popular to end on its own terms. Subsequent seasons of “The Office” occasionally complicated the Jim-Pam relationship by presenting new obstacles such as parenthood, new jobs, and romantic temptations, but the show was committed to keeping the couple together through it all, albeit with diminishing returns.

Then came “Parks and Recreation,” a series that never fully played the will-they-won’t-they game. There was never a question of whether Leslie (Amy Poehler) and Ben (Adam Scott) would end up together forever. Leslie and Ben shipped Leslie and Ben. As a couple, they were coequals and unwavering supporters of one another in a way few sitcom couples are.

“The Good Place,” a series that shares creative DNA with “Parks” (Michael Schur is executive producer and showrunner of both) has put a metaphysical twist on the will-they-won’t-they trope. The show, about a group of deceased strangers who meet in the afterlife, spent its first two seasons keeping the couple of Eleanor (Kristen Bell) and Chidi (William Jackson Harper) apart by repeatedly erasing their memories as they underwent an eternity of “Groundhog Day”-style resets.

Schur’s shows, which place an emphasis on strong character development and smart, progressive writing, resist the urge to toy with shippers for cheap emotional beats. These shows have more important things to do, bigger concepts to explore and better stories to tell. More importantly, they recognize will-they-won’t-they romances are an easy trick that breeds lazy writing and dooms series to fall into an endless loop of pushing couples together only to pull them apart.

The will-they-won’t-they trope aims for short-term benefits while risking long-term damage to the show. The impulse to deliver sweeps-week-ready payoffs and predictable season-ending cliffhangers is an unsatisfying substitute for good storytelling.

As streaming platforms and binge-watching continues to change the ways shows are distributed — shorter season orders, releasing full seasons in a single day, the ability to cater to niche audiences and enjoying the freedom to tell a complete story without network meddling — showrunners are able to be more ambitious, innovative and inclusive in how they write onscreen romances.

Jim Sabataso

Jim Sabataso is a freelance writer living in Vermont.

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