Thursday, May 12, 2016

The sexual tension ticking clock

I’m still getting comments from readers weighing in on whether Sam and Diane should have ridden off into the sunset together. (Feel free to join the conversation.) And now you can have the same debate over THE GOOD WIFE finale. Should Alicia & Jason have paired up? Will they pair up? (By the way, I liked THE GOOD WIFE finale. But I was kinda hoping the woman in her building who got all her mail slapped her.)

But it brings to light a bigger question that TV writers are faced with: When constructing a romantic storyline, how long can you keep the couple apart?

This is not a problem in movies. You are allowed an ending. You’ve got 90 minutes (or in Judd Apatow’s case 180 minutes) to get them together, throw in complications, and ultimately resolve them.

But a television series is open ended (and six part mini-series don’t count). Sexual tension is great but you can’t keep doing it for seven years. Not in 2016 (and I suspect not in 1016 but there were different FCC rules back then). And usually once a couple finally gets together the series is never as good. You’re always playing “now what do we do with them?”

I’ve told this story before but the night Sam & Diane finally had their first big kiss (at the end of season one) the studio audience went through the roof and I turned to my writing partner, David Isaacs and said “We’ve peaked. There’s nothing we can do with these characters that will ever get a bigger reaction than this.” I believe I was right (who knew?).

Things were easier in the late ‘60s. You could have a show like THAT GIRL. Anne-Marie could string hapless Donald along forever. The only problem was that it was a total disconnect from real life.

They tried on THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW to give Mary a boyfriend but there was never any chemistry. And that’s something you can’t force.

CHEERS pretty much began the romantic comedy within a series formula that now extends to pretty much every show except LIVE WITH KELLY AND MICHAEL.

Producers walk a fine line. You want to keep the delicious sexual tension going as long as possible, but at some point you cross into high school. On CHEERS in 1982 we all felt one year was enough. If we were doing CHEERS today I don’t know. Practically every Millennial sitcom pilot I watch opens with at least one series lead in bed having meaningless sex. In MASTER OF NONE Aziz Ansari’s condom breaks during a hook up with someone he just met. In LOVE, Gilliam Jacobs’s ex-boyfriend breaks into her house in the middle of the night, scaring the shit out of her. She says, “Okay, I’ll fuck you but then you have to leave.” (Yes.  Huh???)  So you’re left with two dilemmas: No one waits five minutes before hopping into the sack, and there’s no romance.

For my money, if romance isn’t part of the equation then why even bother at all? It gets back to chemistry and whether you WANT to see the couple get together. David & Maddie – yes. Ross & Rachel – yes. Pam & Jim – yes. Mary & Mr. Grant – NO!

As far back as the ‘60s (and the dawn of the so-called Sexual Revolution – although I didn’t get the memo for several years), there was pretty much the three-date rule. If it was going to happen, it would happen by date three. (THAT GIRL had a three hundred-date rule.) So you’re talking a few weeks, a month maybe as your time frame? By those standards, even a year was pushing it.

So you need a way to stall. One popular device is withholding intention. A character won’t admit that he’s attracted to another character. This buys time but is also a trap. The characters quickly fall into high school. Aaron Sorkin characters do this a lot. I loved NEWSROOM and WEST WING and SPORTS NIGHT, but anytime there was sexual tension it was more like “should I pass him a note in homeroom” than steamy foreplay.

Networks still love romantic comedies. Every season we get three or four new ones (with one starring Casey Wilson). And when they work they’re magic. But they come with expiration dates – that are getting shorter and shorter. Producers today need to find the perfect balance between THAT GIRL and Tinder. 

31 comments:

ellegee said...

I think "Grey's Anatomy" did a very good job with this, and they did start with Derek and Meredith (the pair in question) waking up together after a one-night stand in the very first scene of the very first episode. A bigger fan than I could probably parse the break-ups and getting-back-togethers, but overall the thing I particularly liked about it was that they had very tough times (of course, it is television) but they loved each other enough that they weathered them and stayed (or got back) together despite them. So often in TV drama relationships don't survive the tough times, I think it's much more dramatically interesting to see one that does. The only other example I can think of is Harvey and Mary Beth Lacey in "Cagney and Lacey", which I think also did it extremely well.

Carol said...

This is EXACTLY what I loved about Castle. The question was never 'will they or won't they'. We knew they would. The question was how and when, and meanwhile we enjoyed the relationship building. And when they got together it worked, because the writers didn't have to say 'now what?' We, the audience wanted to see what happened next, within the relationship, and to watch it grow and mature, and the writers gave us that. Every time there was a plot point that seemed like it was designed to 'break them up' so they could get back to the 'original tension' they, instead, talked like grown ups and resolved the problem.

I won't speak to this series, as it was different show-runners and they annoyed me slightly and let's not get started on the possible next series. Arugh.

My long in coming point is I think you can do a romantic relationship and make it interesting without having to rely on the 'unresolved sexual tension' nonsense way too many people feel is all we the audience want.

Just incidentally, I'd have been happy for Sam and Diane to be together, but I think it makes sense that they weren't. Frankly I think I'd have been happier if Diane really had been married with children. But that's just me. :)

unkystan said...

Before we get into today's blog discussion, I have a "pet peeve" question. While watching last night's "Chicago PD" (a Dick Wolf show that tries to get as real as possible) there was a scene, which was shown a few times for the sake of the story, which showed the cops sitting in the front seat of their patrol car with the rear view mirror removed. I've seen this many times (especially on TV shows), but usually from the POV of the rear (I'm assuming to avoid the image of the camera). I've always found this distracting especially when the mirror holder is in plain sight. Are there any examples you can think of similar to this that irk you?

Anonymous said...

I think one of the few sitcoms to recently succeed in having a couple of characters get together (and manage to keep them together) was Parks & Rec, which pulled it off not just with one couple but two. Leslie and Ben spent just one season in a "will they won't they" plot - brought on by a conflict of interest in their jobs - and spent the entire rest of the series together. April and Andy did more or less the same thing, spending around half a series in a similar state before finally getting together and remaining a couple for the rest of the show's run.

In both cases, I think they worked brilliantly because the nature of the characters and their relationships meant that the relationships themselves became fertile ground for further storytelling. Instead of making a relationship the "endgame" goal, the focus simply shifted to developing their relationships and watching them grow together as people. Over three series we see each couple face conflict together, get married and even have children, each stage being the basis for plenty of development and storytelling. I think the problem tends to be people (including audiences) seeing the relationship itself as being the zenith of the character's development ("Did Terry and Philippa get together in the end?"), rather than seeing a relationship as just the next step in the character's development.

An example of how it hasn't worked has been in Brooklyn Nine-Nine, in which the most recent season saw Jake and Amy get together after a couple of seasons of tension. Since then, however, there's basically been no development or change in the characters or their relationship. Occasionally it will get a passing mention, or there'll be an odd episode centred around some temporary challenge the two come up against, but for the most part it just feels like someone in the writing room just flipped a switch that says "relationship mode: ON" and every now and then one of them looks over at it and remembers to change one of Jake's lines making fun of Amy's sex life to a line about Jake making fun of his AND Amy's sex life.

Steve said...

It's not like Sam Malone wasn't having loads of meaningless sex before he met Dianne. Where do you think the whole trope started?

blinky said...

The Good Wife had an excellent ending episode. There were no out of character surprises and it was in many ways just another excellent episode. Alicia ended where she began, next to her cheating husband, but she left the stage early to pursue her own desires. She remained resilient but ultimately alone.
Juliana Margulies played the sexiest mommie on tv ever.
I can't wait for the Kings new show, Brain Dead to start,

emily said...

My favorite sex scene was Amy Farrah Fowler shaking hands with Zack.

Pat Reeder said...

The episode of "Friends" where Rachel finally kisses Ross ("She's his lobster!") is one of the great moments of the series. But as it went on year after year, and watching it again in nightly reruns, it gets so tiresome seeing the writers struggle to find ways to break them up and get them back together again (or almost together, but not quite). There are certain episodes where they both became so whiny and unreasonable, I can't stand it and change the channel before I start having flashbacks to my first wife. I know everyone else thought the finale where Ross and Rachel finally get together for good was so romantic, but by then, I was yelling at the screen, "Run, Ross! Run fast, run far!!"

CarolMR said...

In the awful TGW finale we don't know if Alicia and Jason stayed together because it was left ambiguous. I hated that several episodes ago, when Alicia was thinking of hiring him, someone told her that Jason was a sociopath and she should watch out for him. They just dropped that storyline like a hot potato.

A. L. Crivaro said...

Right? It’s almost like basing an EPISODIC TELEVISION SHOW, something intended to go on and on as long as it’s successful, on a ROMANCE, something which by definition must end, is, from a storytelling standpoint, contradictory and counter productive. But no, that would imply that there are rules to storytelling. And we all know that’s not true. Oh, wait…

powers said...

My Friday Question,Ken,is about the shooting hours of a 60-minute drama compared to 30-minute formats.

I've read that 1-hour TV shows can have 13,14,15 hour days for filming on a regular basis.The 30-minute shows fall into the 9-to-5 schedule & that's why cast & crew enjoy doing those types of series.

(1.)Do shows such as M*A*S*H have shorter days when shooting the show? I'm watching reruns of Room 222 & like M*A*S*H it was a mixture of comedy & drama.So they are not what I would classify as a typical sitcom due to the drama being as vital as the humor in these shows.

(2.)In the 60s when I grew up the hour shows put in many long hours just like today.
I'm curious why modern cameras & technology in general has not been able to shorten the filming process over the decades?

Steve Bailey said...

I can't believe you didn't mention "Moonlighting." If ever a show suffered from having to drag out the Will-they-or-won't-they tension, that show was the gold standard.

Jahn Ghalt said...

It's been a long time so I think Mary & Mr. Grant had plenty of tension - never mind sexual:

Grant: You've got SPUNK!
Mary: (nods accepting the compliment)
Grant: I HATE SPUNK!!

I'd suppose (never having written anything for stage or screen) that there are so many varieties of tension that sex, attraction, romance, flirting, is not stricly necessary - but then I'm a boomer who mostly watches sports.

I don't watch enough TV to know if anyone has tried a male lead getting BOTH Mary AND Anne-Marie - either serially or at the same time. Can anyone fill me in?

Wendy M. Grossman said...

The creators of NEWSRADIO (which I loved) say in the DVD commentary that they really wanted to *avoid* the whole will-they-won't-they thing, and that was exactly why they slammed Dave and Lisa into bed together immediately. They worked very well, I thought, for the show as a couple because both characters had the self-confidence to disagree. On THE BIG BANG THEORY, just when you thought Leonard and Penny might kill the show along came Amy Farrah Fowler, whose relationship with Sheldon is one of the most original on TV and organically managed the slow burn because it actually fit both characters and their backgrounds.

I think THE GOOD WIFE really began to suffer in season 3 when Alicia and Will broke up, because their relationship then went flat for nearly two years.

However, there are *some* modern romantic comedies that manage both immediate sex and romance: YOU'RE THE WORST is the most obvious. Although the characcters wind up in bed in the pilot, the development of their relationship hits every romantic beat, just from a wonderfully perverse angle. It's currently one of my favorite comedies. Also, EPISODES has done very well with a married fish-out-of-water couple who provide both conflict and romance. They, too, have sex in the pilot. :) And there's CATASTROPHE, which I didn't love, but which is trying to be a romantic comedy where the obstacles are the kinds of real-life issues couples have to live through every day.

wg

Glenn said...

Not sure if it would work today but the "Friends" writers seemed to figure it out in a pretty good way. They did the will they/won't they thing with Ross and & Rachel for a year and a half, got them together for about a year, then split them up until the finale. In a way, fans got a little bit of everything. (Though I thought adding Emma to the show was mostly pointless.)

BA said...

@Anon.: That "Ben & Leslie" story in PArks was just part of the long story, the growth of a goddess. The finale leads us to believe she'll go on to be President of the Galaxy, still consulting with her beautiful land mermaid friend.

gottacook said...

Wasn't Ted Bessell both Anne-Marie and Mary Richards' boyfriend? It's been a long time since I've seen MTM, but I think he was the only recurring boyfriend Mary had, in the later seasons.

As for Mary and Lou, I saw first-run (spring 1977) the second-last episode of the series, where they decide to go out on a date, just to see what happens. (Written by David Lloyd, per Wiki.) That is one funny episode.

I also saw first-run the Moonlighting episode that ends with the two leads getting together, splendidly edited to Ronnie Spector singing "Be My Baby." I don't recall following the series at all after that.

In the Good Wife finale, all the best moments were wordless. In retrospect, I wish that the entire finale had consisted entirely of wordless moments - significant looks, ironic smiles, arched eyebrows, etc. - all set to appropriate instrumental music.

Unknown said...

turns out, Bridget didn't love Bernie....

michael said...

This was the challenge that killed REMINGTON STEELE. By the third season Laura's reasons for saying no to sex got more and more absurd and petty. The fear with some was people would stop watching if the "will they or won't they" was solved. The producers wanted to marry them (see episode in season three with wedding) but Stephanie Zimbalist did not want to do it (pun intended). The thought that Remington who had never stayed in one place for more than two years and Laura Holt who had the two men in her life (Dad and live-in lover) leave her would not have any romantic conflict after sex and during marriage was unbelievable. For those who think you can't have a romantic comedy mystery with a married couple need to watch the "Thin Man" movies with Nick and Nora Charles.

Tim Dunleavy said...

Ken, did you catch this new interview (video and print) with that girl who went to your high school? Really wonderful to see her again, and to see that she's at peace.

http://www.newsweek.com/jan-smithers-newsweek-teens-issue-457672

Chris said...

Friday question: why is it that British actors often play American parts, making use of their American accents, but when there's a British role, casting directors exclusively go for British actors. Isn't it a hassle hiring foreign people? I'm guessing there's a few people in Hollywood who can convincingly pull off British accents.

McAlvie said...

The Good Wife - well I didn't want her to end up with Jason because he was too smarmy. But good lord I didn't want her to be completely abandoned by everyone, either! Honestly, I think they went waaay wrong there. I think it would have been a beautiful finish to jump ahead a few years and show her and Diane kicking legal butt.

You said, Ken, that networks still like romantic comedies, but it seems to me that the best of them weren't actually about the romance. As you said, when there is chemistry it is great. But even when it's been a show I liked, I find myself wondering, "Okay, but what happens next?" Because if you tie the whole thing around a romance, then you are doomed because eventually the characters have to pick a lane. But if the romance is just a side arc, the show has much more potential. Assuming, of course, it's a good show.

Donald Benson said...

"Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries" is an imperfect but fun hour whodunit from Australia, set in the 1920s. Fisher is flamboyant, brilliant and reckless; she's also sexually liberated to the point of mating with a suspect, witness or bystander in almost every episode. Her opposite is the proper and reticent Inspector Robinson, slowly recovering from a divorce (married just before WWI; came home a different man).

It's soon clear he's the major male relationship in her life, even though he's the only one she doesn't sleep with. She's likewise the key woman in his life -- despite a not-quite resolved feelings for his ex and a beautiful widow who's almost a romance. Each knows what the other is about; each knows a romance could ruin everything.

The tension is that you're never sure if you want them together or not. Their two-act as a dour Steed and giddy Mrs. Peel works so well you'd be happy if they stayed there. She teases him relentlessly; they both know he won't take the bait. He can be judgmental in a way she wouldn't allow anyone else. Slowly they become confidantes on serious matters. Any disruption in the status quo is as scary as it is enticing.

The third (and to date final) season is a bit wobbly. They make very conscious and extremely careful moves towards romance, but among other things she hasn't given up her one-off flings (and the writers have him upset in one episode and oblivious in another).

The original tense truce could have been maintained for a longer time, perhaps tested by one or the other having an actual relationship.

Anonymous said...

Casey Wilson should never be a romantic lead. It will never be believable, and no man could place himself in Casey's romantic partner's shoes, no matter what social justice warrior decision makers think they can do. You can't make the audience infatuated or charmed by someone, either by rote, or by shame, who's not attractive.

If you could, we'd be seeing Rachel Dratch getting all of Julia Roberts' roles. She could do comedy better than Julia Roberts every time, but nobody would believe the Richard Gere character would go through everything he did to fuck Rachel Dratch. Because no Richard Gere-like character would.

Probably the only famous person whose ever shame-fucked a woman who I know of is Ted Danson, but the exception proves the rule!

–Ed Said

Liggie said...

Pat Reeder: I was rooting for Rachel to end up with Gunther in the "Friends" finale.

Ken, your brief comment about miniseries brought up a Friday Question. Is the age of the classic miniseries like "Roots" and "The Winds of War" long gone? Or is the format still alive today in a different look, like a 10- episode season like "Better Call Saul" our "Agent Carter" have had?

Anonymous said...

99 and 86

Andy Rose said...

Community took a very odd romantic track. The show started with a central theme being Jeff trying to have sex with Britta. By the second season, that theme had mostly gone by the wayside, at which point Jeff and Britta have sex sort of out of nowhere. Then they purportedly decide not to do that anymore, except that near the end of the third season, it was revealed that they had been secretly having casual sex the entire year. After this became public to their friends, they decided to stop. The show was constantly subverting the will-they-won't-they expectations, although I'm not sure it really added much to the characters.

Thomas Mossman said...

Ken, what do you think about The Good Wife getting a spinoff?

http://trekcore.com/blog/2016/05/good-wife-sequel-may-be-next-cbs-all-access-drama/

Kosmo13 said...

Thanks for posting the link to the article about Jan Smithers. I think Newsweek layed it on a bit thick about how hard she was to find. She did a well-publicized personal appearance with several other WKRP cast members just 2 years ago and is scheduled to appear at an autograph show in LA in July.

Doug said...

It's not surprising that writers will have a tough time maintaining sexual tension when in the "real world" there's almost none anyway. People expect to flop into bed for just about any reason, so when society eliminates whatever boundaries might have existed, that will be reflected in TV shows, movies, music, whatever.

Gerry said...

I think they actually used that line in "West Wing", "Do you want me to pass her a note in study hall?"