TV producer Sidney Sheldon had an apparent fascination with high-concept romance. I Dream of Jeannie was his own idea and his second big success (after The Patty Duke Show). In 1970, fresh off Jeannie's cancellation, he introduced a new show entitled Nancy. It was about an innocent young woman (named Nancy) and a veteranarian who instantly click. There were to be no games, no rivals, no stalling tactics. They were in love, period, and they'd be getting married by the November sweeps. Also, she was the President's daughter, which is where the high-concept came in.
An executive for NBC explained
that the appeal of Nancy was "there really
isnt an unabashed love story on television, where people
kiss because they really love each other. [We believe] there is
room for a series like that." At the end of the pilot, Nancy
was brought to a field with two sycamore trees planted by her new
beau's father and grandfather on the day they proposed to their
wives. Nancy was given a similar tree, and then the executives
presented all the TV critics in the room with a pot containing
their own sycamore trees to take home.
In response to all this, one critic asked, "So....is the show GOOD, or not?"
The actress playing Nancy said she thought it was. "It works, believe me, it does."
It didn't work. The critics blasted Nancy on arrival, finding it incredibly dull, sanitized and mushy, and the show didn't live through the next January. Nancy's failure crushed Sheldon so badly that he left the TV business to focus on novel-writing. He didn't return until 1979, when he came to ABC and pitched...the same thing again. Another high-concept romance, where the couple would be in love from the beginning, period -- in fact they would already BE married.
This time, the show lasted five
seasons, garnered high ratings, and created one of the most
famous romantic couples in TV history. The show even continued in
the 90's with a string of TV movies long enough to amount to a
sixth season. The audience only began to lose interest when the
actor who played their sidekick butler died.
The average observer would have looked at Nancy and thought its main reason for failure was its reluctance to resort to soap opera tropes. Based on this they would have guessed Hart to Hart would crash on arrival. What did Sheldon do right with Hart to Hart that he did wrong with Nancy?
This season we had several
network TV shows specifically about love, revolving around a
couple, and they all failed. Why do so many TV love stories flop,
others drag on, and some others are unbearable despite the best
of intentions? Why is love....so....HARD? Is there a magic
formula no one has cracked yet?
After years of studying literary couples, those that caught on and those that did not, I think I may have figured out what the secret is.
I said before somewhere that getting to know a character in your mind is just like getting to know a person in real life. You don't fully know what they would and wouldn't do until you've worked with them for a long time, and it's too easy to pick pre-determined personality traits that don't match what that character will ultimately become. Bill Watterson did a few strips with Calvin in the Cub Scouts, until he realized it was very unlike Calvin to join a large group like that. When he started, he couldn't know. It was something the character revealed to him.
If I was suddenly tasked with writing the script for a big TV show pilot, I would start first by writing a bunch of mini-stories with the characters. The best way to flesh them out is to hang out with them; to get to know them naturally. Usually the Hollywood development process leaves no time for this, so you get what TVTropes calls "Early Installment Weirdness" -- where characters act in the pilot completely differently from how they act two or three seasons down the line. You can't dictate these kinds of things, or you're virtually guaranteed to screw something up.
Writing love works the same way -- but no one realizes this.
Most shows start out with a pre-determined love interest. The producers lay out everything in the writer's bible: "This is our hero. This is the woman whom he is eventually going to fall in love with. It'll be seasons down the line; we have a plan for this." Here's the problem: the early versions of the characters you have now will not be the well-known, nuanced versions of the characters you have later. You're rolling the dice and you need to be prepared to change your plans, or else you may end up trying to force a pairing that feels completely contrived in the finished product. Just like in real life, fictional love can't be dictated.
....Although, there is a shortcut. It is possible to dictate which two characters should fall in love, and have it come off as somewhat convincing....if you cheat. What I mean by this is, you make the love interest a Macguffin.
Let's say a man comes home from
work, and he sees a donut on the counter of his kitchen. He's
been waiting to eat this donut all day. It's been a hard day at
work, trying to reach the goal of getting to this hour and
reaching this donut. But just as he's about to grasp it in his
hand, TWENTY NINJAS BURST INTO THE ROOM, GRAB HIM AND START
DRAGGING HIM AWAY! He waves his arm frantically, one centimeter
from the donut! IT'S SO CLOSE, HE'S GOT TO MAKE IT---
By making this man want a donut so badly and struggle so hard for it, it makes you want the donut as well. It's the center of the tension, and you want the tension resolved. Substitute the donut for a pretty woman and you have something like the original Spider-Man trilogy.
Why does Peter Parker want Mary
Jane so badly? Because he does. Why is he in love with her?
Because he is. The first two films tell us next to nil about MJ
and why we, as an audience, would want to be with her. Most
people agree the first two films are great, but that the romantic
aspect was botched. There is still tension about her, but it
comes from being the center of the plot, from being an object to
acquire. Mary Jane is a donut.
They say when you cheat, you only cheat yourself, and anyone who uses Macguffin tactics to tell a love story inevitably winds up trapped in a corner. At the end of Spider-Man 2, Peter finally has MJ. Now what?
The man has his donut; what more to the story is there? Well, he can eat the donut now, but just watching him enjoy it isn't very interesting. Raimi built everything around the goal instead of the journey. The only thing left to do was stall.
So before eating the donut, the man runs out for a few minutes, and then comes back with a horrible haircut and an emo attitude. "You've changed, Gerald! I don't want you to eat me anymore!" says the donut, and rolls off the plate and out his apartment door. The tension is sort of back, but it's not the same. And we still don't know anything about the donut, or why it just talked now, or if it was sentient all this time. Our interest is fading. And by now, it's apparent it was never a love story, it was just a gimmick story.
This is the foundation for an
entire television genre I despise called Will-They-Won't-They, or
WTWT. Most TV shows that employ romance use WTWT as a structure,
because it's easy. By turning a potential pairing into a target,
you can create the illusion of chemistry that would otherwise
come about naturally.
A WTWT offers two eventual possibilities: one, that the couple gets together, ending the Maguffin tension and the show's central plot, causing people to get bored and stop watching. The other possibility is they just drag out the tension as long as possible, past everyone's tolerance level and all believability....causing people to get bored and stop watching. Either way, the ending is going to disappoint.
There is only one escape from this, and that's the left-field, unplanned possibility that the chemistry of the actors somehow make the couple more interesting as a pair than they were apart. This happened to Chuck when the titular character and his love interest Sarah coupled up in the middle of season three, because the staff figured they would be cancelled at that time. Instead, it turned out they were only halfway through the run, but having Chuck and Sarah as an item worked out much better.
From a logical standpoint most writers feel romance can be between whoever they dictate it to be, because after all, aren't they in complete control of their own stories? Well.....not exactly, and this goes back to what I said in the beginning. Even if the writer has no plans to experiment, they will experiment anyway through writing the story. Eventually they'll notice something and realize they set up the wrong elements back there on page five. It's unavoidable. It's why drafts were invented.
It's a common practice for writer's bibles to be revised as a series evolves. However, it's not common at all to revise the planned romance. On Friends, Ross/Rachel was a cheat couple. The show constantly kept the tension tight between them, but there was no telling what the actual coupling would be like, if it would be funny, touching, or boring. We only knew what they were like apart. Monica/Chandler, on the other hand, grew organically out of the writing process. The viewers could see they would be great together, and the progression from close friends to husband and wife was smooth and believable. Most Friends fans prefer Monica/Chandler to Ross/Rachel.
When a producer of a hit series
notices that its main coupling isn't working, that producer has
two choices. One is to change plans, if possible. The first
season of Community contained a lot of teasing at a
possible romantic future for loudmouth lawyer Jeff Winger and
equally loud-of-a-mouth Britta Perry. By the beginning of season
2, this had been abandoned and in Community fashion,
they made fun of the very idea.
In Britta's place, Community fans had grown attached to the idea of Annie Edison being Jeff's future girlfriend. This was a big problem for Dan Harmon and the gang; while some natural attraction had grown between the two characters, Annie had been established as way too young for Jeff. This made the creative team squeamish about ever pursuing the coupling, even though the way the characters had grown close, it would have made sense.
The other option -- and the one
I unfortunately see all the time -- is to plow full steam ahead
on the original path, ignoring any and all indications it's a bad
idea. The best current example of this is in Arrow.
Traditionally, the Green Arrow's love interest has always been Dinah Lance, the Black Canary. Knowing this, Arrow's producers made sure to plant her as a future girlfriend for Ollie....though they did something weird by splitting her into two people: Laurel Lance, who displays sexual tension with Ollie, and her sister Sarah Lance, who becomes the Canary. Sarah was later murdered and Laurel vowed vengeance by taking up her sister's costume.
The writers' big mistake was thinking that they could dictate Ollie/Laurel just because that was the way things usually were. They got very complacent and wrote no chemistry between the two people. Ollie and Laurel were almost never together and when they were, they were usually arguing. Watchers of Arrow got sick of Laurel pretty fast, and to make matters worse for her, a character that had been introduced to sell Microsoft products started catching on and getting more and more scenes.
The character was female. You can see where this is going.
Felicity Smoak grew organically
out of the Arrow universe. A combination of her cute,
stammering personality and Emily Bett Rickards' flawless
portrayal made her a fan favorite and graduated her to regular.
By Season 3 Felicity was in almost every scene of every episode.
She also knew Ollie's secret. Laurel did not and still had almost
no interaction with Oliver in either form. Whether intentional or
not, the entire series had wound up promoting an
Despite occasional teasing for the fan's sake, the Arrow producers are still, to this day, dead-set on uniting Oliver with Laurel, despite almost ZERO support from the fanbase. They refuse to face the reality of the story they wound up telling. In the future, as Laurel gets more scenes as Black Canary and Oliver grows closer to her, viewers may lose interest.
The problems were far worse
with Arrow's predecessor, Smallville. Sometimes it isn't
the writing that makes a couple implausible -- sometimes it's a
lack of convincing chemistry between two actors. This show had
BOTH these problems, with the additional weight of promoting a
relationship everybody already knew was doomed: Clark Kent and
his high-school crush, Lana Lang, who is not Lois Lane.
Smallville constantly hammered on the angst between Clark and Lana, while completely ignoring other potential girlfriends for him that would have been a lot more fun to watch. As other girls organically grew out of the writing process and showed much better appeal, they were ignored in favor of more Lana, Lana, Lana. Chloe Sullivan, a much more interesting character than Lana with a much better actress playing her, became Smallville's breakout star and was eventually added to the Superman comic itself -- but the producers barely entertained the possibility that she could do anything with Clark.
In my personal opinion, a far
worse example was that of Alicia. This character was introduced
as a random Freak of the Week (her power was teleportation), but
gained more depth later. Alicia was one of the most interesting
characters Smallville had and showed immediate chemistry
with Clark -- and he loved her back! And they started dating!
......and then they killed her off, because of course they did.
With both their superpowers, they would have made a great team,
if the writers hadn't been so afraid to rock the Lana boat.
So if you're stuck writing for a pre-determined relationship anyway, is there no hope? Well...that's not entirely the case. If you've got a pre-packaged coupling to work with, there are ways to increase your chances of making it work, though they aren't guaranteed. The best way is to make the circumstances as believable as possible.
During the development of the
movie Aladdin in 1990, Michael Eisner was examining the
story beats and plot points the writing team had laid out for the
film. In this version Aladdin and Jasmine met when he snuck over
the palace fence and Abu gave her an apple. Also, they were
Eisner looked at the story so far and then said the smartest thing he ever said in his life: "I can see why he likes her. But I can't see why she likes HIM."
Well.....maybe she's been shut up in the palace her whole life? Maybe the carefree, street-smart Aladdin represents everything she desires to begin with, most notably freedom? Maybe that's the catalyst that sparks a romance? ....It worked, and for that reason, the love story was one of the high points of the film. People didn't feel the same way about Cinderella and her Prince forty-two years earlier because that was a Macguffin romance. They didn't feel anything for Simba and Nala two years later because....that kind of just happened and had no bearing on the plot.
While it's possible to set just
the right elements together to create fireworks, it's far from
easy to pull off. In the wake of Arrow's success, they
gave The Flash his own TV series (again) as a spinoff. There have
been several Fastest Men Alive, but for this show they picked
Barry Allen, who has always had a specific love interest: Iris
West, or Iris West-Allen. Yes, for over half Barry's original run
in the comics, Iris was his wife. Also, she turned out to be FROM
THE FUTURE! This element does not appear to be part of the show.
Sadly, shortly before the Crisis reboot, comic Iris was murdered. So Barry traveled into another dimension, found another Iris there, brought her back and married her. Then everything was back to normal!
Wait, I don't think this is Iris....ahh, just pretend, I'm behind deadline.
The interesting thing about The
Flash is that, this time, they took no chances.
They started things out with Barry and Iris as close as they
could possibly get. Barry and Iris had been best friends since
age ten. They had Barry grow up in Iris's house, raised by Iris's
father. She was practically his sister. In fact, there was no
practicality about it -- she WAS his sister, in everything but
Which....might have been taking it a bit too far. Every episode, there is a shot of Iris embracing her boyfriend while Barry looks on in the background, with a solemn expression that says "Why? Why can't she be truly mine? I would show her a night of passion like she would never forget! And why did she have to hog all the Rice Krispies before school EVERY TIME?"
Also, she doesn't know his secret, which means here we go AGAIN. On the other hand, maybe telling Iris isn't the best idea.....
The reason so many shows fail which revolve solely around a romance is that you can't take the proper long way around -- you HAVE to pre-determine how people match up, and in hackier hands, that can create a disaster. In 2003 screenwriter Chris Henchy created I'm With Her, a multi-cam rom-com about a small-time teacher named Patrick. One day he was out strolling in the park when a dog ran up and bit him in the butt. The dog's owner ran up, who turned out to be an A-list movie star. Then, she gave him his phone number! Ha cha cha!
Henchy was betting big here. How could you not get invested in such a relationship? Who doesn't want to date a Hollywood celeb? It couldn't fail! TV Guide felt otherwise after seeing the pilot. It was Nancy again. "The romance is cute, and so are the actors. But this is all situation with very little comedy."
Henchy really wanted you to believe a big movie star would consider a lowly townie within her league, so he made his backstory as saintly as possible. Patrick once held a high-paying job, but gave it up to become a schoolteacher. Why would he do this? According to Patrick, "For the look on the students' faces every time they learn something." She became putty in his hands after this. Pick-up artists, take note.
There's a reason I'm bringing up this obscure show. Despite what it seems, it did actually have potential and that potential was blown. Because here's the other fact about Chris Henchy....his wife is Brooke Shields. Not even kidding. This is the one person who could have made a show like this an autobiography. He could have made this romance feel real simply by taking elements from HIS OWN LIFE. But he didn't. Instead, we got a terrible show full of predictable canned plots, annoying side characters, and the most wooden relationship this side of the Skywalkers.
What to take away from these examples is that the pre-determined romance should only be used when all other options are not possible. To pull this kind of trick and stick the landing requires not just careful writing, but a lot of other elements out of the writer's hands. In the case of Hart to Hart, they found two actors who were very very good at pretending to be in love, as well as selling the fantasy they wanted to portray. If Hart to Hart is ever remade, it will probably fail.
When one thinks "TGIF Romance," what comes to mind? Cory and Topanga. What about Urkel and Myra, or Sabrina and Harvey? Or Earl and Fran? No, there's only one. And here's the thing....unlike those others....
THIS. WAS NEVER. PLANNED.
Boy Meets World was supposed to be about a kid who lived next door to his teacher. That was the premise it was sold on, and what it was initially marketed as. The show just gradually became about friends and relationships, though they more or less stuck to the original premise by finding ways to continually put Feeny in a position of power over Cory. Topanga was originally a spaced-out hippie chick who was part of a group of weird kids Cory was forced to sit with when he couldn't fit in. That's why they spent five seconds on her name. The producer drove past Topanga Canyon on the way to work and said over the phone, "Just name her that."
There was no long-term plan for her to appear beyond that point. It just happened that way. Someone plucked the character out of that episode and said, "We should put her in more shows, she was interesting." Later someone else said, "These two work well together; let's think about pairing them up." By then they knew the characters well enough to know it had a good chance of working....and the romance aspect eventually became an icon of the show itself.
So much so that when Disney Channel introduced "Boy Meets World: The Next Generation," Cory and Topanga were the only two characters from the original series to return in regular appearances. They were still married, with the focus being on their daughter.
Now imagine if the showrunner had picked out a girlfriend for Cory from the beginning. And when the lunch table episode was written, someone said "We should explore what happens with this Topanga character," and he shouted back, "No, no, we can't do that! Cory's girlfriend is going to be Gertrude over there! I have an entire multi-season plan mapped out! It's supposed to be Gertrude! THAT'S WHAT'S SUPPOSED TO HAPPEN!"
We probably wouldn't have another series twenty years later. Cory would have landed a steady love interest eventually, probably Gertrude, but the fan response would not have been as great.
The truth is, you can't decide two drawings on a piece of paper will fall in love if you barely know who they are, any more than you can walk into a bar, point to someone and demand they be compatible with you. Pairing people up that early in the game is a common practice, and it's also a mistake, and it's why most TV romances are not engaging enough.
So to all the showrunners, script writers and producers out there who probably won't read this, my word of advice to you is: Don't betrothe your cast members. Just let them live; let them have adventures and see what happens. If there are sparks between any two of the characters, you'll know. You'll feel it. And the audience will too.
Love is hard, but only if you make it that way.
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