I'm Tired of Having Sex: Mating, Dating and Relating and How TV Mostly Gets it Wrong
Television and movies are riddled with recurring themes and plot points. These tropes pop up again and again, retelling the same basic stories by simply shuffling the cast and setting. It's not a bad thing. The reason the same themes can be recycled so often is that the subject matter is relatable. We, as viewers, can reliably be counted on to emotionally invest ourselves in the story because it touches something in us that rings of truth. It shines a light on a moment in our lives, a belief we hold or a feeling we have and illuminates the whole in a way that we can appreciate or learn from.
The most reliable story devices tend to revolve around relationships. More specifically, around whether or not someone will or will not bump uglies with someone else. I'd be willing to bet the question of whether they should or should not and if they do, what it might be like has caused more patrons to part with their pesos than any other question in literature and entertainment. Sometimes television shows can do it well but more often than not, if a show's central conceit becomes a will they/won't they game of three card monty, the inevitable climax can leave everyone feeling empty and unfulfilled.
I think the answer for why so many are unsuccessful is probably the same reason why strip clubs can continue to turn a profit. We love a good tease. The anticipation, the build up, the knowledge of what is likely about to be revealed or consummated often causes our blood pressure to rise more dramatically than the moment where we finally get what we want. Reality, as a rule of thumb, tends to be much less impressive than what our imaginations promise. While the relationship is only being danced around or alluded to our pace begins to quicken and our imagination begins to paint a picture of perfection that we just know will come to pass, if only Booth can nut up and tell Temperance how he feels and she quits being so intellectual with her sciency-wiency stuff and just trusts her heart and learns logic and love can't always be reconciled and maybe Booth stops leaving to get his war on. In the end, reality casts all in a harsh and unforgiving light. In real life, the stripper has moles and cellulite and no relationship can contain the amount of sunshine and flowers we hope they will.
Network procedurals seem to disproportionately suffer from relationships that are plenty of fun during the heavy petting preamble, but clumsily lose their way once the concerned parties agree to do the no pants dance. "Castle," while still entertaining, is a show casting about for a purpose and some greater emotional hooks in the wake of Beckett and Castle's budding romance. The show is still doing the crime of the week formula well, but the relationship between the two leads increasingly feels saccharine and artificial. It was decidedly more fun when they were throwing veiled flirtations around like hormone soaked confetti and neither of their intentions were particularly clear or defined. The same is true of "Bones" and "Psych." Both shows kept their love interests from interacting for as long as the story would allow, stretching the circumstances and logic for keeping them apart far past the point of believability. In a story based in reality Shawn and Juliet and Seely and Brennan would have ended up pawing at each other in a broom closet much sooner. You can only eye bang someone so much before belts start to feel constricting and wearing pants seems like a poor decision. Some people might like riding a roller coaster to the top of the hill and stopping, but most enjoy screaming down the other side. By the time that the couples stopped circling each other and settled down together, the writers had forgotten how to snare the audience with emotional drama separate from the relationships that they'd made all important for the previous four or five seasons. The supporting character's stories have been pushed aside for so long to service the central romance that we no longer care about them, and the unencumbered and continually doe-eyed relationships that are depicted bore us, so we find other things to occupy our tv time.
A few shows deal with this pitfall by taking the easiest way out, and simply never allowing the romantic interests a chance to connect in a way the audience and the characters desire. The key is to hint that those feelings exist, but not allow it to develop beyond a certain point. Just the right amount of tension keeps it interesting, too little is boring and too much for too long gives the viewers emotional blue balls. "The X-Files" mastered this slow burn romantic dance. Mulder and Scully would cast knowing looks, share lingering moments and pause for an extra beat in situations that approached physical intimacy but never made substantial progress towards overtly expressing their desires. "NCIS" is another example of a show that has done this with a degree of success. The relationship, or lack of one, between Tony and Ziva has been a plotline that has simmered under the surface for years now. It informs other relationships on the show, coloring how Tony interacts with other women and how he perceives Ziva's interactions with other men. They hint at a mutual desire for something more, occasionally appearing to crest the top of the roller coaster, but never quite reaching the downhill portion of the ride. For the record, I'm not convinced this particular show will be able to sustain the tension, but they're definitely giving it an honest effort.
It's much harder to find examples of relationships on television that have worked after the audience has been incessantly teased and titillated. The coupling stories that succeed seem to do so because they're flawed. If our characters appear too happy together, and there's no sense of an actual external threat to that happiness (looking at you "Psych") the believability of that relationship suffers, and we tend to tune out. Showing a relationship with blemishes or, even more realistically, one that requires constant reevaluation and examination keeps the audience engaged and invested in your story.
Real relationships are messy, difficult and scary things to embark upon. For it to work, both parties have to consistently and consciously make the decision to be vulnerable in a way that exposes them to serious emotional and mental damage. We're flawed and imperfect beings who find the most comfort in life when our happiness and our hopes rest, at least in part, in someone else's hands and theirs in ours. That trust, the agreement that both parties will do their best despite their very real shortcomings is the keystone in any real and loving relationship. Your partner won't always get it right, and they will at some point let you down. But if the commitment is there the relationship grows from adversity, gaining strength every time the parties reaffirm their decision to entrust at least a portion of their happiness to the other.
This unsexy truth rarely finds its way into our entertainment. The best contemporary example I can think of would be Veronica and Logan's relationship on "Veronica Mars." Logan, for the most part, was a shitheel. He was someone that was selfish and vain, but would sometimes lapse into accidental sweetness and caring. Veronica was single minded and stubborn and despite a tough exterior, had a softness and fragility to her that only came out in whiffs and wafts. Their eventual relationship didn't negate all of their personality foibles. The affection they shared didn't fix everything with a magic heart shaped wand and some warm and fuzzy fairy dust. Neither did they have to change or conform to what the other wanted to "make it work" they simply got together and worked through the flaws that plagued them both. A second example, I would argue, could be found on "Fringe." Peter and Olivia eventually end up together and have a great relationship, but both of them have issues that the other must work through. Olivia is initially cold and withdrawn with Peter occasionally having to drag her feelings out into the open, sometimes against her will. Peter's independent streak and impulsiveness puts distance between he and Olivia, and she has to remind him to share everything with her, even the dark things he wishes he could hide. In both cases, their flaws make us love them more, because their imperfections make them feel more human to us. We fight with those we love, we love them despite their faults, and we share in their failures as well as the successes. Because that's what real relationships are like.
As it turns out, the relationships we find the most believable, are also the ones that are believably flawed.