I'm Tired of Having Sex: Mating, Dating and Relating and How TV Mostly Gets it Wrong
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I'm Tired of Having Sex: Mating, Dating and Relating and How TV Mostly Gets it Wrong

By Mike Roorda | Think Pieces | May 17, 2013 | Comments ()


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.

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • ,

    Frankly, Bones and Booth bore me. The only reason I watch IF I watch is because the other two primary female leads (Michaela Conlin and Tamara Taylor) are both smokin'. I mean, I'm always saying "Emily is the hot Deschanel," but really, she's only the third most attractive woman (IMHO) on her own show.

  • linnyloo

    a relationship trope I HATE in tv/movies: the automatic long-distance Kiss of Death storyline, where once couples go long distance they end up imploding or one person ends up cheating. Every time. Seriously. As a person who has been long distance for four years (and we're moving in together this summer FINALLY THANK GOD JESUS), it just seemed like every portrayal of my reality was inevitable failure.

  • Into Londerland

    So much agreement on this. Every time there's a long-distance relationship proposed on a TV show or in a movie, some ass will proffer the "wisdom" that "long distance relationships never work out". Well, no, actually, for some, they really do.

    I've been with my partner for ten years and his job takes him away for months at a time, but we're still together and happy. It's never perfect, but for every time I get frustrated by his absence, I think about some of the people I know, couples who have been together as long as us who seem to do nothing but bicker, who seem to be going through the motions on a daily basis, who seem to have exhausted whatever chemistry it was that brought them together in the first place.

    If you're solitary by nature, it's pretty cool to be able to miss your partner, so that slobbing on the couch when they ARE home is a rare pleasure rather than tedious routine.

    Also phone sex is good.

  • I feel like Luke and Lorelai from Gilmore Girls got together fairly well after seasons of flirtations. They still acted like their characters always interacted, they just happened to be sleeping together now and sometimes turn off the banter to have a real conversation.

    This was, of course, before Amy Sherman-Palladino killed her show right before she left by sprinkling in obstacles like Luke's secret kid and Lorelai re-re-re-returning to Christopher.

  • Jezzer

    Eventually, though, their flaws drove Logan and Veronica apart. Her inability to trust unconditionally and his inability to not be a turd just proved insurmountable in the end.

    Also, Logan was a big stupidhead.

  • Anna von Beav

    You are JUST the WORST, CRAUG.


  • Lauralyn

    Maybe they can do like on Supernatural; have them sleep together then kill one.

  • MikeRoorda

    Actually a disturbing trend. Have sex with a Winchester? That's a murderin'.

  • Morgan_LaFai

    A lot of people would point out that Castiel is still around.

  • Anna von Beav

    Still would.

    With either one.

    Or both. Yes, that would be best.

  • phofascinating

    Friends' Ross and Rachel tends to be the go-to "will they, won't they", but it makes me sad that Chandler and Monica's relationship never gets any attention. It was never necessary to pull them apart just to get them back together, or create a slow burn just for the climax. It was a lovely and committed relationship with its fair share of bumps and hurdles. And it might be one of a handful of examples where we watch a TV couple come together and get married without watching the marriage crumble just for entertainment's sake (cough*TheOffice*cough). Maybe it was because they weren't the central focus, but whatever the reason, it just WORKED.

  • Ruthie O

    Once, I shouted "Pivot!" when my husband and I were carrying something heavy. He didn't get the reference, so I decided to rectify this by slowing going through Friends with him. We are on season 9 right now, and I'm realizing how Monica and Chandler really are the heart of the show. The fights they have are realistic; the affection they show is realistic; the inside jokes they share are realistic. I wholeheartedly agree with you: I am boggled that so many people consider Ross and Rachel to be the big relationship of the series.

  • MikeRoorda

    I thought about them too. They were together and apart so many times though, their happy ending is totally hollow. You KNOW, given their previous behavior, one of them has cheated or lost interest in the other by now. And they're probably thinking about trying to bang again after some time apart "just to see if the feelings are still there."

  • lisamtj79

    No, they're "on a break"!

  • babykangarootribbiani

    i;m a junior in college, and while i;ve dated, i;ve never had sex (that;s what i love about the internet, you can say these things and no one has to pretend they care) but i wondered when watching episodes of friends and how i met your mother (boy has THAT show gone downhill, hit me with a red cowboy boot, i;m done with it) but i always wondered if sex is literally that little of a deal. i;ve never dated anyone i would want to sleep with, and at least from a woman's standpoint, it really doesn;t seem to be something that;s worth doing if you;re just doing it to do it. i know my views are like crazy old fashioned but i wonder does it really mean that little in life? (not the forum for that question, but what are you gonna do).

  • Morgan_LaFai

    It depends on the person. Some think it is and some think it isn't. A lot of people tend to think less of it the more people they have slept with. And some people think cheating isn't a big deal and some people think it is the worst thing in the world. It just depends. The most important thing is to realize that other people have other perceptions and not to assume to much embarking on physical intimacy.

  • Mrs. Beasley

    Sam and Diane. That is all.

  • Cyril Figs

    All I have to say: Mulder and Scully.

    For the good part of that series anyway.

  • delle

    I'm definitely a huge fan of the Big Tease; no matter how much I might be rooting for two characters to come right out and be open with each other and get together, I still almost always prefer that they don't. "The X-Files" is a great example, as I basically only watched that show for the chemistry between Mulder and Skully. The small part of me that would pretend it was all real would sigh and wish they'd get together, but the larger part of me which wants a show to be interesting and engaging would hope they wouldn't because so much magic is often lost when they finally throw two characters together. I'll take those significant glances and rare embraces over scenes of them waking up together or talking over breakfast ANY day, because the rare expressions of feeling is so much more poignant. I live for those moments that are few and far between where they let their guard down for a moment in response to a tense situation and the other character's distress; it is so much more moving because you know there is so much depth of feeling being regularly suppressed.

    That being said however, the Big Tease that was nearly the end of me was Ruth and Harry on MI-5; definite emotional blue balls...that are still aching.

  • Slash

    I must be weird. I almost never care whether TV or movie characters will get it on. It's one of the most boring plots ever (not quite as boring as the wedding one, but almost).

    I'm fine with female and male characters not doin' it. They can think about doin' it and talk about doin' it (a little), but mostly, I want them to do other, more interesting shit.

    Other people's personal lives (esp. the fictional ones) don't interest me. They are usually pretty mundane.

  • Mrs. Julien

    hormone soaked confetti

    The unspoken theme of every Senior Prom in history.

  • lowercase_ryan

    I never thought of Peter and Olivia like that but now that you say it, you're right on. Their relationship didn't always feel real because Olivia always felt so detached. But in a weird way that made it more real than most.

  • Tinkerville

    Parks and Rec is one of the few shows that does this brilliantly. First April and Andy, then Leslie and Ben. They're able to keep the couples together while keeping them entertaining and utterly enjoyable. Other series could take a leaf from their book.

  • So right on. April and Andy are awesome together and Ben and Leslie are just the sweetest couple to ever be on tv. Love their constant love and support of each other and that the writers aren't throwing up pointless roadblocks just to add to the drama of the show. Ben and Leslie are idealized but also one of the most true to life couples on television. When you're in a really good relationship and really understand your partner there isn't all this unnecessary drama over stupid things.

  • janellest

    I think April and Andy has worked wonderfully because they're not the central pair, and they're both also bonkers. I think Leslie and Ben is a little troublesome because they have become so saccharine and their conflicts rarely have stakes. It's a great model for a real life couple in terms of how much they care about each other, but in terms of the drama of the show, it's a little weak.

    I'm an episode behind on New Girl, but I think they've so far approached the Jess-Nick relationship brilliantly.

  • Rochelle

    I like April and Andy even better together, and I loved them as individuals.

  • Jenn TheYellowDart

    ^Excellent point.

  • BWeaves

    In real life, I find that being attracted to someone and NEVER, EVER moving on it, actually creates the best work environment. Bosses I've really liked, I've done the best work for, and they've rewarded me back (with bonuses or salary increases, you perverts). I joke about my work husband, and my husband's work wife. They are people we have lunch with and share an office with, and even socialize with (spouses included, not alone). Yet, for some reason, that same relationship on TV HAS to eventually end up as sex. The problem is, in real life, that relationship would either end up as sex within weeks of meeting, or it will never happen. Most people can have great chemistry and NOT sleep together.

  • linnyloo

    Well, and sometimes it'd get creepy due to power dynamics.

    I was really attracted to a professor of mine in college, and did some of my best writing for him, but I admired from a distance and kept things professional. In retrospect, I wouldn't have known what to think if he'd taken advantage, and I'm very glad he didn't -- when I was in graduate school, a (different) person I considered to be a trusted mentor tried getting into my pants, and I found that really distressing.

  • linnyloo

    Word. I've had fabulous chemistry with people, and a genuine affection, but sex was never going to be on the table. Or... you know... anywhere else.

  • Boston Red

    Well, TV shows are criticized if the relationship doesn't go somewhere (in most cases). We want resolution and keeping up sexual tension (for others to watch) for too long seems like a big tease.

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