Friday, June 19, 2015

A Many Splendored Thing: Love & TV (Part 2) [Contributor: Ann]

... Psych! As if.

Welcome to part two of my five-part discussion on love and television and how the two work and don't work together.

Let me now say this about love: love is an important ingredient in any show. It should be treated deliberately and doled out thoughtfully. This includes shows that are devoid of love (It's Always Sunny, Seinfeld, VEEP though only to an extent), shows that switch partners enough that love is never guaranteed (heeeey, Shonda Rhimes and Degrassi), and more traditional shows: the ones with the OTPs, the NOTPS, the YOTPS (this doesn't stand for anything. I just got carried away.)

Love is so important because love is ours. We know few things more in life than we do about relationships. Well, with one exception: ourselves. Relationships are one step below self because through the relationships that we have, we actually learn more about ourselves.

Good stories use love as the instrument that it is in order to teach us something about human nature and, specifically, our human nature. Bad stories use love for shock value, or treat it as a necessary evil, tacked on "just because" (think of any action movie).

Let's talk about the second category of television relationships, one that is often my favorite when done right and my least favorite when done wrong. I have given them the title did-they?-they-didn't.

Again, the common disclaimer: I encourage discussion on what I've said and do not claim to be an authority on any TV show. Whether you agree or disagree, try to keep your internet cool together for the mutual benefit of everybody. Thanks!


Typically includes: These two people have some draw or chemistry -- sometimes people call them out on it, sometimes they share moments, and so on -- and even sometimes get together, but they do not end up together. The rules are pretty fluid for did-they-they-didn'ts, given that they could or couldn't have hooked up (so they may/may not have had to deal with a messy break-up), but ultimately they share these two things in common: 1) an attraction to each other recognized by the show and 2) not ending up together, but their not ending up together helping both characters realize some lesson about themselves.

When this works: These two elements are obvious. The best type of did-they-they-didn'ts are ones that recognize that first loves don't have to be last loves, or that a love story can exist, end, and end fruitfully for both characters. In doing so, the element of love is treated as secondary, or complementary, to personal development and growth. An alternate avenue for this kind of relationship is that the reason things don't work out between them is that their personalities forbid the kind of traditional love story we're all used to seeing (think Charlie and Dee on It's Always Sunny).

When this doesn't work:  The execution is poor and the reason they don't end up together is also poor. It's often done in the name of love, which means that character development is thrown out the window for what the showrunners think will be more exciting or economic (for example, having two people together can be boring, so the showrunners will find a way to break them up for better stories in the future). To be fair, sometimes it's extenuating circumstances that lead to did-they-they-didn'ts (such as actors or actresses leaving or untimely deaths), but the truly bad don't have any excuses.

My favorite did-they-they-didn't: Fred and Winnie, The Wonder Years

I haven't watched all of The Wonder Years -- just a few episodes here and there -- but from my understanding, it's a classic story of growing up (set in an earlier time than even when it aired from 1988 to 1993). Episodes I've seen are classic sitcom stories about adolescence: Fred getting his driver's license, house parties, stories about family (especially his relationship with his father), and stories about his relationship with his neighbor Winnie Cooper.

How could a couple from a relationship of a show I haven't seen the majority of be my favorite? How fair is that? Maybe it's not. But trust that I wouldn't open myself up to the absolute scrutiny I deserve of lauding a couple I know so little about if its existence, in some way, wasn't the most moving to me of any couple I've ever seen on television.

The Wonder Years's final episode is titled "Independence Day." Among other things (drama and jealousy between Fred and Winnie! Fred disobeys his dad! Summer jobs!) the episode is about Fred and Winnie's first time. It's romantic, in the same way the Fourth of July is romantic, in the same way adolescence is romantic -- romantic in this definition: "of, characterized, or suggestive of, an idealized view of reality."

Prior to Fred and Winnie's first time, they're fighting. Winnie says, "I think this had to happen... today... tomorrow... some day. I mean, it's not like we're kids anymore. Everybody grows up. It's not like Peter Pan or something..." But they sleep together anyway because Winnie and Fred don't want it to end. Not their relationship or their childhood. And they go to their town's independence day celebration, holding hands, holding onto the promise of each other.

But they have to let go. As older Fred reminisces, he says, "It was the kind of promise that can only come from the hearts of the very young." And then, through voiceover (over images of the idyllic parade) Fred tells the rest of the story: he and Winnie stayed in touch as they pursued their adult dreams, and found love in other places, because they grew up, as we must all. I won't spoil the last few lines for you because you must watch it. It makes me cry every time.

Fred and Winnie's story is the perfect example of what I think all television couples should aim to do. They tell a story that is not a fairytale -- a story about individuals, which, in turn, becomes a story about us.

Other notable couples: Elena and Stefan (The Vampire Diaries), Jerry and Elaine (Seinfeld), Annie and Jeff (Community), Sam and Diane (Cheers), Jim and Karen or Michael and Jan (The Office)

My least favorite did-they-they-didn't: Dexter and Hannah, Dexter

Dexter is a legendary TV show. That's not to say that it's good in any way, because beyond its fourth season (though certainly not perfect in those four seasons, at least palatable) it worked tirelessly to eliminate any viewer loyalty. The show misused drama and misused its characters to the point of offense -- good, interesting characters died, and quickly, and easily (including any worthy adversary of Dexter), while other characters draaaaaaagged (how about Evelyn Vogel?) the show down to "F" territory.

Of all offenders, the greatest is Hannah. Her characterization is shoddy. Her effect on Dexter is ill-placed, both within the context of the show and within the context of a character who had plenty of other compelling reasons to find his humanity and didn't, including ties to his sister and his son. The relationship between Hannah and Dexter is supposed to be romantic because, as serial killers, they are the only two people who understand each other, but it is not. Hannah almost killed Dexter's sister! Not that shows can't have reprehensible people hook up successfully, but Dexter's indifference to this act -- the potential loss of his most significant relationship at the hands of a woman he at that point knew for less than a season -- is wrong. Wrong like incorrect; wrong like "does not equal."

I mentioned How I Met Your Mother in the last post as a romance offender not because of my personal preferences on the show but because it betrayed the audience. Good twists, good developments, can surprise the audience, but in a way where they can watch old episodes in retrospect and identify potential clues -- or, at the very least, understand the show logic attached to these decisions.

Dexter depended on show logic for its first seven seasons, with diminishing returns. But show logic doesn't always last when tested, and in Hannah and Dexter's case this is remarkably true. Show logic couldn't explain their connection to each other; their lack of chemistry did that talking. Show logic couldn't explain why Hannah became a greater priority than Deborah in the series finale.

And show logic doesn't make sense of why it was that Hannah and Dexter, these two annoying lovebirds, couldn't be together in the end. Dexter couldn't be with Hannah because... he was a monster, because he was unable to handle his emotions and reconcile them with his murderous deeds. His self-retribution? Go off to Canada as a lumberjack and leave HIS SON WITH A SERIAL KILLER IN ARGENTINA.

This is the show logic Dexter is selling. Want to know the truth? Where the best "did-they-they-didn'ts" happen to demonstrate the importance of one's self, Dexter and Hannah's entire relationship -- and its end -- were because of SHOWTIME money, wrapped up in the pretty package of "true love": because Dexter and Hannah's sex was a greater selling point than a relationship between siblings (even though DEBORAH FELL IN LOVE WITH DEXTER, WHAT IN THE WORLD?!), because Dexter's love for Hannah was a quick, albeit ridiculous, character arc that could justify a show that didn't have an ending in mind, and because when SHOWTIME told producers that they were not allowed to kill Dexter, Hannah McKay was a way to keep his son alive, even if doing so meant a suspension of all sense and reason.

Because, like, did I mention that Dexter becomes a lumberjack? Have mercy.


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