The “Will They Won’t They Get Together Romance” is possibly one of the most annoying– yet extremely addicting if used effectively- plot device on television today.
You know what I’m talking about. There’s two characters with a history, introduced from the beginning. They flirt, allude to their complicated past, and quickly establish that even if they did still have feeling for each other (they obviously do), there’s nothing they can do about it because some aspect of their lives makes their relationship ‘forbidden’. And so, us viewers have to endure 2-6 seasons of these two characters longing for each other. Those stolen glances. Those distracting new love interests that you and I grow to hate. The forbidden romance that is not quite pursued but is oh-so-idealized.
And then, finally, the two get together after some tragic, near-death experience that makes them realize that nothing in the world matters but each other.
So, the audiences are happy, and then, inexplicably, the ratings drop, and the network pulls the show off the air. Is this model archaic? To give shows a longer lifespan, do we have to abandon this plot tactic?
WHY THE MODEL IS BROKEN
- If this “will they won’t they” device is stretched to a breaking point, (like on Chuck or Bones), that makes the romance that much more dazzling- but after the suspense is released, the show has nothing to rely on. The writers must find a way to reinvent the show in order to use the new couple to move a new kind of conflict forward. THAT’S where the writers stumble. Changing the M.O. of a show almost always guarantees a loss of audience, who complain that the show has deviated too far.
- The first kiss of the new couple may also be the kiss of death for the show itself.
- The will-they-won’t-they might be so heavily stressed that audience members get annoyed and tune out.
- The endless indecisiveness can make characters appear weak because they don’t go after what they want.
- Sometimes, this model overshadows ALL of the other plotlines.
WHY IT WORKS
- Some characters are appealing to nobler emotions when they let the one they love go for the greater good.
- The fact that we know that the characters have feelings for each other keeps viewers tuning in to root for the relationship to happen.
- People find parallels of this kind of non-relationship heavily saturate our social lives. The question of “Will they/won’t they” can easily be applied to our own love interests, or the love interests of others. Relating to characters is an imperative selling point of every show.
- This is an indisputably powerful tactic if used correctly.
WAYS TO RE-INVENT THE MODEL
1. Break up the couple.
So, the starstruck couple has gotten together after much anticipation. But what if after they have gotten together and time has passed, a break-up ensues? The couple that was previously billed as ‘perfect for each other’ now has to realize that they in fact, weren’t. OR, they have to change in order to be perfect for each other.
This is exactly what the writers of House initiated with the House/Cuddy relationship. To my knowledge, it might have been a last ditch effort to stop declining ratings since House and Cuddy got together, but it was definitely a unique way to shake things up. Lisa Cuddy broke up with Greg House when she realized that she couldn’t deal with his antics and reckless personality- she didn’t want to wonder whether he would be there in times of difficulty, she wanted someone in her life she knew would be there.
The show’s new dynamic was electric: House and Cuddy went through a process of learning to work together despite their conflicts, and they had a rough time of it. After House drove a car into Cuddy’s dining room where she was having dinner with a new love interest, he walked off into the sunset feeling absolved of all the misgivings one has after getting dumped.
I also like how the show House was willing to take a risk and break up the couple in a believable way. In real life, perfect relationships don’t exist. And House is a fresh departure from the fairytale relationships portrayed by most other shows.
2. Shift the focus.
Now, the show Chuck relied gratuitously on the will they/won’t they Chuck/Sarah relationship for about three seasons. When the couple finally got together, the writers of the show likened them to the spy couple on the old show Hart to Hart. Their spy couple antics add a fresh new humorous side, and allows Yvonne Strahovski (who plays Sarah) to use some of her comic acting chops to make the show that much better.
The show is heading into its final run this fall, but the spotlight is no longer going to be shining on just Chuck and Sarah. No, instead Morgan, Chuck’s hilarious best friend, is going to get a bigger role in Chuck’s spy world, as shown by the twist in the season finale.
That’s just one example of how the couple-centric show transforms into an equally enjoyable plot with new dynamics with satisfying plotlines.
3. Get them together already!
There isn’t too much anxious, romantic handwringing going on in the spy-thriller television show Nikita. The writers made a fantastic decision on getting Michael and Nikita together near the end of the season. From the first episode, it was clear the two had chemistry AND history- but these characters were too strong for the whimsical, flirtatious, indecisive non-relationship that the “Will-they-won’t-they” clearly encourages. Their transition to couplehood was much more smooth and natural, one of the trademarks of a great show.
Also, he’s on a mission to kill her for the first half of the season. That definitely adds some drama to the relationship. Or lack thereof at that point.
Nikita and Michael are both trained assassins, and Michael is a double agent helping Nikita take down Division, a secret Government-endorsed agency that’s SUPPOSED to be helping the good guys- but isn’t. Michael and Nikita find themselves on the same side, and so the romantic potential they’ve always had blossoms as they work together and try and stay under Division’s radar.
Despite the fact that their relationship was established early on, there’s plenty of conflicts the writers cook up for this couple. These conflicts aren’t contrived or unbelievable, and EVERY show can learn from the skillful way the writers hold the attention of the audience even without the long-suffering romance.
Some of the conflicts are as follows:
For appearances sake, they have to pretend they aren’t in love as to tip off Division. And then there’s the fact that although Nikita is wholeheartedly against everything Division does, Michael actually sees the good accomplished within the corruption. There’s also the question of when to help Alex (another one of their allies) escape from Division. Nikita is for Alex faking her death and escaping right away, whereas Michael wants her to stay for a few more missions. If that’s not worthy argument-fodder, I don’t know what is.
Sure, Nikita applies a little of the will-they-won’t-they, but it manages to skip to the good stuff and the shorter waiting period actually makes the show more enjoyable.
The “Will They Won’t They” model is a great tool to get audiences to fall in love with the characters that are falling in love with each other. The suspense- if it isn’t drawn out for too long– keeps people tuning in. However, once the couple inevitably gets together, the writers must reinvent the show, and not all shows are up for that challenge and in turn ratings drop. If used sparingly and effectively in tandem with the tone and themes of the show, this device is powerful and can help add depth to the characters.