Romance is for the birds

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At least that’s what I’ve decided. Just before the beginning of this year’s broadcast season, I skimmed an article about LOST, in which one of the people behind the scenes promised to deliver some “much-needed” romance to the show.  

I know it’s an issue much discussed here, but is romance “much-needed” on a show, and if it is, just who is it as an audience  are the  TPTB trying to court?

In many cases, it’s hard not to see romance-as-drama as a last-ditch effort of TPTB to get their audience interested. In many cases, it’s not needed. LOST, for example, was ripe with drama just from the enormity of the castaways’ situation. Could romance develop on a mysterious island? You betcha. Of course it could. However, if I were trapped on an island and had bad things and bad people after me, I’m not certain I’d get totally wrapped up in that hot guy with the 13 day scruff going on.

Supernatural is another case where there were pre-season rumblings of a love interest being added for one of the brothers. For no apparent reason, other than to draw some elusive, unknown  section of the audience. It wouldn’t work for this show, either. I mean, really – two guys ride around in a car killing evil things. 1) what woman is going to want a long term relationship with one of those messed-up boys? (she’d have to be quite messed up herself) and 2) no room for romance, sorry. They can’t have their focus split like that – it could cost lives.

Obviously romance  works for some (Grey’s Anatomy, anyone?)…but   is  it absolutely necessary for the workings of every show? Must there be some element of it in order for a show to be successful?

And will we ever figure out just who that “much-needed romance” group of people TPTB are trying to please?

Women: maybe, but many of my female friends also think romance shouldn’t be there as a mere red herring.

Men: maybe, but I doubt there are many guys out there who will watch a show solely for the romance angle.

Teens: probably.

The birds: definitely.

Comments

  1. says

    It seems like the people behind a lot of shows (and, like, webcomics, and other forms of serial storytelling) have this notion that every project has to have romance, drama, comedy, suspense, Deep Messages, etc., etc.

    A little focus wouldn’t hurt! I think leaving out some genres in order to explore others more thoroughly is a really good idea, for most projects.

  2. Jennifer Kesler says

    In film, I encountered a sort of unwritten zero tolerance policy for scripts without sex (outside of kids’ movies). The studios were just determined that there was no movie on the world that wouldn’t be improved by a little sex. Romance was not necessarily part of this equation; I think romance was for female audiences, and sex was supposed to be for males.

    I’m not quite sure what’s happening in TV. They claim they don’t want female viewers, so you’d think they’d avoid romance like the plague.

  3. SunlessNick says

    I wonder if there’s a theory that love/romance/sex is easy to relate to, so provides a way for viewers to get into characters facing strange lifestyles and circumstances. Might explain Vaughn as well as the ruination of Kate.

  4. sbg says

    I think people might appreciate a more in-depth look at one particular arena instead of trying to pin it all down in one show. This idea that “we need romance for the ladies,” “we need action and explosions for the manly men,” “we need a family dynamic for the white picket fence folks,” etc, ad nauseum can sometimes water things down and lessens the chances for any kind of depth.

    Not that I expect my TV or movies to be deep, but it would be nice now and again if producers wanted to bring the “we need intelligence for, y’know, everyone” thing. ;)

  5. sbg says

    Yeah, I was kind of going with that assumption that the female audience isn’t one they really want to draw in – if not, then just who are they inserting romance into shows for?

  6. Jennifer Kesler says

    That’s possible. But I think that would be a real double-edged sword: two people’s romantic/sexual lives can be so different as to hardly be comparable. What one viewer will find romantic or exciting, another will find disturbing or filthy, etc.

  7. Jennifer Kesler says

    Well, I think they’re just too lazy to go more in-depth. For example, after Speed came out and sailed way past anyone’s expectations, people decided they could copy the story, and just change the bus to another vehicle. Every script being shopped around town was “Speed in a helicopter” or “Speed on a submarine”. It worked for a while, but then stopped and everyone had a theory about why “the formula” had died. Mostly, they figured you can only keep a trend going for so long.

    That’s true, but I think there was more to it: Speed was polished (final rewrite) by Joss Whedon, and had that wry humor he’s so good at. It also had a relatively strong female lead for the time and the genre. And it had an actual bit of budding romance rather than the usual sex romp of the action genre.

    In short, what made Speed such a success was that it appealed to women.  Or, perhaps, that if had these elements that supposedly only appeal to women, but actually also appeal to men.

    The copycats left those elements out of the equation, focusing only on the mechanics of a countdown plus a moving vehicle.  and the trend died before they’d fully explored every vehicle you could put “Speed” in. Myself, I was waiting for “Speed on a unicycle”. It could be a cross between action and French farce. ;)

  8. Nialla says

    I don’t think they “want” female viewers as their primary audience, but sometimes feel like they’re tossing the female viewership a bone by putting in a romance angle. Women are only interested in romance, or so TPTB seem to think.

    I think the “much needed romance” for Lost is nothing but a delaying tactic. TPTB know the mysteries of the island are what pulled in viewers, but they can’t do anything with them or else the show’s over.

    Even though we’re in the third year of the show, supposedly only about three-months has passed on the island. I think even the writers have forgotten this bit. When taken from that standpoint, a lot of things have happened very quickly to the Lostees, yet they haven’t actually learned much yet. They’re not exactly trying to put all the puzzle pieces together.

  9. Mecha says

    Innovation, Imitation, Saturation, as they say. Ties to the Speed-clones, and ties to how shows try to be everything to everyone.

    I think that if you asked people what sort of experiences are ‘universal’, relationships of the stereotypically romantic type are going to be high up there. Not necessarily actually _romantic_, but tinged with the elements of dating and sexuality and so on. One could easily (and similarly) ask, ‘Why does bloody _everyone_ write love songs?’ That’s where I think the same inspirations come from: they’re common basic social building blocks, even for those people who never date. Might even be thought that a show without any relationships is unrealistic.

    The sub-question of ‘Why are they all TRU WUV/triangles/etc.’ is somewhat more pointed, and likely related to the fact that conveying complex emotion is hard, so writers like to smash it into your head with the most stereotypical weapons they have at their disposal, and relationships are nothing if not heavily stereotyped. ^_~

    -Mecha

  10. Jennifer Kesler says

    I think that if you asked people what sort of experiences are ‘universal’, relationships of the stereotypically romantic type are going to be high up there. Not necessarily actually _romantic_, but tinged with the elements of dating and sexuality and so on.

    Yeah, but while sexuality in and of itself is pretty universal, what some people find romantic or sexy is repulsive or disturbing to others. So no TV romance can please everyone. Maybe not even a majority of the desired audience, whoever that is.

    Now, it could be they THINK we all want the same thing from romance storylines, and they are trying to be universal as you suggest. So I’m not saying you’re wrong. But I think they’d do better to get over the idea that we’re too stupid to follow complex emotions. Those who are will just watch the pretty sex and know from the swelling music that love is in the air. For the rest of us, a well-explained romance is SO much more tolerable than a stereotype, even if the romance in question is not attractive, because we don’t feel like it’s trying to say anything about our OWN love lives.
    Let me explain it with a very separate example: I HATE happy parent-child relationships on TV, probably because I can never relate to them. When I started watching Deep Space Nine and realized Sisko’s relationship with his son wasn’t going away, I felt like vomiting. But because the motives in that relationship are always explained, and the writers never assume that I had a happy childhood and know what the hell these people are hugging each other for, I’ve rather liked it. To my utter shock. Now, are people who had happy childhoods going to be bored with the motivation explanations? I doubt it: there’s tremendous variety among happy childhoods, too. And if anyone watching is just too dense to get it, they’ll just infer the stereotype on their own – they don’t need any help in doing that. ;)

    OTOH, I must acknowledge that viewers who NEED their lifestyles validated by the sense that billions of people share their lifestyle DO require heavy-handed stereotyping, and live their lives conforming to stereotypes.  I guess the question is: how many of them have Neillsen boxes?

  11. sbg says

    Yeah, but while sexuality in and of itself is pretty universal, what some people find romantic or sexy is repulsive or disturbing to others. So no TV romance can please everyone. Maybe not even a majority of the desired audience, whoever that is.

    I sometimes think they don’t care who they please with the romance…as long as most of the people don’t fall in the repulsed/disturbed category. How many casual viewers (in online fandom) piped up to say they didn’t particularly like Sam/Jack on Stargate SG-1, but they weren’t really bothered enough to get upset?

    I sometimes also think that they think that because it can happen in real life, it automatically should happen in their fictional world. And sometimes that’s just not the case.

  12. SunlessNick says

    I remember another article here (but can’t remember which at the moment) positing that Hollywood also thinks sex/love the most intense kind of relationship – leading to the common critic and fan practice of labling any kind of tension sexual, even when it’s blatantly based on hatred – and that might be a factor too. Not trusting the genre they’ve chosen, or the characters they’ve written, or the other relationships between them, to provide tension by themselves – or the audience to be willing to find tension in those things.

    Using Lost as an example again, the so-called sexual tension between Jack, Kate, and Sawyer can’t begin to compete with the enormity of their situation: simply being lost there, plus the strangeness of the island itself, plus that strangeness extending well out into the world (as the flashbacks demonstrate). Which might sound odd from me, as I’ve said I wouldn’t have minded Kate and Sayid being a couple; but I don’t think if they had been they’d have been jammed in quite so front and centre and at the expense of what I signed on for in the first place.

  13. SunlessNick says

    That’s drifted off topic. So, love/sex as the most intense kind of relationship… for who? Is it a prize thing, where the male viewer “can’t” vicariously endure horrific situations without vicariously winning a woman of some kind? Or is it a shelter thing, where a female viewer “can’t” vicariously endure them without a good man to vicariously protect her? (I bet it’s not the other way round).

  14. scarlett says

    As far as ‘ladies need romance’, I know that my and my Grey’s-watching girlfriends regularly rip apart the Derek-and-Meredith storyline on GA. We do, however, really like the way the Burke-and-Christina storyline was done, which I suspect has a lot to do with context and believability. And that’s what it comes down to; context and believability. A lot of action and scifi just won’t work with a front-and-centre love storyline.
    A couple of years ago 24 did a storyline where they put Tony and Michelle together. They realised their attraction for one another, realised they couldn’t do anything about it while terrorists were running amok, and put their feelings on hold until the right time. When the next season opened, they’d been married for a year. I REALLY liked they way they did that – they were quite obviously togthere, but the writers and producers didn’t feel the need to waste precious screen time illustrating their every romantic interlude.

  15. Jennifer Kesler says

    I edited it to indent the quote. :)

    I particularly agree with your last paragraph. The idea that sex sells was just drilled into my head when I was in screenwriting. I had written a story that was ABOUT people not hooking up romantically – that was the whole point – and that possibility never occurred to some of the people who read it. They were just like, “But they never had sex. You need to write a sex scene.”

    Literally, outside the world of rated G, I don’t think there’s a story they don’t feel requires sex.

  16. Jennifer Kesler says

    I remember that article too, but can’t recall the name or a good search string to look it up with.

    Yeah, there seems to be this huge assumption that the most intense dynamics are sex-related. I’m just not seeing it: sexual relationships can be damned intense, but how often do they compete with parent-child or sibling relationships, or even friendships? In this sense, I think romantic relationships have become a shorthand for “intense relationship that will automatically generate audience interest/sympathy”.

    And yeah, I think most writers are locked into the idea that women are prizes for male heroes, and men are protectors for female damsels in distress.

    Hmm. This might explain huge chunks of the appeal of Stargate. Jack rescued Daniel more often than he rescued Sam (even when they screwed up so royally with her), and they all rescued each other for a long time. And no one got to take another team member home as a prize at the end of the day (which may explain why the very thought of Jack/Sam so deeply offended).

  17. Jennifer Kesler says

    That WAS lovely, wasn’t it? Mature decisions despite intense feelings? Intense feelings in the right place and time? That show had all sorts of things wrong, but that was one thing it nailed.

  18. scarlett says

    If you can sit through it (and the show has a LOT wrong with it) Christina and Bureke in Grey’s are one of the best-written couples I’ve seen in TV. It helps that GA is a drama, which I think has more scope for romance, but I think it’s really well written as an ongoing back-boiling storyline.

  19. sbg says

    Sex probably does sell, but there are many times when I find myself pretty repelled by the gratuitousness of it. I have actually sat there while watching a movie or TV show thinking, “Now this would have been a really good show if they just hadn’t mucked it up by showing the sex for no apparent reason.”

    Sometimes sex scenes don’t even flow very well with the rest of the show.

    The same is true for forced romantic conversations, just so I’m clear that I’m not equating sex with romance. I think lots of people do, though, because how often do we have romance on TV or in movies without the stars getting naked and sweaty together onscreen?

  20. sbg says

    I think the “much needed romance” for Lost is nothing but a delaying tactic. TPTB know the mysteries of the island are what pulled in viewers, but they can’t do anything with them or else the show’s over.

    Possibly. What a shame, though. They really did have a wealth of options to start with – and so what if the show only lasted a couple years because the story got told? I know, I know, it’s all about the money and the longer you can drag a show out (as long as it’s making money), the more the stations love it.

    Personally? I’d rather get into shows that have a nice, clean beginning, middle and end than see long-term shows go down the toilet by adding non-essential things like romance or kids (by that I mean the long-lost child type, mostly, but any “awww, look how cute!” kids spell doom for shows, too) or whatever.

  21. Jennifer Kesler says

    Sex probably does sell, but there are many times when I find myself pretty repelled by the gratuitousness of it.

    While I expect people visiting this site to be a little more discriminating than some TV viewers, I have to say that even the least discriminating viewers I know comment on storylines that seem out of place. You don’t have to be a great critical thinker to pick up that someone’s trying to manipulate you rather than bothering to put together a good story that flows.

    The same is true for forced romantic conversations, just so I’m clear that I’m not equating sex with romance. I think lots of people do, though, because how often do we have romance on TV or in movies without the stars getting naked and sweaty together onscreen?

    And the reverse holds true, too: sometimes they seem to think the sex implies romance, because what I’ve just watched on screen is two strangers getting it on for no obvious reason, but suddenly the story is about two deeply connected people, and I’m wondering where the hell that came from.

  22. Patrick says

    I’ve run into this with so very many shows, where their response to the problem of resolving (or, more often, using up) the show’s premise is not to finish the series, but to either

    a) Resolve the premise, or just do away with it entirely, and then introduce a new premise. (Ally McBeal is a big offender here, when they killed off the main romantic interest and the promptly gave Ally a daughter that she never knew she had.

    or b) Just keep playing out the premise long past even the least bit of audience interest or even tolerance. (Witness the last 2-3 seasons of The X-Files.)

    I really, really want more shows like Babylon 5, which had a story to tell, told it, and then ended.

  23. Patrick says

    In the director’s original cut for the Dardevil movie, Dardevil and Electra never sleep together. The studio’s notes to the director were a) trim the violence, we need a PG-13, b) cut it for time by dropping the subplot where Matt actually practices law, and c) add a sex scene.

    Interestingly enough, the three main complaints people had about the theatrical film were that a) it was too violent for a PG-13 film (it was), b) We’re told Matt is a damn good lawyer, but don’t see him lawyering after the first 10 minutes of the film, and c) there’s a completely gratuitous sex scene.

  24. sbg says

    That’s exactly what I’m talking about, yes. Makes you wonder where this perceived necessity came from – I don’t know many who would object to sex or violence or romance that’s integral to the plot and feel of a show/movie, but that doesn’t mean every movie must have such-and-such amounts of sex or violence or romance to work.

    Maybe I’m a prude or maybe I’m just repressed, but I don’t actually get much enjoyment out of watching actors’ mock-sex scenes. I prefer an insinuation, if anything, and then moving forward with the actual plot. I doubt it’s me that they’re catering to by putting sex and romance in movies so often

  25. Jennifer Kesler says

    Responding to Patrick: that’s hilarious! And I’m not surprised.

    Responding to both Patrick and SBG: films are a lot more like a board of shareholders now than a creative bunch. They stick to traditional “wisdom”, and when that wisdom fails, they rationalize. They don’t actually come at things with a fresh perspective, because they’re scared to: they’re dealing with many, many millions, and everyone wants a 100% guarantee they’ll earn a profit on the film they’re making.

    Responding to SBG: you’re not a prude. Sex scenes do slow the story. And very often they’re just… standardized. Seen one, seen ‘em all. That said, I know of a couple of exceptions where the scene actually said something worthwhile about the characters, in which case I liked it.

  26. MaggieCat says

    Myself, I was waiting for “Speed on a unicycle”. It could be a cross between action and French farce. ;)

    No, I have nothing of substance to add, but I’ve read this at least 4 times while scrolling down for new comments and it has made me giggle Every. Single. Time. This needs to be made.

  27. sbg says

    Responding to SBG: you’re not a prude. Sex scenes do slow the story. And very often they’re just… standardized. Seen one, seen ‘em all. That said, I know of a couple of exceptions where the scene actually said something worthwhile about the characters, in which case I liked it.

    Ran across an example of romance I did like in a show. In last night’s (and the week before’s) episode, a character was seen out on a date. The scene wasn’t actually necessary to the forward movement of the episode, and yet I didn’t mind it because it did accomplish something: it gave the main character depth that normally is not there. He’s written is an immature (sometimes very, very) boy most of the time, but these little glimpses of him in the beginnings of a serious relationship really help give him maturity.

  28. Karakuri says

    I haven’t seen Lost, but maybe it’s the idea that people form romantic relationships more readily when they’re in trouble, since they have no choice but to trust and rely on each other. People have seen the “pair up two characters by forcing them through an ordeal together” technique so many times they might just assume that trouble must lead to romance.

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