The Problem with Unresolved Sexual Tension

I originally posted a version of this article in a Stargate forum under the title “Why Ship Always Sinks”. It’s of general interest, though, and pertinent to recent discussions asking why anytime we see a man and woman on screen, we’re forced to wonder when they’re going to boink.

First, let me define the lingo:

“ship” is short for “relationship”, and people in online fandoms use it to refer to romantic relationships between characters.

“Unresolved Sexual Tension”, a.k.a “UST”
is just what it sounds like – that spark between two characters who haven’t gotten it on yet, but we’re pretty sure want to.

“Jumping the shark”
refers to that moment in a TV show where it just completely lost you and you couldn’t stand it anymore.

Why Ship Always Sinks

We’ve all sailed one at some point. I remember basking on the sundeck of the Moonlighting, and enjoying the Northern Exposure from my below-decks cabin while I polished my Remmington Steele. It was a cruise from heaven, full of humor, excitement and drama.

Until the iceberg.

Until the kiss, the admission, the romp in bed, the whatever that signified the attempt of a ship to jump a shark, apparently unaware that ships can’t soar.

As a bit of a writer myself, I always wondered why TV shows so rarely pull off ship. Even when the characters have chemistry and everyone’s enjoying the unresolved sexual tension, resolving the tension sends everyone packing, especially those who hankered for it the most. Like a leering Casanova who finally bedded the woman he was chasing, the audience lights up a cigarette and walks out of the show’s life forever.

And when the characters don’t even have chemistry, yet the producers insist on pushing the idea that there’s some sort of attraction between them… well, there are always a few audience members happy to buy into that, for whatever reason. But I say if they can imagine chemistry where there is none, then surely they can imagine the relationship without seeing it on screen. Sometimes imagination really is sweetest. And it’ll definitely help those of us who refuse to say the Emperor’s wearing new clothes just because the producers tell us so.

And yet here I sit, watching Stargate – the show that pulled off the near-impossible feat of actually thriving after losing a major character for a year – and realizing they don’t have enough sense to get it. At this point, they can disappoint half of their audience, or all of their audience. But if they disappoint the correct half, everyone will get over it and flock back to the show in the end. (Maybe this is what happened at the end of Season 8. I hope so. But I remain anxious about how it’ll be handled in Season 9.)

Allow me to explain what I mean by “disappointing the correct half”.

Romance works in movies. They’re self-contained, both in terms of story and production periods, so the relationship can be plotted carefully, avoiding the problems of budget, of writers’ strikes in mid-story, of actors quitting, getting pregnant or getting an attitude. Romance is trickier for TV to pull off because, in order for shows to remain fresh, the story and characters must continually evolve despite the problems of budget dictating storyline and casting. Even a carefully plotted romance on TV can be thrown into chaos when a couple of suited executives get a look at some numbers on a sheet of paper, and start sending the producers “notes” about how a recent demographic study indicates that fans want to see a sexbot actress added into the show, a wedding in episode 18, and a troop of dancing monkeys in the finale.

Another issue is that producers are now listening to fans on the internet. I’m all for grass roots democracy in the arts, but let me say this as plainly as I can: when we spout all over the internet about what want to see on a show, we’re thinking on impulse. We’re not considering how it will fit into the grand scheme, because that’s not our job. It is the job of the producers and writers. And you know what? If you write a good story, the audience will watch.

I understand the producers and writers are under a lot of pressure to give the fans everything they want – even the stuff that contradicts the other stuff. TV studios insist – despite all evidence to the contrary – that somehow catering to every fan whim simultaneously is the best way to go. It’s like giving a kid everything he wants, whenever he wants it. He may love you for it at the moment, but see how he feels about you when he’s twenty. If he lives that long. If he lets you know what country he’s living in at that point. People don’t stop watching because you don’t give them what they thnk they want: they stop watching because you stop giving them something good to watch.

The TV production community seems to think they have to either disappoint the shippers, or the non-shippers, or leave it ambiguous in a transparent and insulting attempt to keep everyone happy. Unfortunately, they are quite wrong: when the ship sinks, the shippers desert it along with everyone else. In fact, when you resolve the tension, they’re usually the first ones to leave. See my above comment about leering Casanovas. They’re in it for the chase, and as soon as that fish is caught – they’re outta there. Therefore, with not the slightest offense intended toward “shippers”, they are the correct half to disappoint, because you can disappoint them without ruining the show for everyone.

See, when you initially disappoint shippers by not giving them the longed-for moment of connection between the two characters, but the show remains good all the same and ends on a great note, the shippers get over their disappointment and continue to enjoy the show in the end. (Have you ever known someone to abandon a great, exciting, funny show because it became clear to them that X and Y were never going to hit the sack? Conversely, I still have post-traumatic stress disorder from Moonlighting and run screaming from the room even when a great pre-ship episode comes on.) Shippers are not sex-obsessed fools: they want good stories and good characters, and they do actually come complete with imaginations in which the romances can run wild. I don’t know why film and TV people think the audience has no imagination – I think we generally have more than they do, anymore.

I admit that my own bias is against slowly developing romances on TV. I think most of the time, they’re just cheap plot devices and ratings grabbers. And even when they’re not, I thinkk they’re so problematic that the odds are against the producers pulling off even a well-planned romance. I admit that in light of this, perhaps it’s not surprising that my answer is: blow the ship out of the water. But it also happens to be the common sense answer. If the ship is going to ruin the rest of the show, you will lose ALL your viewers in the long run, including the shippers. And if you disappoint the shippers in the short term, but give them a fine show to enjoy despite it, they will love you in the end, throughout a blissful syndication and inspiring DVD sales.

It’s the only way to win in the long run.


  1. Redbyrd says

    And the thing that everybody seems to forget? “Happily ever after” *only* works at the end of the story.

    Conflict is what makes good drama. You actually see a similar effect in Stargate with the Jack/Daniel relationship.. fans love the characters. They want to them to agree and be happy. And yet episodes where all the characters love each other and never disagree would be really boring!

    Give us conflict. Sink those ships. Blow up those budding romantic relationships. If that was what we wanted to watch, we’d be watching the Lifetime movie of the week, not episodic television.

  2. Jennifer Kesler says

    In fact, “conflict & more conflict” is rule #1 in any screenwriting class, or for any type of writing I’m familiar with. Particularly in Stargate, where the two characters can’t have conflict because they’re in the Air Force where one simply doesn’t go about having personality clashes with other officers, such a relationship makes for a very foolish attempt.

    Eeeewww, you brought up Lifetime TV. I may have to do a big slew of articles on that. 😉

  3. Neeko says

    I generally have to agree. “Happily Ever After” does work best at the end of a show. I’m a shipper and as such, love to see the plot add up to my favorite shipping. Of course when the ship happens and the conflict ends, it is true that the show will generally want to end as to not annoy watchers as it flops like a fish on the deck to stay alive. Shows that bring up conflict even after the ship has sailed tend to still to good for themselves. That being said, 95% of the time, its close to the end. I’m all for conflict in the meat of the story, and of course when a ship starts to block the harbor, go and sink it, but I still enjoy a show ending on a nice note featuring a good ship if possible. It helps me find closure in a story and I don’t have to go on “what ifs” all the time.
    I guess an example of an unsatisfying ending for me would be House. “Spoilers” I enjoyed that the show seemed to be coming to an end with House finally seeming to straighten up and getting a girl to help him with his issues, but then they had to go for another season, completely &%# the nice dynamic by the end of that season. I know he’s a jerk, but everyone needs somethin in their lives. Several anime have left me like this too and now I have an aversion to Tragedy stories….. A good show that doesn’t throw their main characters off a cliff at the end is all I want.=^-^=

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