The TV Viewer’s Guide to Sexual Tension and Talentless Hacks

Why does sexual tension seem to ruin so many shows? Is it that hard to write? Is it that hard to act? What’s the big deal? If you’ve asked yourself these and other questions, here’s your guide to protecting yourself from bad sexual tension on TV.

(1) Watch out for changes in the writing/production staff. “Cheers” kept more or less the same team for its run, so its sexual tension arcs stayed pretty good throughout. Conversely, “Moonlighting”, which began with amusing, tension-laden banter overlaying rather clever mystery cases, derailed when a Writers Guild strike forced them to hire a scab team of Talentless Hacks ™. The talentless hacks couldn’t write clever mystery cases, so they engineered a not-very-tension-laden arc that dumped the leads into a really boring bed from which the show never managed to extricate itself. Ditto on “Northern Exposure”, whose executive producers suddenly noticed the Pacific Northwest has bad weather and dumped that show to write themselves a sweet little number on location in Miami (Mother Karma smiled upon us, however, and the Miami show flopped). And ditto again on “Stargate SG-1″: when co-creator Jonathan Glassner left (supposedly his own idea, but note that just before doing so, he named a new character after his lawyer). The show began to rely more on alleged sexual tension, but it wasn’t until the other co-creator Brad Wright stopped writing a few seasons later that alleged sexual tension completely usurped the once intelligent plots and angsty character development.

(2) Look for dissenting characters. Meaning, characters who vomit at the idea of Our Couple. Carla on “Cheers”, for example. Everyone on “Farscape” at times, for another. And the whole town of Cicily on “Northern Exposure”, who just didn’t care if Maggie and Joel got together or not, so long as they shut up about it already. These characters are the hallmark of writers who understand you can’t possibly write a Couple that everyone loves. Dissenting characters give dissenting viewers a way to connect with the show, despite the coupling they hate.

(3) Look for couples who still have separate relationships with the rest of the cast. If you dislike Our Couple, and they have nothing to do on the show but moon-eye at each other, it’ll poison the whole show for you. Good production/writing teams know this. Again, “Farscape” got this one right.

(4) Watch out for a decreased focus on plot or real character development (tears don’t count). Sexual tension is the talentless hack’s number one filler ingredient. It’s supposed to distract you from the fact that he’s just rewriting stuff you’ve already seen and expecting the actor’s faces to convey the character development he can’t write. Again, “Stargate SG-1″.

(5) Watch out for Plot Device Boyfriend (or Girlfriend). For reasons which escape me, talentless hacks believe the quickest way to someone’s heart is through someone else’s bed, so when the hack wants to hook up the leads, they have the girl hook up with another guy in order to give the boy a wake-up call. This leads to our girl looking amoral if not passive aggressive and deceitful, because it’s impossible to convince the audience she didn’t know on some level she was just using and abusing PDB. Some audiences choose to suspend their disbelief for you, but it’s not reliable. Not coincidentally, the reason why it’s almost always the girl who has to sleep around to attract her fella is because the hacks know this arc may blow up in the character’s face, and they sure aren’t going to risk their White Lead Male on it (which, for those just now joining us, is what film schools still instructs students to put at the hallowed center of everything they write because “that’s what the audience wants to see”).

(6) Watch out for “the choir”. The “choir” is the entire rest of the cast, particularly Plot Device Boyfriend/Girlfriend, singing arias of “You two are meant to be together. Go! Go to her/him! Become one with her/him!” This is the talentless hack’s attempt to peer-pressure you into accepting The Couple, because he knows he didn’t write the arc well enough for you to see why in a million years anyone should care if these people do it/don’t do it/join a cult/get eaten by wild dogs. It’s also frequently a cheap tactic to redeem the character damaged by a Plot Device Boyfriend/Girlfriend arc.

Anybody got any others?

Comments

  1. sbg says

    Hmmm, I had far too restless a night to respond coherently, but I do think you’re bang on with lots of these. Except I really tuned out of Farscape when they made it the grand love affair of Crighton and Aeryn. To me, that was a bit much. ;)One thing I’ve noticed is more of a fandom thing. Instant and irrational hatred of a character deemed as a ‘threat’ to the supposed happy couple. The character could, in fact, be a wonderful cast member who has done nothing except share screen time with the Lead White Male and have chemistry with him on some level…

  2. Jennifer Kesler says

    Good point.  I’ve seen that "threat" character targeting phenomenon in a number of fandoms.  The first for me was Star Wars (Luke), in the days before it was established Leia was his sister.

  3. sbg says

    The big one that boggles my mind right now is in CSI. I had no idea anyone hated Sofia, really, because I don’t really venture too far in that fandom. But there are folks who have absolutely no tolerance for her, and it seems pretty clear it’s because she and Grissom click. Thou shalt not ‘click’ with another character. ;)

  4. Jennifer Kesler says

    I’m not at all familiar with CSI.  Is the click from actor chemistry, or from how the characters work together, or what?

  5. Redbyrd says

    Nah, it’s not just actor chemistry.. there’s been some low-level flirting written into the show. I follow CSI rather lackadaisically, and it’s just occurred to me.. I quite like Grissom, and enjoy the other male characters.. I don’t care for the women quite as much, because I think they’re mostly lame. So- we may have one of these chicken and egg situations. If we care more about the better written characters, and they’re men, stupid producers decide that we don’t care about women characters..

  6. sbg says

    It’s both actor chemistry and how they work together, I think. Plus, Sofia happens to look very similar to another character Gris showed interest in…and that look happens to be pretty much the opposite of the preferred couple’s female half. ;)

  7. sbg says

    Another thing about UST is that it takes over. Forget the character’s backstory, forget they had anything else going for them besides the romance. Romance is all that matters, and some shows will go so far as to insert this romance angle way back to the beginning, where there was really nothing. This probably fits in with your number 4 a bit. TPTB tendency to rewrite to fit their sexual tension platform.

  8. AmyMcCabe says

    I agree about UST taking over…at least in poorly written couples on show (or coupling characters that really have little in common).

    A story that has a well written romance in it would not negate the previously established character development, but compliment it. 

  9. Jennifer Kesler says

    Redbyrd said: So- we may have one of these chicken and egg situations. If we care more about the better written characters, and they’re men, stupid producers decide that we don’t care about women characters.

    This is one of my major complaints. They’ve given us lame women for years, then when demographics indicate we’re watching the men, they conclude we just like men better (and preach it like Puritans, in the industry). It’s like giving a steak lover the choice between some spoiled beef and some yummy chicken, and assuming they hate beef when they pick chicken. And I believe it’s intentional.

    SGB said: Plus, Sofia happens to look very similar to another character Gris showed interest in…and that look happens to be pretty much the opposite of the preferred couple’s female half.

    And of course, we all have physical types we’re so attached to we’d drop someone we love for them. (Making fun of fans who’d offer that as evidence this Sofia is trouble – not fun of you or the show.)

    Amy McCabe said: A story that has a well written romance in it would not negate the previously established character development, but compliment it.

    You’d think. I wonder if they think we don’t really want character development. Maybe they think we only want titillation. But if that’s the case, soaps and romances offer a much more undiluted form of sexual titillation, so why would they assume we want it in every single show they make? And I was taught that only women want romance, and women viewers don’t matter – so why do they have to put it in there? I wonder what they really mean.

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