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?