We’ve all seen it happen. We’ve experienced the anti-climax of it all. There we’ll be, enthralled in the untold promise of a ’will-they-won’t-they’ scenario, and then suddenly they do, and then they continue to do, and it’s all a little bit…meh. It may be in the unfolding love affair between two FBI agents, or an FBI agent and a forensic anthropologist. Maybe it’ll be a superhero and his unwitting sidekick, or two friends that are really more than friends, or a faux-psychic detective and his cop crush. Spend years fostering an electric case of UST, make us truly care about their potential happiness, but then get these couples together and keep them together for too long and…uh oh. There goes the show.
Yes, the romantic gyrations through which our beloved couples are often put in order to keep them apart can be ludicrous, or frustrating, or counter to everything we think we know about them. But only by building such things up and then ruthlessly knocking them down can our fascination truly be caught and sustained; it’s a sad fact of human nature, but that doesn’t make it any less true. We always want what we can’t have. And we take what we have for granted.
Look, for example, at Fringe. After more than two years of longing, Peter (Joshua Jackson) finally had his way with the haunted Olivia (Anna Torv) only to discover that it was an alternate universe infiltrator that he had in his bed…and later, after the real Olivia at last fell into his arms, he disappeared from reality as though he’d never existed. (Don’t you hate when that happens?) Will Peter and Olivia manage to make things work again? Probably. Maybe. And that, friends, is a big part of why I’ll be tuning in, breathlessly, every week. But give us a Peter and Olivia in a committed, loving, Fringe Event-free relationship, and the episodes will sit on my DVR, largely untouched, as I move my fevered focus to less stable couplings.
Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy and Angel and Firefly and Dollhouse, has often been called cruel—even sadistic—for the lengths to which he will go to keep his impossibly beautiful characters from finding eternal bliss. Angel’s (David Boreanaz) curse, that causes him to lose his soul should he experience “perfect happiness.” Fred’s (Amy Acker) inhabitation by an ancient, deposed god, just as she finally got together with the long-smitten Wesley (Alexis Denisof). Even Firefly’s happily married Zoe (Gabrielle Torres) and Wash (Alan Tudyk) were denied forever, when the latter was killed off in 2005’s Serenity. But there can be no denying that Whedon’s way works; is there anything more enchanting than a forbidden, or ultimately doomed, love? Who doesn’t enjoy railing at the capricious fates, and yet still holding out desperate hope that things will one day Work Out? Isn’t it the possibility that keeps us coming back, rather than the fait accompli?
The only show I can think of to counter that argument might be Chuck, which saw Chuck (Zachary Levi) and his long-time love Sarah (Yvonne Strahovski) marry last season and has carried on quite strongly ever since, but considering that its current Season 5 is set to be its last—and it was quite lucky to get that—I think the lesson holds true, even there.
Sure, Farscape managed to find a nice balance, keeping us guessing even as everyone’s favorite leather-clad hotness finally got together, but as in so many things, that show is clearly the exception to the rule. On the other hand, it was not long after Crichton (Ben Browder) and Aeryn (Claudia Black) set out on the road to marriage that the then-Sci-Fi Channel brought down the cancellation hammer, leaving things on a tense cliffhanger after only four seasons, so perhaps it’s not such an exception after all. (Thankfully, we’ve since had a fan-spurred mini-series, The Peacekeeper Wars, and the series-continuing comics from BOOM! Studios, otherwise there might well have been blood.)
Take another show in which Ben Browder and Claudia Black starred: Stargate SG-1. I have long been one of those bitter fans who fretted to see Jack O’Neill (Richard Dean Anderson) and Sam Carter (Amanda Tapping) break free of their military honor code and do something about the crazy chemistry that simply erupted whenever they shared the screen. But the fact that they didn’t—not really—over the eight years both starred in the show, and the now fifteen years of the franchise, has beyond a doubt kept viewers interested in their story, and is surely the reason that Jack/Sam fanfic remains such a popular creative outlet in certain dedicated arenas, despite the years since their show came to an end.
So, does it have to be doomed—or simply unconfirmed—love to be real love? No, of course not. And do I begrudge Mr. Big and Carrie, or Pacey and Joey, or Ross and Rachel their love-filled Manhattan piéd a terres? Not at all. I am far from minding an HEA at the end of a series; in fact, I expect and/or ferociously, junkie-jonesing-for-a-hit need it, and when it is not forthcoming (cf. Northern Exposure, Gilmore Girls, Queer as Folk, BSG), I have been known to get really quite cross indeed. But I hated the Sex and the City movies because once we got that Happily Ever After, that should have been the end of it. Did we really need the wedding drama, the tragically lost penthouse, the marital dissatisfaction? (Oh, and I also hated Sex and the City 2 because it was appallingly racist, but mostly it was that other thing.)
There’s a reason none of those direct-to-DVD Disney Princess stories that tell of Cinderella’s wedding or follow the adventures of Ariel’s little girl were truly successful. The fairy tale ends with the Happily Ever After. (Although, in the original versions, one of those fairy tales ended with one of the so-called Disney Princesses dead, he life of silent torture reduced to sea foam. I like the Disney version better.)
So to all those viewers who spent the summer hiatus furious that the state of Booth and Brennan’s relationship on Bones wasn’t laid out for us all shiny and happy and expositiony in last season’s finale, I say this: Remember, HEAs kill TV shows, people! From I Dream of Jeannie to Moonlighting to Lois and Clark and so very beyond, resolve the UST and that’s all she wrote. So stop being so happy that all currently seems to be well with our tempestuous two; stop clamoring for smooches and declarations of devotion and a more-skeleton-laden version of that dream/story scenario from a few seasons back when Booth was in a coma and Brennan created that reality where they ran a nightclub together. In uncertainty lies interest—and ratings.
Now it may be that Bones can weather this storm. It may be that they will find a way to keep us guessing, and it is true that occasionally a show can survive the HEA when the central premise was not the UST (which I think is at least nominally the case here; we’re also tuning in for the mysteries, right?)
But if How I Met Your Mother continues even one instant after Ted (Josh Radnor) does indeed meet and/or marry those poor, long-suffering kids’s mother, I shall be very much surprised.
Rachel Hyland is Editor in Chief of Geek Speak Magazine.