Nov 17 2011 10:30am

HEA = RIP: Why Happily Ever After is TV Suicide

Booth and Brennan kiss in BonesWe’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.

Anna Torv and Joshua Jackson in FringeLook, 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.

Alan Tudyk and Gabrielle Torres in FireflyJoss 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.

Ben Browder and Claudia Black in FarscapeSure, 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.

Carrie and Mr. Big in Sex and the CitySo, 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.)

Booth and Bones run a nightclubSo 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.

David Boreanaz and Emily Deschanel in BonesNow 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.

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Heather Waters
1. HeatherWaters
I am so glad you wrote this piece, because it's something that my friends and I often discuss and, as you will see, I have a LOT to say on the subject. *g*

First: I completely agree that a full-on HEA in the middle of a series is the kiss of death (seriously, do Jim and Pam have *any* real issues? not that I've watched The Office regularly in years...and doesn't that say it all).

But: I very much disagree that a couple getting together and even being happy necessarily ruins good TV. I think writers just haven't figured out how to pull it off--or, at least, very few have--and thus live in fear of even giving it a shot. For instance, I'll never understand why Ron Moore & co. fought so hard to keep the will-they-or-won't-they alive for so long with Starbuck and Apollo (and Moore has talked about doing just that in podcasts). This is one of those cases you mention, where their UST wasn't the central premise of the show. I mean, did they really think most fans would stop watching BSG if they stopped throwing positively ridiculous obstacles in their path? It's baffling.

Jason Katims, though... I have to give the guy major kudos. I think he's one who at least tests the theory. In his show Roswell, the main pair, Max and Liz, did break up a lot. But they got together pretty early on (episode 9) and spent a few good periods together as a couple. The show never got good ratings and did eventually get canceled, but I don't think it had to do with that. And then there's Friday Night Lights. Coach and Mrs. Coach were long married (and happily, at that) by the pilot, but these two were the most interesting couple on the show throughout the series' run. Because despite what many think, there's so much good drama to be had even with happy couples! And finally, Parenthood. The whole show is pretty much about happy couples (those already together and new ones), and it is FABULOUS. I can't wait to see it every week.

So, yeah. I think it can be done, and I really really really hope more writers take the risk, because as much as I love 'shipping, I get tired of it almost always ending badly.
Lynne M Connolly
2. Lynne M Connolly
You can do it if you progress the relationship. That might be what they haven't worked out yet. For instance, in Law and Order SVU, Eliot Stabler was more or less happily married. But the marriage wasn't the centre of the series, and Eliot and Kathy had their ups and downs, including a break-up and reconciliation.
But if Eliot and Olivia had ever got together, that would have been curtains, because their sizzling chemistry together depended on tension.
BTW so far I'm enjoying Danny Pino, but I loved his character in Cold Case, so I'm biased.
Lynne M Connolly
3. MarnieColette
I agree and disagree. I think it can be done successfully if done right. I have faith in the Bones writers and I think the personality of the characters can weather it. I also think that this is just one element of the story and not the only thing that brings me to it.

I am waiting for Castles' - I think that the writers can have a great deal a fun with this relationship if they stay true to the characters they wrote.

Stay true is the key. This is where it can and usually goes awry in most cases and ruins a perfectly good story.

Hook them up give them a real HEA and keep their character essences the same and you will be successful.
Lynne M Connolly
4. Taragel
I love happy endings like nobody's business, but...I mostly like them because they're endings.

The anticipation, the tension, even the obstacles (better organic than contrived, but honestly I still eat the angst up with a spoon) of a relationship in its formation -- this is what I get really hooked on when I love a character or a couple. This is what pushes me over the edge from being interested in a show to being a capital-F FAN, seeking out spoilers and fanfic and an online community to analyze and anguish and squee over each and every frame with.

I do like shows like Parenthood and FNL, and enjoy seeing good marriages as well, but...I don't get that fannish OMG SQUEEE! over them, because they're already settled.

That being said, maybe the perfect happy ending comes a couple episodes before the end of a show, so we get to actually see our long-awaited pairing making it work for a bit. The same way why epilogues are so popular in romance novels I think.
Carmen Pinzon
5. bungluna
I think MarnieColette has something when referring to "staying true" to the characters. Many of the shows mentioned change the basic characters when they force the HEA. There is plenty of tension to be mined from a stable couple: will they have kids, what about carreers, where will they live, how will other people relate to them, how do fights/make-ups get resolved? I think that, if done right, any show could survive the so-called HEA moment.
Heather Waters
6. HeatherWaters
@Taragel -- Yeah, I mean, still do the build up and the obstacles and such, just don't do it when it doesn't make sense to anymore. Going back to BSG (if anyone will get this, it's you, my friend), all the angst up through UB was, for the most part, pretty delicious, would you agree? But Lee not wanting to "cheat" (sure, buddy) and Kara refusing to divorce on religious grounds (sure, buddy) but then not but then Lee refusing to take another chance with her, then Lee pretty much divorcing Dee but never taking the ring off and Kara telling Sam he was the safe choice but then never actually officially things and then pilots kissing but then Kara going right back to Sam after he got shot...IT'S RIDICULOUS! And what would a united K/L team really have hurt for the rest of the season? They pretty much ignored them (individually and as a pair) for much of Season 4 anyway, so why not just let them be together while they got ignored?

Oh, hai there, BSG rage. Welcome back.

@Lynne M Connolly -- Yes, keep the story moving forward, have it make sense. Don't rush things--let them happen naturally. I'm with you there.

@MarnieColette @bungluna -- I don't feel the same way about Bones (Hart Hanson lost me years ago), but I agree 110% about everything else. Whether it's the way you get them together or the way you keep them apart, you have to keep things in character. I've lost interest in couples as much because of the way they were broken up as because of how boring they were after they got together. Either way you can lose viewers, if the writing's no good. I think shows failing after couples get together is a symptom of deeper problems in a show rather than the cause.

Awesome discussion, guys!
Lynne M Connolly
7. Taragel
@redline With BSG, I think very specifically where they went wrong was the marriages. You just can't have your OTP marry other people! Because marriage is a step too far. You turn off viewers, it's frowned upon to cheat and it seems silly to divorce/dissolve it too quickly, etc. etc. That's why on all these other shows like Castle and whatnot, the OTP denies it and dates other people but those relationships never work out. I can't think of any other show where the OTP goes through with MARRYING the wrong people.

I agree you do try an audience's patience if you string it out too long usually, but i could have gladly watched at least one or two whole seasons in the vein of late S1/early S2. Where they're just dancing around each other because of their internal baggage. Would've loved them to really truly explore what the relationship was like when Zak was alive and how they each felt and what it means now that not only is he dead, but so is almost everyone else in the godsdamn universe. I mean, I know why they didn't. Because BSG was not a show about Starbuck and Apollo being in love with each other. (It just SHOULD HAVE been. ;) And to really craft their relationship the right way, would have needed more attention I think. It would have needed more breathing room because they needed to have a very dynamic arc that moved and changed and had more growth. (Unlike say Roslin and Adama, who just had to kind of say "about time" and get on with it?)

That being said, if they did want to throw conflict in there once they were together, I can see ways to do that. Let's say their relationship developed just as it did on the show up to LDYB2, and then we'd gotten to see the strain/fallout of them pretending to love these other people when they really wanted to be with each other (the non-aired months between LYDB and Groundbreaking day) and then we'd gotten the events of groundbreaking day, and they'd decided at that point they really would break up with D/S and be in a relationship, the show then could've moved on to different conflicts they'd face: Adama's surprise/negative reaction (Zak and frat regs), butting heads over whether or not to rescue the New Caprica folks (Lee no, Kara yes), danger because of their jobs. They also could have been healing Kara a bit in this period having her tell Lee about her background and then Maelstrom would have had a much better buildup and they could've done the alternate plot of them both getting trapped beneath the hard deck and one of them offering to die for the other, but then they both make it out alive. Maybe they could even get married after Maelstrom. hee. And in s4/4.5 it's all about them finding earth, Kara discovering her destiny (not involving death, but her half-cylon? heritage), Lee becoming his own man (quitting/politics) and them growing, supporting and loving each other at every turn, which is what we got in their scenes, but didn't pay off in the finale. Sigh.

OMG, sorry folks. Ignore my incredibly verbose BSG rantings!
Naz Keynejad
8. nazkey
I agree with you 100%, but with the caveat that the premise of the show plays a huge part in whether or not providing an HEA will kill it. To use the BSG example (since I am a huge BSG fan right along @Taragel and @_redline), like Tara says, the premise of the show wasn't "The Love Story of Starbuck & Apollo." It was about the apocalypse and how humanity dealt with it. So, why throw the romance/UST in there? Because, let's face it, it brought all the women (and some men) in and hooked them to watch a show that wasn't necessarily targeted to their demographic. Was the pairing's story handled badly? Yes. It was sloppy and unnecessary. Mainly because I feel that at some level the writers themselves lost sight of what they wanted to convey, especially in Season 4 which was a hot mess of dangling plot lines. As Tara says above, HEAs are satisfying because they are in fact, an ending. I would much rather have had Kara & Lee never get together than to have them constantly be in a tug of war. Let's not even touch the fact that for all intents and purposes, Kara was DEAD and wasn't really, well, Kara. I'll leave that discussion for my ramblings on our fandom comms :-) So I guess what I'm saying is that in the case of BSG, the lack of a resolution to the Kara/Lee relationship didn't really kill it for me. Yes, I am one of the few folks in the K/L fandom who's not unhappy about the ending.

Your Fringe example is very interesting to me, because at the core of it, regardless of what happens romantically with Olivia and Peter, the real relationship is between Walter and Peter. It is all about how the very human choice of a parent wanting to save a child has dire consequences. I hope that the writers don't lose that main thread and turn it into a Peter/Olivia story, even though I wholeheartedly ship them. Concentrating on the P/O ship would totally ruin the show IMO, because it will drag the show away from its premise, and THAT will most definitely kill it.

When you look at a show like Grey's Anatomy for example, that's based purely on UST and pairings, it starts coming apart when they try to provide HEAs. Take a look at the last two seasons. Fixing the tension between Cristina & Owen, finding a husband for Teddy, getting the Mer/Der mess figured out, etc. did nothing to improve the show. It's actually dying a slow death because really, since there are no real obstacles for the main couples any more, the writers are just coming up with cliched, contrived ones, and personally, I've lost interest.

One of my all time favorite ships is Josh/Donna from The West Wing. That was a great example of providing an HEA without compromising the storyline and/or the characters themselves (okay, yes, I admit that Season 5 was pretty awkward with OOC moments for all the characters, but that was just because Aaron wasn't writing it any more.). The evolution of their relationship was just the right amount of heartbreaking and gut wrenching and in the end, all the angst actually paid off. The HEA might not have been as spectacular as the shippers wanted, but it felt realistic. And for those of us who want more, there's always fanfic to fill in the gaps. :-)

I'm totally with you on the Sex & the City movies: completely unnecessary. There was no need to extend it further because there was really nothing left to say. Once Big came around and admitted his love, there was no where to go. All the characters (with the possible exception of Miranda in the first movie) just turned into really bad caricatures of themselves. I personally choose to ignore that the movies even exist.

Great post!
Lynne M Connolly
9. coolvstar650
The worst HEA to destroy a televsion program was on Moonlighting, starring Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd.
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