The Best & Worst
by Beth Bolden
People who create things get their influences from so many different sources. I watch a lot of TV—well, not a lot, working a full time job and then trying to write and release a book every three months cuts down on a lot of my binge-watching—but it’s something my husband and I like to do together and he needs attention too, every once in awhile.
If a show messes up on their essential plotline or even worse, the romantic plotline, I get really annoyed. Because of how much I’ve learned about plotting and character development and arcs and beats, etcetera, failure on this drives me insane. But nothing makes me more frustrated and more likely to quit watching a show than when they mess up a romantic subplot.
In fact, even though sometimes the book I’m in the middle of writing has nothing to do with the shows we’re watching, I find that tiny little things will slip in and influence the book, even when I have zero intention of them actually happening.
Let’s talk about the best (and worst) developed romantic subplots on TV. (Warning for spoilers ahead!)
- The Blacklist. While this show has a fantastic plots, their main romantic plotline has been total garbage slop. Liz’s stupid husband Tom, who isn’t actually Tom but is actually (unfortunately) her husband, has made me want to pull my hair out from the beginning. It’s risky for a show to make an argument that love exists after so many lies, and one partner holding the other HOSTAGE on an abandoned ship accompanied by TORTURE. I mean, I could go on and on. But I don’t find it star-crossed or romantic. I just find Tom incredibly annoying, and Liz only annoying when she intersects with him. I was hoping (AM STILL HOPING, showrunners), that she would end up with Ressler, but I have a feeling that will never happen. What is the book lesson from this garbage dump of a love story? If one of your love interests is going to lie to the other one, and you want the other love interest to forgive him, fine. Don’t make the lie too extreme, and then don’t have them doomed to rinse and repeat this action over and over again. It’ll eventually make one character look like a douchenozzle and the other one look stupid and overly trusting. Love isn’t a blanket that forgives everything. What is the only thing that saves this show, from a romantic subplot angle? The wonderful, seasons-long, pining between Aram and Sarar. Samar is a little bitter and been there, done that, and Aram is a little naïve. And they are so god damn soft with each other. It almost, almost, salvages the ugliness that is Tom and Liz.
- Grey’s Anatomy. I have one problem here. Do not establish epic love stories and then kill one or both of the characters off, and then expect that the audience will be able to move on. Downtown Abbey had this problem for me. When they killed off Matthew, I was so angry, I wished I hadn’t wasted three seasons of time, begging for them to get together, and then stay together. If you put your characters and the audience through the wringer, do not expect them to be happy if it ends unhappily. Basically, do not kill McSteamy, McDreamy, etc etc. That’s bad. Don’t do it. And the other relationships you attempt to establish afterwards will always feel weak and like poor replacements for the original. You’ll never be able to get your audience re-invested again, because they don’t trust you anymore. AND THEY SHOULDN’T. I will never forgive Shonda Rhimes for breaking up Meredith and McDreamy, or killing Lexie and McSteamy, or especially, FOREVER, for breaking up Cristina and Burke, and then somehow, miraculously investing me again in Cristina and Owen, and then ruining that one too. Just don’t do it. Not being able to write people who are in relatively happy, functional relationships for the long-term is just lazy. There’s lots of places to go after two characters fall in love and agree to try that relationship thing (see Aimee Nicole Walker’s Curl up and Dye series, which is a fantastic example of writing a relationship that extends long past the initial HEA).
- Bones/The X-Files/Castle. This is somewhat a reiteration of my problem with Grey’s but these shows don’t kill off one of the characters to prevent writing a long-term relationship, they just taken FOREVER to get there. Lots of push and pull. Too much push and pull. Too many excuses. Too many interruptions. Too many lame love interests that you know will not last because they are a pale imitation of the couple you really want to happen. We are in the middle of binge-watching Castle currently, and yes, that particular couple did eventually get together, but for the love of god, it took way too long. Same with Bones. I actually got bored with all the shit they threw at Bones and Booth to keep them apart, and by the time they actually got together, I was done and had actually stopped watching. Do not get me started on The X-Files. I’m still too raw from this season’s revelations to think or talk about it. Some enemies to lovers books can feel like this—just because that’s the main gist of the trope: they don’t like each other. As soon as they do like each other, all the tension is out of your story, unless you can miraculously find a second well of tension to draw from. NOT EASY. No, I could not possibly be speaking from personal experience or what it was like to write Bite Me).
- The Vampire Diaries/The Originals. Is this great television? Hell no. It’s not even good television, for long stretches. And I’m not including these two inter-connected shows because of the whole Elena/Damon/Stefan love triangle because as far as I’m concerned, if I’m writing about that, it should be in the upper section, because you cannot expect anyone to best Ian Somerhalder when it comes to pure, raw charisma. Especially that guy who plays Stefan. No way. Never gonna happen. So that was a serious miscalculation on the writers—don’t make that mistake, authors. Love triangles are usually death, and should be avoided. HOWEVER, these two shows were totally, unexpectedly saved. Yes. I am talking about Klaus. (Sort of Elijah too, but mostly Klaus). Klaus is a big bad, but is he really a big bad? That, not who Elena is going to chose, because we all know who she is going to chose, it’s not even remotely a mystery, is the real question of the series. It was such a good question, that it prompted a whole other show. Klaus is so bad, he’s good. He’s so old, he’s seen it all, he’s done it all, he’s bored as fuck, while also being the most stubborn creature on the whole planet (not even an exaggeration). So who better to pair him with than Caroline, who not only is a brand new vampire, but is basically a high school teenager who prior to this, had not been shown to have much substance? Except she does, and her interactions with Klaus give them both a dimension they did not have before. Opposites attract, but are they opposites? This is a relationship and a connection that asks more questions than it ever answers, and it’s shockingly deftly done. And that is the sort of occasional brilliance that makes these shows addictive. NOW, I was going to actually stick this in the “bad” column, because you do not tempt with a relationship like this, and then never see it to fruition, because. . .that is a crime, worse than any that Klaus has committed over his very long lifetime. But the rumor (and the trailer for the final season of The Originals) heavily hint that they will be revisiting this relationship. The jury is still out, but I’m intrigued. The best romance novels take two characters who should not be together, and you would NEVER expect them to be together without possibly killing each other, and make it work. There’s a historical romance called Lord of Scoundrels, where the female MC literally shoots the male MC near the beginning of the story. AND THEY FALL IN LOVE AFTER. There’s a lot of other fantastic PNR books where one or both of the MCs could be bad, in fact, they are almost definitely bad, but they are “saved” or “redeemed,” etc etc. The key to this is not making them a different person. Klaus is still a petulant, stubborn hybrid who likes to kill things. He doesn’t magically become better. He just becomes more nuanced.
- New Girl. This is a hard show to watch a lot of. It can be really irredeemably silly. Sometimes I get severe secondhand embarrassment and I have to turn it off. But, at the heart of it, is two fantastic romance arcs that are sort of brilliantly done. While I love Schmidt and Cece, I’m going to focus on Nick and Jess, because that is best hookup/breakup/reunion cycle that I have seen recently. First, the showrunners were not afraid to go for it and go for it pretty early on (mid-second season, I believe, is when they kiss for the first time, and what a kiss it is). Second, they were smart enough to know that one character was not really ready for a serious, steady relationship. They had done a good job establishing that. So the breakup felt very organic. As did the subsequent moving on/growing up parts and then the beautiful reunion at the end of last season. As someone who has written a reunited lovers romance, this whole arc is not easy to pull off, and a lot of others in movies, television, and books, fail. The breakup feels forced. The reunion feels even more forced. The problems that forced them to breakup the first time are never fixed, just magically sort of disappear. A beautiful trope, if well done, but it needs to be executed well.
I have a sort of annoyingly analytical brain and I can’t turn it off, even to enjoy something as mindless as a TV show. But I’ve also learned a lot about what to do (and what not to do) from watching shows I’ve enjoyed and watching shows make epic mistakes in their romantic subplots.
What sort of TV do you like watching? Is the romantic subplot usually a dealbreaker? Continue reading