Every so often Emma will start to tell me a story, and it’ll go like this. “Mom? Guess what?”
“On this show, see, there was this guy, and…”
About half the time I’ll listen patiently, and the other half (usually if I’ve heard this particular episode of Drake and Josh or I Carly or Being Ian recapped a dozen times already) I’ll gently point out that I’d rather hear stories from real life than from TV.
But I am JUST AS BAD. Because guess what, readers? On this show, see there’s this guy? And he likes this girl, only they both know he’s way too much of a screwed-up mess to ever have a real relationship, so he keeps flirting with her and at the same time pushing her away by being a jerk? And this has been going on for, like, four years, you know? And then last night, she was really upset, and he had been a jerk, and then he came in and tried to be nice, and she called him on his jerkish behavior, and then, like, THEY TOTALLY KISSED.
And it was awesome. It was like this.
And I could just leave it at that, but being me, I had to go from there into some meditations on the whole complex issue of Unresolved Sexual Tension (UST) in drama and in life.
UST is the engine that drives a lot of our stories, from modern romance novels and romantic comedies back through Jane Austen, through Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, through the courtly love tradition, back to Jacob working seven years to marry Rachel and getting Leah instead. (And probably further). The basic dynamic: two people are attracted to each other, but for some reason can’t be together — is, I would dare to say, universal.
It even happens in real life, from time to time. But when you have UST in real life, one of three outcomes happens:
1) Obstacles are overcome, you get together with the person, and you do the hard work of building a real relationship.
2) Obstacles are overcome, you get together with the person, it doesn’t work out, and you move on and get over it.
3) Obstacles are insurmountable, you never get together with the person, and you move on and get over it.
That’s real life for you. In stories, plays, novels and movies, things are usually simpler: UST ends happily, with lovers getting together and living happily ever after, or sadly, with them being forever divided and sometimes dying of grief.
But now we have that twentieth/twenty-first century phenomenon, the television series, in which UST is often either the main plot or the subplot of a series. And TV series pose a unique problem. UST can be a wonderful vehicle for keeping viewers tuning in, but in one sense TV is far more like real life than it is like novels or movies. Because a TV series, like real life, just goes on and on and on. And neither of the three real-life options above to resolve UST make for good TV viewing. The “will-they-or-won’t-they-get-together” question draws viewers back week after week, but sooner or later the relationship has to go somewhere, or the whole situation just becomes ridiculous.
In real life, people would have moved on. In TV-land, you have to keep getting people together and breaking them up, or introducing endless twists and turns to keep them yearning after each other long past the point that real people would be nodding politely and talking about the weather while thinking “What did I ever see in him/her?”
The three classic examples of endlessly drawn-out TV UST couples whose storylines went on to the point of ridiculousness and disappointment, from my own TV viewing, were: 1) Sam and Diane on Cheers, 2) Ross and Rachel on Friends, and 3) Josh and Donna on The West Wing. (I can think of dozens of others, and I’m sure you can too, but those are the top three in my mind). In each case there was crackling sexual tension that lasted believably for a few seasons, and then, due to the need to keep things going season after season, everything went sadly awry. (Two of the three couples did end up together, and in Josh and Donna’s case it was actually kind of satisfying, but still ridiculous in how long it took and what they went through to get it together).
The ONLY TV couple in my experience whose UST was ever handled completely successfully were Tim and Dawn on The Office (UK). I think that worked so well partly because it was so understated — like a persistant theme music running underneath the main story for most of the two seasons, until the very end, so it never got over-the-top. Then, because it was a British show and they have a concept of being able to limit things, it ENDED. It ended with them getting together and we never had to view the messy aftermath or find ridiculous excuses to string out the tension. It was perfect.
(The next-best resolution to TV-UST in my experience was Tom and B’Elanna on Star Trek: Voyager, which I think worked because they were part of an ensemble cast and their relationship was a recurring theme throughout the series rather than the main focus. Even after they got together and even got married, there were still believable twists and problems, but they worked because we only had to focus on them a few times a season, not week after week after week after week).
There is no way for the House writers to go with the House/Cuddy relationship that will not involve a certain amount of ridculousness, or character sabotage, or cringe-inducing plot twists. Who knows … unless they have the sense to bring the series to a soon and merciful end with just the faintest hint that House and Cuddy could actually get together (which would be my preferred choice — end it soon and keep it pure in my memory), this arc could well end with me wanting to beat Cuddy to death with House’s cane just to end it all.
But for now, I’m not going to dwell on that. I’m going to relive that absolutely perfect kiss, that incredibly brilliant, awkward, painful, sexy moment as delivered by two of the finest actors on television today. (Cheers, Hugh; cheers, Lisa; I adore you both).
I’m just gonna scroll up and click that link one more time.