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The Unspoken Rules of Television: Sexual Tension

November 23, 2013

The other day, I entered the common area of my suite to find two of my friends glued to a computer screen, watching a recent episode of Bones. As I took a seat in a nearby armchair, they asked if I wanted to join the viewing party, to which I respectfully replied “No thanks!”

“But I thought you liked Bones?” one answered.

“I did for awhile. I was pretty obsessed with it up until season 5 but then it jumped the shark with the whole pregnancy plot.”

“What are you even talking about?”

“Well, you know, once they actually put Bones and Booth together, everything kind of lost steam.”

“What? So when the two characters get together and are happy, it’s no longer worth watching? That’s actually ridiculous.”

Booth and BonesLet me begin by saying this entire conversation infuriated me. I wouldn’t say I’m a television expert, but I’m fairly well-versed in the art of TV conventions. My initials practically demand it. There isn’t a show on television that I haven’t seen at least one episode of, except for Breaking Bad because that is a black hole of procrastination that I can’t afford to open until after finals week. More importantly, I was a fan of Bones from its very inception, partially because Zooey Deschanel’s sister was the star and I am secretly enamored by everything about that family. I recorded the episodes every week, I made fan-videos of Booth/Brennan, I almost even wrote fanfiction. Almost. I had fallen hard for the quirky scientist-special agent duo.

That is, until they shagged.

Let me backtrack for a second. My creative writing teacher in high school once told us that there is no such thing as good, happy poetry. While, yes, there can be poems that have a happy tone or happy pieces, a really good, moving poem is not one about bunnies hopping through colorful flower patches. Something has to happen, something thought-provoking or tragic that makes you question or reflect on the nature of life itself. (AHEM. Sorry. My inner poet came out. I just locked her back in my mental dungeon reserved for all things too closely related to hipsters.)

This can also, in some ways, apply to television. Crafting a believable and captivating TV relationship is harder than it seems because, like poetry, it can’t be 100% lovey-dovey. TV relationships rely on the maintenance of sexual tension, which breaks down the second you too invest in it too fully. Metaphorically, sexual tension is like a string. The tighter you pull it, the more excitement and anticipation you build (When will it snap? How long can it hold out? Who will cut the cord?). The second you pull out the scissors and snip it, the show, like the string, falls apart.

Mulder ScullyIf any show can be said to master this rule, it is The X-Files. Eerily similar to Bones (red-haired, scientific female agent teams up with tall/dark/handsome partner more concerned with faith), The X-Files managed to preserve the sanctity of the Mulder/Scully relationship by balancing fleeting romantic moments with plenty of bickering and emotional obstacles. Not to mention, once the characters got too close, they disposed of one of them (Mulder) altogether.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, the string rule also explains why Pushing Daisies was cancelled so suddenly. The show followed the life of Ned, a pie-maker who could bring people back to life with the touch of a finger. However, if he touched them a second time, they would return to the grave forever. Naturally, Ned brings to life one of his childhood loves and becomes tormented by his inability to bring their relationship to fruition. (That wasn’t a sexual reference, although, it could be. I just meant that he literally couldn’t touch her, even to fix the tag on her shirt if it was sticking out.) What started as a grand opportunity for sexual tension was immediately solved by the end of the first season when Ned used a plastic wrap barrier to kiss his childhood sweetheart. (I should also specify that the childhood sweetheart was, in fact, an adult by this time. Pedophilia was not involved.) If you remove the main obstacle to the characters’ relationship within the first season, you shouldn’t expect the show to last much longer. And it didn’t. Pushing Daisies was cancelled after the second season.

While Bones lasted a little longer than Ned and his girlfriend, the show still fell into a similar trap. Though, in some ways, the Bones/Booth hook-up was unavoidable (Emily Deschanel got pregnant, forcing the writers to work around the situation), it also snapped the string that had been supporting the show’s narrative for so long. And so, I lost interest.

I realize that sexual tension is not the only component of a show, and the loss of it was not the only reason I turned away from my beloved Bones, but if I delve any more into television commentary, I run the risk of turning this blog post into a TV review, which is about as interesting as a grocery list, so I digress. My question to you is this: where should we draw the line with sexual tension? At what point does it turn from interesting to lame? If you cut the cord, can the show be recovered? Is there even such thing as a sexual tension “rule”? Or did I make all of this up?

6 Comments leave one →
  1. tintobear permalink
    November 25, 2013 3:56 pm

    Ross and Rachel getting together in Friends worked fine. Buffy and Angel getting together physically was great, because it resulted in Angel going bad and becoming a far far FAR more entertaining character than when he was good Angel.

    I’d say it probably depends on the nature of the show and how central that atmosphere of sexual tension is to the whole atmosphere of the programme. If the sexual tension is one of the things about the show that’s keeping you hooked and makes it enthralling viewing, then if you get rid of that, the show will have to replace it with something else to keep you interested. Which potentially (depending on how much the show was characterised by that atmosphere) could fundamentally change the nature of the show you’re watching into something completely different.

    I was thinking the other day about how in my own life I’m very much a ‘hesitant to get with friends, because I don’t want to ruin a friendship person’. I wonder if, from a viewer point of view, there can be an element of that in TV couples as well… if there are two characters that you really like as a pair; and then they get together – where does the show go from there? Do they make this awesome happy couple (which doesn’t seem very interesting from a drama-viewing perspective) or does the relationship work out horribly leaving you going ‘noooo! They should never have crossed that line! It’s all broken irreparably!’ *cue viewer huff at characters’ poor life-choices*


    • Tyler Vendetti permalink*
      November 27, 2013 9:21 pm

      You make a great point about the “friends-don’t-date-friends” argument. I think that definitely applies to television couples. Perhaps that’s why the Bones situation bothered me so much. The entire show is centered around Bones and Booth’s adventures so I find it harder to get away with coupling them. Buffy I feel like can get away with it because the show does not always focus on those two characters. If the show were more like Bones in that Angel/Buffy were the main duo in every episode, I could see their relationship becoming more of a problem.
      Then again, sometimes it could just come down to personal taste. I know personally, when they paired together House and Cuddy in House MD, I was beyond annoyed. It didn’t prevent me from watching, but I wasn’t a fan of their relationship while a majority of fans on discussion boards and forums supported the pairing (you’re getting a brief taste of my House obsession…I’ll try to restrain myself).

      Anyways, thank you for the comment! It’s given me a lot to think about.

  2. December 5, 2013 10:51 am

    I’m guessing you might be too young to remember a show called Moonlighting, on in the late 80s. It featured a then unknown actor named Bruce Willis and a celebrated model and actress, Cybill Shepherd. It was wickedly funny, and the sexual tension was palpable…until they had sex, or boinked as they called it on the show. It quickly went downhill after that and was cancelled soon afterwards.

    • Tyler Vendetti permalink*
      December 5, 2013 10:59 am

      I’m not surprised that it failed after that point. Even Bruce Willis can’t save a show after they cut the tension.

  3. December 6, 2013 2:11 pm

    so glad you mentioned Mulder and Scully. they were the first to come to mind when i read your title. their sexual tension lives on long after the X-Files…speaking of which you should really start Breaking Bad. the creator was part of the X-Files team and sexual tension has very little to do with it’s success. love your writing by the way 🙂

    • Tyler Vendetti permalink*
      December 6, 2013 4:19 pm

      Breaking Bad is actually next on my TV show to-do list! I’m waiting until winter break so I have more time to watch it. I heard it’s a pretty dark show but sometimes those are the best kind. *cough cough American Horror Story* Thank you!! 🙂

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