Recently, I’ve been watching Frasier for the first time. I’m in the later period of the seventh season where Niles, the titular Frasier’s brother, is dating a lady named Mel. Daphne, the frequent object of Niles’ affection ever since early Season One, is getting ready to marry a gentleman named Donny. I know that, in short order, the Daphne and Niles romance was going to come to a head. This is based on my extended history of watching television. Everything seems to be building to a big moment for Niles and Daphne, and the clues are everywhere. Clues such as the fact that there was recently an episode where Mel suddenly became this jerk who everybody disliked.
Television romances are a tricky business. There are large swaths of fans who are only interested in seeing star-crossed lovers get together. This has only metastasized in this modern era of “shipping” and Twitter hashtags and other such nonsense. Fans will tune in to shows simply to watch the love story of a will they/won’t they couple play out. As long as they get together, these fans will be happy, and that makes it pretty easy for the creative forces behind the show to appease them. Some furtive glances, some missed chances, and then a big ol’ kiss.
However, along the way, roadblocks need to be used to justify stringing these storylines along, and to create some sort of logic as to why the two people aren’t together. What easier way to do this than to have one, or both, of these erstwhile television soulmates start dating somebody else? This is where my problem with many a television show arises. The shows desperately need to keep up the notion that these are likable characters who do likable things and they deserve one another. They belong together. No other relationships can work out. So these new relationships must end so that the true loves can be united in romantic feelings and intimate physicality. Thus, the road block love interest is turned into an awful person, because that’s the easiest road to travel.
Suddenly these characters will become jerks to everybody. Friends. Loved ones. Perhaps even their paramours. They’ll cheat. They’ll lie. The fans at home, the devout “shippers” can boo and hiss this pantomime heel, and then cheer when they are kicked to the curb. The bad man, or bad woman, is gone. Now these two soulmates can be together. Isn’t that romantic?
To borrow a one-word review from Leonard Maltin, no.
This is the most facile kind of storytelling imaginable. It’s the path of least resistance. There is no complexity involved. Nobody has to give up anything for love. It has also become painfully obvious. Look—is it clear that a will they/won’t they couple is eventually going to get together? Yes, and thus any roadblock love interest is inevitably going to go away. That doesn’t mean you can’t do interesting, deep storytelling along the way. Give the audience some credit. And more importantly, throw a bone to those of us who don’t watch TV just to wait for two people to get together.
What’s even worse is that so often these roadblock love interests seem perfectly pleasant at first, but then suddenly, without warning, provocation, or justification they become monsters. Take Frasier, for example. At first, Mel seems nice. She’s a finicky fussbudget like Niles, so it makes sense they get together. However, they can’t have Niles leaving a perfectly nice woman for Mel because that wouldn’t be reductive enough, and it might just make Niles unlikeable. So, instead, Frasier does what so many other shows have done and decides Mel must become a controlling, unbearable woman.
Perhaps the most egregious example of this comes from the American version of The Office. And no, I’m not talking about Roy, even though the show decided that they needed Roy to try and take a swing at Jim in order to get him out of the way for good. I’m talking about Karen, as portrayed by Rashida Jones in a role that never served her well. Karen is nice and funny and so on at first. As such, it made sense for Jim to fall for her. Roadblock constructed. She is perfectly pleasant for most of her run, and even befriends Pam. However, then it came time for the third season finale, and for all the pining between Jim and Pam to pay off with him asking her on a date.
Was it a great moment? Sure. But let’s not forget how we got there, via roadblock-turned-monster. Karen completely changed. She became an uncaring, mean-spirited woman. She even goes so far as to call Pam a bitch, thereby ensuring that everybody watching at home is going to be against her now. That way, when Jim leaves Karen in New York to go ask Pam out, nobody can blame him. Karen’s a mean lady who was mean to Pam. Boo Karen. Yay Pam. This is, in essence, the intellectual level of this storytelling.
It was inevitable that Jim and Pam were going to get together. Personally, I’d hoped that they wouldn’t get together, but might end up happy with other people, because that would actually be unique and original. However, I also never expected that to happen, and I was fine with that. The problem was the way they handled Karen. Later, there was an attempt to redeem Karen, in having her make up with Pam, but that just felt as clumsy as anything else. It was a perfect example of a show trying to have its cake and eat it too—but the whole premise of the cake was lousy in the first place.
Roadblock love interests simply do not have to be monsters. This is particularly true when we’re talking about shows for an adult audience. When a show like Saved by the Bell has the college guy Kelly is dating cheat on her out of the blue, the simplicity of the storytelling is more acceptable, because the audience isn’t necessarily going to be able to appreciate any sort of nuance. (This also applies to the time Jesse got addicted to caffeine pills, but that’s a topic for another day.) There are those who are going to despise any of these love interests solely because they are standing in the way, in their minds, of the couple they want to see get together actually getting together. But for a more mature audience, why not make it tough for people to dislike them? Is that going to change their minds? If they are really devoted “shippers”—no. But these people are sunk costs in this regard anyway. All you need to do is pay off the romance eventually. Otherwise, you might as well just forget about them, and certainly don’t cater to them at the expense of everybody else.
When every love interest that pops up before will they becomes they do is unlikeable and loathsome it oversimplifies things, becomes exceedingly predictable, and furthers the romantic nonsense about soulmates and destiny and all that junk. When a love interest is introduced as a pleasant character before becoming unlikeable it’s particularly galling and insulting to the viewership. It is such an easy trope to avoid. Let a character make a real decision. Make them choose between two seemingly good options. Hell, I’d settle for a couple simply deciding they don’t work together and parting amicably, because sometimes relationships don’t work out. Parks and Recreation got Dave out of the picture for Leslie by having him move away. Of course, he later came back and handcuffed Ben to restrain him while he made a move on Leslie, but that was done as much for absurdity as anything else.
I understand it is television. Everything is going to be bigger, broader, and more melodramatic. Is it perhaps silly of me to criticize Frasier for this one little thing on a show that so frequently uses farcical conveniences that I am not bothered by? Perhaps, but that doesn’t mean the point doesn’t remain valid. Nobody needs to give up on will they/won’t they couples and long-term love stories and the inevitable big wedding episodes. TV writers and creators should just give the audience a little more credit and create some intermediate love interests that we wouldn’t mind sticking around. We all know they won’t, and that’s okay. It’d just be nice not to be beaten over the head with how wrong they are for our main character. Let the Jims of the world make a real decision between the Pams and the Karens, instead of making the decision for the characters, and the fans.
Chris Morgan is an Internet gadabout who writes on a variety of topics and in a variety of mediums. If he had to select one thing to promote, however, it would be his ’90s blog/podcast, Existential Parachute Pants. (You can also follow him on Twitter.)