Television has a romance problem.
Or maybe it’s a ’shipping problem, which makes it a fandom problem.
Or maybe it’s a lazy writing problem, which makes it imagination’s problem.
Wherever the blame lies, the fact of (serialized) television is: If there are two characters in a show’s cast who are age-appropriate and not related (although even those holds went unbarred on Pretty Little Liars), the possibility that they might someday kiss—or not kiss but increasingly want to, or kiss but regret it, or kiss and kiss and just keep kissing—is less a possibility than it is an inevitability. From slow-burn and will they/won’t they to enemies-to-lovers and on-again-off-again, romances are so deeply and universally entrenched in serialized storytelling that just as writers rooms can’t seem to imagine many satisfying, long-arced interpersonal dramas outside of the confines of romance, neither can fans, among whom entire online communities have coalesced to re-imagine those same kinds of slow-burn romances, between pairs both canonical and not, in even greater (and/or steamier) detail, which in turn encourages writers rooms to focus even more on relationships, which in turn encourages fans to brand even more ships (oh hi, Jetra 2.0!).
While I neither foresee nor want a future in which writers rooms eschew romance entirely (as Genevieve Valentine noted in her great 2015 AV Club essay about the uniquely double-edged power of ‘shipping, “the particular frisson of the slow-burn relationship is particularly well suited to serial storytelling,” making its eradication a self-defeating thing for any fan or critic to want), what this “if you bill it, the ‘ships will come” feedback loop between TV shows and audiences has encouraged is a storytelling landscape in which the romantic tension between characters is too often treated as the most interesting tension possible. The many and varied non-romantic relationships a show’s characters should have as avatars of lived human lives are given less screen time and thus develop less complexity and multi-dimensionality as their established (or even hinted at) romantic entanglements are allowed to suck all the dramatic oxygen from every studio room.
This is frustrating, but I have an easy solution almost any show can put into place, like, now:
Let your couples break up.
For real. Permanently. Without leaving any doors open for a possible rekindling of romance.
(The corollary argument here, which serves the same ultimate purpose and thus I also strongly endorse, is to let your couples settle down and marry earlier than the final season and draw on the many compelling non-relationship-threatening drama to be found therein, but this is a Valentine’s Grump essay, so for the moment I’ll stick to shouting BREAK UP ALREADY! into the critical void.)
I am not clamoring for more and better breakups out of a sense of romantic, anti-Valentines contrarianism: when shows have let their couples break up permanently and committed to finding novel ways to ricochet them off one another, the storytelling of every one of those shows has benefitted. Parks and Recreation breaking up Ann and Andy but not forcing one or the other off the show and out of the other’s life paved the way for each of them to grow significantly as people—and, yes, to find other, better romances. Buffy the Vampire Slayer breaking up Cordelia and Xander, and later Buffy and Angel, and later Willow and Oz, and later still Xander and Anya, cracked open as many new personal and interpersonal dynamics as there were demons in Sunnydale’s Hellmouth (and, yes, other, better romances, both in that series as well as on Angel and in the Buffy graphic novels). Please Like Me breaking up Josh and Arnold, as messy and slow-motion and ultimately, sharply devastating as that break-up was, let them both move into a future as more mature, more confident characters. Had How I Met Your Mother had the guts to trust the story Robin and Ted’s breakup built, would have been a triumph. If the already non-romantic-drama champ Jane the Virgin lets the last Petra-Rafael breakup stick—and all signs indicate they will—it will allow each of them to achieve a new sense of self-worth and determination, while remaining inextricably intertwined in every possible non-romantic drama of each other’s lives and futures.
Interestingly (but unsurprisingly, given the nature of teenagerdom), it is teen television that most often gets the Good Breakup right. Beyond Buffy’s successfully permanent conscious high school uncouplings, there is Freaks and Geeks’ awkwardly mom-inflicted break-up of Lindsay and Nick, ’s break-up of Bay and Emmett, Faking It’s break-up of Karma and Liam, and even The Vampire Diaries’s excruciatingly protracted but firmly established break-up of Stefan and Elena—all of which led the teens involved to more mature, interesting places without kicking any of their characters out of the story (at least, not for romantic reasons).
The most successful, most compelling of all Good TV Breakups, though—teen or otherwise—is Scott (Tyler Posey) and Allison’s (Crystal Reed) slow-burn breakup on Teen Wolf, a show which built the non-supernatural tension of its first two seasons on the Romeo-and-Juliet energy between the teen wolf and teen wolf huntress, and which promised in their Season Two breakup scene that #Scallison was the show’s endgame romance. Cut to Season Three, and that implicit promise starts to erode as both Scott and Allison, despite fighting the same supernatural fights and remaining in the same friend group, find their paths diverging. Nineteen episodes later, in “Illuminated,” both Scott and Allison have stumbled into new romantic possibilities, and in a moment of silent, compassionate communication (across the writing neon bodies in the middle of a blacklight rave, obviously), each gives the other permission to let go.
It is the best, gutsiest model of what a Good Breakup can be and it gave what was already one of the gutsiest shows on television a burst of new dramatic energy.
So in the spirit of Valentine’s contrarianism, my heartfelt recommendation to everyone staying in is this: watch Teen Wolf. I obviously advise watching all of it, as it’s the most joyful gift you could give yourself, but at the very least, navigate your streaming device to Amazon Prime and cue up Season Three’s rave-themed “Illuminated.”
As for the rest of you slow burning, on-again-off-again romances cluttering up my television landscape?
BREAK UP ALREADY.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic whose writing has appeared on Forever Young Adult, Screener, and Birth.Movies.Death. She’ll go ten rounds fighting for teens and intelligently executed genre fare to be taken seriously by pop culture. She
can be found @AlexisKG.