Will They, Won't They, Let's Not: The CW's Romantic Tension Problem
What Greg Berlanti and Andrew Kreisberg and friends have done on the CW is an impressive achievement; in just four years, they have managed to put together a live action shared universe of DC Comics characters. The fact that we can turn on our TV's on a weekly basis and watch The Flash fighting Gorilla Grodd or see Black Canary hanging out in cowboy times in live action is frankly astonishing, and any long time DC fan should count themselves lucky that this is something that we get to experience. Which is why it's disappointing to me to have to point this out, but every single show in the otherwise pretty high-quality DC Multiverse I get to watch is hampered by one persistent, consistent problem: their romances are bad.
I am pleased as punch at most of the shows from a genre fan's point of view; they tackle some strong elements of DC Comics lore with gusto and have delivered some genuinely exciting battles between good and evil, but they falter when it comes to telling an adequate romantic story, and they stumble hard. I'd like to offer some suggestions on how to fix this recurring problem, but first, you have to know where the problem is coming from.
Fear of Commitment
First off, some history; the serialized nature of television programming can be a fantastic storytelling tool. It works in long term, so we get to see the development of characters over time; we can have multiple major story arcs happen over the course of the show, either one after the other or even multiple arcs coming together simultaneously; the show even has a chance to reflect on what's gone right or wrong before and improve itself as it goes on. And with the ability to stick with characters for extended periods of time, we theoretically should be able to watch a romantic relationship between two characters sprout and grow; we should be able to see two people meet, fall in love, make their way through a courtship, make some long term commitment to each other, and see however further along into their relationship the show is willing to go.
Unfortunately, it's become traditional in television to remain attached to a status quo, even when the story is ready to move on. In theory, this is based in part on a not entirely unreasonable belief that a show should remain faithful to its premise; if part of a show's premise involves a lead character feeling unrequited love for another lead character, then the show could potentially lose its way by concluding that aspect of the premise. If a show focuses on an independent single person and their single independent friends, then having the lead get married suddenly changes what the show is about. There's also the fear that audiences have grown attached to the characters' relationships as they are, and any significant change in those relationships would lose a portion of the audience's interest. In practice, there's also a more unreasonable belief at the heart of why shows are hesitant to progress their characters' romantic relationships: the Moonlighting Curse.
This has been an infamously cited concept when discussing shows with long-term romantic plotlines, so you've likely already heard of it, but the gist is that the 1985 series Moonlighting, starring Bruce Willis and Cybil Shepherd as co-leads with long-standing romantic tension, was a darling hit up until the end of the third season when the two characters finally got together. During the following season, the show's ratings took a nosedive and the series would limp on until cancellation at the end of the fifth season. Desperate to avoid this boogieman fate happening to them, many shows have opted only to keep romantic relationships in a permanent state of romantic tension and constantly find ways to keep the leads apart.
All of this is compounded by DC Comics' position of the last several years that superheroes weren't allowed to get married. This was an editorial mandate in place since 2011 that illustrated the idea that, to quote DC Executive Editor Dan DiDio, “Heroes shouldn’t have happy personal lives. They are committed to being that person and committed to defending others at the sacrifice of their personal interests.” This was the reasoning given as to why beloved couples like Superman and Lois Lane or The Flash and Linda Park were no longer married as of the 2011 reboot and why Batwoman and long time love interest Maggie Sawyer weren't allowed to get married (which resulted in the lauded creative team of J.H. Williams III and W. Haden Blackman leaving the series). While the edict has waned with the DC You and DC Rebirth initiatives, it demonstrated a tragic shortsightedness when it came to this one type of relationship that serialized storytellers are frequently hesitant to committing to.
These are several of the primary reasons why fictional romantic relationships so often stagnate, and every single one of these reasons is flawed. Most stories can survive the changing of a significant relationship due to simply having a general premise that extends beyond the protagonists' relationship status; if a story can't survive a change like that, it probably didn't have a very strong premise, to begin with. Audiences are typically attached, not to a status quo, but to the characters involve in those status quos, and as long as there is something new for the characters and audience to look forward to, the conclusion of one arc shouldn't remove the audience's reason for watching. The DC Marriage Ban was yet another situation where DC editors attempted an all-encompassing mandate that applied to all characters, but missed the simple fact that different characters benefit from various tones; Batman may have a certain appeal in his tragedy and angstiness, but Superman has an entirely different appeal, and trying to force both to behave in the same way ignores the fact that various elements make both characters work.
And then there's the Moonlighting Curse and all the ways in which it's bunk. The series didn't suffer rating problems because the characters got together; the series' fourth and fifth seasons were plagued by issues like scheduling conflicts preventing the leads from filming together and a move from a Tuesday night timeslot to Sunday. Similar shows that were canceled soon after their leads got together, like Castle or Bones, also suffered from behind the scenes problems like showrunner changes, actors dropping out, and timeslot changes. In some situations, shows had held off on putting their leads together until the show had already creatively run out of steam and hastily concluded the romantic arc at a point when the show was nearing cancellation, thus falsely perpetuating the curse. While there are situations where holding off on a romantic pairing is warranted, many of the most common reasons simply don't have legs.
How This Hurts the Shows
Think about the shows with a single lead and an ensemble cast; everyone on the show serves a purpose, and they have a unique and interesting personality. The Flash has the chipper and talkative Cisco, the prickly and somewhat egotistical Dr. Wells, the intelligent and introverted Caitlin, and the supportive and protective Detective Joe West. Now, the show is firmly about Barry Allen, and all of these characters are defined, to some degree, by their relationship to Barry, but they also are distinct and have had their stories and arcs and moments that help define them. And then there's Iris. The show is trying to give her a personality, and in the moments where they've succeeded the character has been enjoyable, but from day one she's suffered a lack of characterization, and it's because of a problem inherent to her role in the story: she's almost entirely defined by being the love interest. This is particularly hard when the show wants so badly to keep her at arms' length so as to prolong the love story between her and Barry; most of the first season kept her from knowing the Flash's secret identity, which kept her outside of the A-plot for most of the show's whole first year. This limitation set on the character for such an extended period kept her from really finding her place within the ensemble itself, further hurting her character. She just wasn't allowed to grow or feature in the main stories or develop much of a unique personality because her character is locked into this role of future, potential love interest.
This also hurts the love story. Love stories are compelling when we see two developed characters form a relationship and we get to watch that relationship grow. The problem with the 'designated love interest' character that these shows have utilized is that because they are kept out of the spotlight and denied the chance to grow like the other characters, their romance feels flat because we don't know them and aren't as invested. This was notably demonstrated on Arrow; for the first two years, Laurel was set up as Oliver's true love that he hoped to eventually be with once he had completed his quest of destroying crime in Star City. She wasn't a character, she was a goal, but she also had to do something in the episodes on a weekly basis, and she ended up frequently filling a 'wild card' role, where she simply did whatever she needed to do as the episode required it; this resulted in her being alternately aloof from Oliver or his inspiration as he needed it, which might have helped facilitate the weekly drama, but it shattered the chances of any chemistry between the characters. Felicity, on the other hand, was brought into Oliver's superhero team relatively early and was allowed to develop as a unique, interesting character which eventually allowed a fun chemistry between her and Oliver and finally set her up as a potential love interest who was way more interesting to see with Oliver than Laurel ever had been. Worth noting that about the point when Felicity filled the role of love interest is also right about when Laurel's arc became more consistent and critics began to compliment her character.
Unfortunately, even this is hurt by the fact that the writers tend to write their characters when in a romance as if they are completely different characters; Felicity was the standout fan favorite until the Ollicity ship happened in the show, but after a year of that relationship being focused on, a lot of that fan goodwill had turned sour. There's a handful of reasons for this, like the focus on Ollicity being blamed by some for the decision to kill off Laurel and the generally low quality of the fourth season of the show, but a part of the issue is that when she became part of a relationship, she stopped acting like herself (which is what made her popular in the first place).
Legends of Tomorrow probably had the worst time of these problems in the form of Hawkgirl; while the show doesn't have a singular lead, the first season still managed to treat Hawkgirl as a character defined entirely by romantic relationships, considering she bounced from one romantic interest to a second and eventually back to the first. She was allowed precious few moments that were unrelated to a romantic subplot, and her character was hurt by this significantly, being voted online as one of the least popular characters on the show (second only to her love interest Hawkman) and frequently cited by critics as one of the weakest members of the ensemble.
The bottom line here is that the writers are not writing love stories within the larger framework of the show, they are writing teases to relationships that feel like they're only allowed to happen when the series are over. It feels like they're buying into this idea that romances must be postponed indefinitely, and it's hurting the characters by locking them into characterizations that don't do them justice. The 'designated love interests' of each show (Laurel on Arrow, Iris on Flash, Jimmy Olsen on Supergirl, and Hawkgirl and Atom to a degree on Legends of Tomorrow) are the weakest characters of their respective ensembles, not through any real fault of their own, but only because the shows are limiting them to this role of perpetually unobtainable love interest.
But don't worry, there is a solution.
Maybe Just Go See What Other People Did Right
If these writers are stuck on a desire to keep 'destined' couples apart for as long as possible, and then if/when they do get together their behavior is entirely different, then I highly suggest as homework that these writers just watch The Thin Man movies. The Thin Man was a novel by Dashiell Hammett, turned into a 1934 detective movie starring William Powell and Myrna Loy as married couple Nick and Nora Charles. They banter, they bicker, they're incredibly charming, and they're just plain loads of fun. If ever you saw marriage as the point where characters settle down into boring domestication, this is the married couple to change your mind. If ever you thought that characters in love had to be entirely focused on the drama of a romantic relationship, this is the married couple to demonstrate just how casual and normal around each other married couples can be.
And I'm not just pulling this couple out of thin air here. If you've seen Marvel's The Avengers, did you enjoy the witty banter between Iron Man and Pepper Potts? If so, you have Nick and Nora Charles to thank, because Joss Whedon has specifically said the reason he even put Pepper in the movie, while he left the supporting cast and love interests for all the other superheroes out, was because he wanted to use the opportunity to write Nick and Nora-style dialogue.
If you're looking for more examples, there's plenty in comics themselves; Superman and Lois Lane were married from 1996 to 2011, and there are plenty of stories that demonstrate how great they are together, and how their relationship makes both characters more interesting. Big Barda and Mister Miracle are another fantastic examples, with adorable repertoire inspired specifically by Jack Kirby's, their creator, relationship with his wife. And then, of course, there's the Flash, Wally West, and Linda Park.
When Mark Waid picked up The Flash in 1992, he was picking up Wally West's story seven years after Barry Allen had died in action and Wally had graduated from Kid Flash to The Flash. Those seven years had seen a handful of writers attempting to figure out what grown up Wally's deal was, and had tried out some status quos and some love interests, without anything sticking around. But when it came to the romance side of it, Mark Waid's approach was relatively straightforward; just do it. The love interest at the time was reporter Linda Park, and within the first couple of issues of Waid's run, they stopped flirting and officially started dating. Over the next few years, Waid told the story of Wally and Linda's romance; not “will they, won't they”, not teases and sexual tension, it was a full on courtship that treated both characters like characters, both of them flawed but willing to make it through the hardships of a relationship because ultimately they loved each other enough to make any problems worth it. They married in 1998, after six years worth of comics exploring their courtship. A few years ago, they were voted by Comics Alliance readers as the greatest comic book couple of all time.
And that's just the thing; the comic spent a lot of time with Linda and Wally not married yet, but it was always made clear in the storytelling that that was where this was going, and it simply took its time getting there. Just because they were official, a couple didn't mean there weren't still goals to reach for. There's a huge difference between this and what the shows have been doing in almost every single romance they've brought up; the book was progressing, the shows are just stalling. And that stalling is tragically hurting the characters and the shows themselves.
So let's just move on. Drop the 'will they won't they,' drop the tension. You can still have plenty of storytelling ups and downs and conflict in the romance department while still letting these characters be in a relationship. It will allow the characters to progress in ways that work very, very well in the ongoing, episodic nature of a television show, and it will keep things from getting boring. It will allow both characters to feel like actual, fleshed out people, instead of just someone pining impotently for a figurine on a pedestal. I would argue this is the single biggest problem across these shows, which is why it sticks out like a sore thumb when so much else is going right with them. Everyone loves a love story; so get out there and tell it.