Sunday, December 7, 2008

Love Stories

A couple weeks ago, I wanted to write about how the success of House gives me faith in America. House is a complex show that deals with philosophical issues, about medical ethics, of right and wrong, connecting with people, of how to live. The fact that it is one of America’s top-rated shows—and one that is well-acted, generally well-written, and both a critical and fan favorite—makes me very happy. But I also realized that House does something that is very rare on television shows: two of the main characters, Gregory House and Lisa Cuddy, are both single for a long time.

As most people know, these are two characters who flirt and argue with each other, and often their scenes are fun to watch. They are the standard couple that fans are suppose to root for, and of course they’ll get together at the end of the series, as is television convention. What is notable is that their relationship obstacles are themselves—their own stubbornness, expectations, beliefs, habits, and personality quirks—and not other people. House does not date. Cuddy does not date. This is pretty big for television; most shows have boyfriends and girlfriends and affairs and would-be suitors that rotate out of the main characters’ lives, with various missed chances and misunderstandings. But as House has continued the past few weeks, with Cuddy and House kissing and acknowledging their attraction to each other, there have been those classic television misunderstandings, most notably in last week’s episode, “Let them Eat Cake”, where House is off flirting with a woman he hired to play a prank on Kutner and Taub. Cuddy sees this just as she’s about to forgive him for an earlier incident, since House had done something special for her.

Last weekend, I saw three movies that revolve around “grand” love affairs: Twilight, Australia, and a Bollywood hit titled Fanaa, which means “Destroyed in Love” in English. While it’s true that love stories follow similar arcs—there’s a meet cute, often involving a misunderstanding or a dislike, a gradual time of becoming friends, then really good friends, periods of crisis that draw the two together, the requisite confusing/scared emotions, the obstacles that keep the two apart (whether external or internal, or a combination)—it doesn’t mean that they are particularly interesting, victorious, or that they work at all. A formula does not mean success.

This is why most love stories aren’t good. They just aren’t. They’re everywhere, and that’s one of the problems—love stories are supposed to be special, exciting, meaningful, infused with pain, yet there’s an unbreakable sense of connection, friendship and yes, love, that underscores it all. That’s what the good ones do. You can follow all the rules, and still not have the story matter. Twilight, Australia and Fanaa had many of the standard elements, but none of them were particularly good. What struck me and my compatriots in watching the movies, though, was that there were thematic and tonal similarities: while all of them were over-the-top, the drama was ridiculous in Twilight and Fanaa. There was too much back-and-forth, too much “I can’t live without you!” hysterics. There was too much talk of dying for each other, of “You can’t be with me, because I will get you killed! I will ruin your life! And therefore we must STAY AWAY from each other!” In both Twilight and Australia, there was a scene where one of the leads doesn’t know how to dance and is shy. The genders were reversed, but the dialogue was practically the same in both movies, despite that one dealt with cowboys and the other vampires.

Love stories are overhyped, fit into any story because it’s considered a necessary element of success. Upping the ante by introducing politics, death, illness and other catastrophes is often considered another requirement of epic romances, but it’s not necessary and often takes away from the central story. That’s what happened in Twilight and Australia (although Australia's story wasn’t really about the romance, but was a substantial part of it). These elements are usually so over-the-top that they obscure the real romance and move it into parody, drawing out the movie so we just don’t care any more. That occurred in all three movies.

What’s missing in the movies, and in most love stories, is the friendship behind the leads. In Roger Ebert’s review of Twilight, he says, “They’re in love with being in love.” Bella and Edward spend the movie giving each other smoking, lustful looks and discussing why they can’t be together (he wants her blood too much), but there’s nothing else besides attraction that hold them together.

The central question of any love story should be: why do these two love each other? Why them? The audience needs to see why each cares for the other, why each genuinely likes the other. Most treat this question superficially, glossing over it for the more exciting romantic tension that awaits. But tension is meaningless and not as much fun if the fundamentals aren’t there, if the reason for the tension is perfunctory and silly.

I’m convinced that Michael Patrick King wanted to create a great love story in Big and Carrie in Sex and the City, and that’s the overwhelming feeling I’m left with whenever I see the finale. (I’m excusing the movie here because I feel it retreads a lot of the same ground, but it could work within this framework, since their love ends happily after a massive screw-up.) Here we see why Carrie and Big just have this overwhelming affection for each other—that they can laugh and flirt and just be fun with each other, and each likes the other’s playful attitude, that person’s love of New York City. Despite all their problems, they go back to each other—a controversial point in most romantic relationships, because this tendency can be destructive, hampering the necessity of moving on. Carrie and Big’s epic love story is one thing I take away from the show, and I think he succeeds in creating a lasting, captivating story, one with many believable, heart-wrenching turns.

One of the reasons The Office is such on shaky ground this season is that it doesn’t know what to do with its central couple, Jim and Pam. The show was phenomenal in its second and third seasons partly because it was powered by the unrequited love between those two, and the second season finale “Casino Night”, where Jim confesses his love to Pam and then kisses her, is considered by many to be the best episode of the series. Watching the friendship between the two, Jim’s longing and confusion followed by Pam’s longing and confusion, was at times exhilarating, heartbreaking, and frustrating, and garnered lots of fans of both the show and the characters. By coupling the characters early enough in the series, considered a radical move by many, the show set us up to watch their relationship grow. But the lack of romantic tension, sad to say, was not replaced by genuinely interesting and compelling storylines, but ones that had the potential to be so and then written off. Romantic intrigue was passed onto other characters, poorly, as if one great love story can be substituted for another.

While The Office can and hopefully will bounce back from the stupidity this lackluster season has brought, it could show what many want to see: a full-fledged, real relationship, without the excessive drama that plagues most television and movie romance. It can be done, and it can be done well—it just takes imagination and a real commitment to write a story based around interesting and compelling characters. But too often it just doesn’t seem palatable. After all, it’s very hard to write about a relationship in television or in the movies that’s about the after part of “happily ever after.” The joke is that it doesn’t exist.

As Emily Gould put it recently, when discussing Gossip Girl:

It’s rare to watch a tv show’s writers basically confess that they’ve hit a wall. Imagine if, somewhere around the third season of Friends, Ross had sat Rachel down and said, “You know, we’ll never stay together, because there would really be nothing to hang the misunderstanding-based hijinx of this show on.” When Chuck told Blair that “the game” is “what we like,” he might as well have been staring into the camera and addressing the audience directly. ‘When we finally get together,’ he’s saying, ‘you’ll know that Gossip Girl’s writers have finally gotten that memo from CW headquarters that they’ve got another episode or two to wrap things up.’

But less cynically, or maybe more cynically: the audience basically never gets to watch the ever-after part of romances – it’s boring, we’re given to understand, all that moviegoing and hand-holding. Love affairs have three acts, we know from tv, and even, a little, from our own experience. There’s the thrilling beginning, fraught with obstacles and delicious suffering. And then there’s the middle, the happy normalcy phase that actually maybe doesn’t even exist and is just a slow slide into the mediocrity and boredom that signals the end. Maybe there are just two acts, then.

And when act two is running its course, it’s back to the drawing board again.


petpluto said...

You saw three movies this weekend?! And Twilight was one of them?!

John said...

"The audience needs to see why each cares for the other, why each genuinely likes the other."
That's easily answered in Twilight. Edward is so charming it's literally flowing out of his pores, so much so that he literally sparkles with the stuff.

If you ever end up watching the rest of The Middleman, I think you'll like the way Wendy and Tyler's romance blossoms over the course of the season, culminating in a very interesting setup for season two (if and when the series gets picked up.)

MediaMaven said...

Pet, I actually watched four movies.

I didn't mean to imply that House and Cuddy will end up together at the end of the series, or that love stories have to end happily to be great. Those are just usually the defaults when it comes to entertainment.

I also apologize for any weird formatting. Apparently when you type in "Australia", random country codes are inserted in the HTML! Nothing was strange when I posed the entry the other day.

Anonymous said...

I agree with a lot of what you've said, it not all. My housemates loved Twilight, but I felt there was little in it other than a jumpy romance that wasn't really "heartfelt" at all. My favourite 'ship, if you're associated to that sort of thing, is about two people who actually are friends first, and, as you said, you can see why it works. There's a friendship underneath it all, which is often ignored for the "romance" when I think that's what really makes it: you can really see and understand that they *care* for eachother as well as love eachother. Yeah, I think that's important and rarely gets included.