We all have our favorite and least favorite tropes. From love triangles to slow burns, tropes are often the best way to showcase great characters and storylines. They can also be frustrating and make you question why it is even a trope at all. In this bi-weekly column, we’ll take a deep dive into some of the most classic television tropes.
We have to say — it’s good to be back and writing this column. We have missed deep-diving into the plethora of television we have consumed. And since quarantine started, we have watched even more television.
When getting this column back up and running, we had to decide which trope would be the best one to bring this column back to life. The decision was pretty easy when we realized that we still haven’t written about probably the most common trope out there.
It’s hard for us to name one television show that doesn’t use the trope of “will they or won’t they” at least once throughout its run. Trope TV defines this trope as when “two characters, often combative, but with obvious unresolved sexual tension, resist going into a full-blown relationship for a rather long time.” This trope typically lasts a couple of seasons, unless you’re unlucky and you happen to watch a show that drags this on for its entire run (looking at you Mulder and Scully).
When a show introduces two characters with insane chemistry, it can be boring to immediately pair them together (unless you’re One Tree Hill’s Nathan and Haley). That’s why this trope exists and works so well because it gives writers the time to toy around with the idea of a paring. They’re able to build out a couple’s relationship even further so that when the couple does get together, it’s more than worth it.
One of the first television shows that we ever obsessed over had a great example of a “will they or won’t they” relationship. Law & Order SVU’s Olivia Benson and Elliot Stabler was the epitome of this trope. For seasons, the writers built up their partnership to imply that maybe one day they could be more than just fellow officers in blue. Not only did they save each other’s lives repeatedly, but they also shared longing looks and continuously expressed how much they meant to each other. This did nothing but just promote the idea that maybe could and should be more than partners.
However, despite all the back and forth, Elliot and Olivia never got together. In fact, they never even shared a kiss. The fandom was forced to hold on to meaningful lines such as “I’d give you a kidney” instead. But the fact that this couple never came to fruition doesn’t detract from the fact that they were just so goddamn good.
Elliot and Olivia’s relationship had us attached to Law & Order SVU for years, constantly waiting for the moment that they would transition to the “will they” part of the trope. Of course, it bugged the hell out of us the longer it would go on, but hooked we were. And isn’t that the point of any trope?
Many procedural television shows use this trope to entice viewers. Bones, Castle and The X-Files are a few more examples that come to mind. The only show more gut-wrenching than Law & Order SVU when it came to this trope was the show that also invited the term “shipping” aka The X-Files. We discussed these specific couples a lot in our article about the “Partners to Lovers” trope, so we won’t beat a dead horse.
But procedurals aren’t the only genre that plays into this trope as comedies often do it as well. Jim and Pam from The Office is another prime example of this trope. So are New Girl’s Nick and Jess and Psych’s Shawn and Juliet (I always considered Psych a comedy at heart). These shows are a more fun way of watching this trope unfold, often without all the drama that comes with, well, a drama.
We find that comedies allow us to explore the more fun sides of starting and being in a relationship. They lean more on the lightheartedness of a relationship rather than going all-in on the problems and drama. While we primarily only watch dramas, sometimes you need a break from that. If television shows are meant to be an escape, comedies are probably the best place to do just that.
Now, this can’t be an article about the “will they or won’t they” trope without me talking about the infamous The 100 couple. That’s right — Bellamy Blake and Clarke Griffin.
The crazy thing about this specific couple is that they’re probably the only couple that we weren’t always rooting for. For the longest time, we were never a fan of them progressing to be more than just best friends. Eventually, we succumbed to their sexual tension and realized that maybe they were meant to be together.
Perhaps, that’s just what happens the longer a “will they or won’t they” relationship goes on. You end up shipping them no matter what. Fortunately, because we weren’t as invested as other Bellarke shippers may have been, we weren’t too bummed when they didn’t end up together. If anything, we were just frustrated with the way their relationship ultimately ended not just the fact that they never even kissed.
Couples like Bellarke and Elliot and Olivia beg the question of what’s the point of teasing a couple to have them not end up together? It only makes the audience feel gaslighted and frustrated.
What we find to be the beauty of this trope is that it can serve as the ultimate reward. There is no greater feeling than watching a couple you’ve been rooting for finally get together. It’s as if the writers are validating your investment and not making you think you’re crazy for thinking that they belong together. On the other hand, there is also no worse feeling than having a couple end without so much as a kiss.
As I said, we weren’t too gutted when Bellarke didn’t come to fruition as a romantic couple, but we sure can sympathize with the pain I’m sure Bellarke shippers faced when the series ended without them being together. It’s sort of a cruel thing for a writer to do — constantly teasing something and never actually going through with it.
It’s not only selfish, but it’s kind of a slap in the face to the viewers. Bellarke shippers practically kept The 100 afloat, and it was such a disservice to them to have the show end the way it did.
At least for Elliot and Olivia shippers, they have a second chance this year.
Part of us also believes that this trope is fading away. It’s hard to make a strong “will they or won’t they” couple when shows are only lasting a couple of seasons. Most of the couples we listed took years to build up, making it more difficult for shows within this peak TV age to do the same.
We are optimistic, however, and am just waiting for the day when another great “will they or won’t they” couple appears. God knows we are a sucker for them.