Love in the reel world

- Nicola M. Sebastian - The Philippine Star

MANILA, Philippines - It’s all a dirty trick, I tell you. Because if there’s a girl, there has to be a boy. You’ll spot “him” easily enough in any TV show: the character with a cheeky smile and easy company, but one plot complication or another keeping him just a little out of reach. (No, not that nice chap hovering amiably in the background — he’s much too straightforward.)

And from there onwards it’s pure painful pleasure, as the show thickens not just the plot but the pre-assigned duo’s chemistry. It’s a maddening game of hot and cold, dangling consummation, and pulling it away just at the precise moment that we lose all self-control and yell, “Kiss her already!”

And it works! Our frustration is only exceeded by our need to keep watching till something finally happens — TV being one of those baffling human curiosities where quality has nothing to do with success.

The puppet masters know just how to play us. Who needs 50 Shades of Grey, when you’ve got an entire season of The Newsroom watching Jim and Maggie not get together again and again to make us bite our lips? It’s the torture of the worst kind — the romantic type.

It’s the cheapest trick in the book, so why haven’t we learned? Why aren’t we wise to a scriptwriter’s ploys to substitute plot tension with sexual tension, complicated characters with complicated relationships? Put me in front of any show, quality be damned, and I find myself rooting for the one introduced as The One — usually determined by order of appearance, a.k.a. the guy who came first. Almost like a chick imprinting on the first moving object it sees. We’re not so different from the feathered kind, after all.

But that’s just it. It’s instinctual because it is — it’s in our cultural programming. Rom-coms, Disney movies, even ol’ Barbie and Ken have ingrained this idea of one is to one: One guy is to one girl. In the series’ finale of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, never mind that Spike set himself on fire for Buffy, walking into the sunlight and saving the town of Sunnydale — in most fans’ minds, it’s always been and always will be Buffy and Angel.

Maybe there’s some merit to this myth, that there is one person out there for you. It keeps us fighting for love even when we’re past tired, keeps us hoping, heartbreak after heartbreak. But That Guy — the one you think of as Hannah shrugs hopelessly at Adam in Girls, or as a lovelorn Mary comforts a worried Matthew in Downton Abbey — isn’t necessarily The One, and he doesn’t have to be. When TV shows slack off by pulling The One card to rule them all, instead of building, you know, an actual story, I say shame on them for giving us a lesser love, and encouraging us to settle for it. And shame on us for letting them. Because lazy storytelling allows us to be likewise. Fictional or real-life relationship, we deserve better.

It’s not that we shouldn’t believe in love. Some of these love stories have the makings of timeless, some are even worth — fine, fine — the silly sighs and smiles. You just need to take a good look before you close your eyes and pucker up. I mean, at least acknowledge that you’re getting played by a major f*cking player, as Hannah’s mom says in the pilot of Girls. It pays to try to sort the treasure from the trash. A good measure is to check what keeps you burning for more. Is it just to see if they kiss? Are there any other plot developments that got you intrigued? Do you Google images of them together while waiting for more episodes?

Good television can inspire as well as indulge, and shows shouldn’t require our heads to shut down when our hearts skip a beat. They can be used at the same time, you know, despite all evidence to the contrary.

In good television, as in life, the finale is always worth the wait.

‘Awkward’: Matty and Jenna (Jake)

Current status: Matty’s still playing third wheel to the Jenna and Jake season.

Pleasure/pain principle: The whole popular cutie falling for the school weirdo makes this pairing extra sweet. Matty’s newfound sensitivity and their lack of closure make it equally torturous.

Will they, won’t they… should they? Matty’s grown so much because of Jenna, so as nice as Jake is, maybe Matty and Jenna will be right for each other further down the line. But right now, maybe Jenna just needs to be single. They all have a lot of growing up to do. Love triangles are pretty advanced stuff.

‘Downton Abbey’: Matthew and Mary

Current status: United in the spirit of Christmas.

Pleasure/pain principle: First, Matthew wanted Mary, but Mary wasn’t sure, then Mary wanted Matthew, but he was engaged — it was all a tortuous and ill-timed business, all the more painful knowing that the potential union, besides saving Downton, would make a fine good match in all aspects.

Will they, won’t they… should they? The second season saw her learning a thing or two about selfless love. Mary will definitely have her second chance at happiness, but the question is, has she grown enough to not mess it up again? Of course, justice, honor, and happy endings in the form of marital bliss still stand for something at Downton Abbey — World War I and women’s suffrage be damned.

‘New Girl’: Nick and Jess

Current status: Despite Jess’s efforts to stop Nick from backsliding, he’s moving in with the ex that played ice hockey with his heart.

Pleasure/pain principle: The easy vibe between these two roomies and besties means that there’s more pleasure than pain here. Just a twinge of the “what if” dangling over them, which is the spark behind any good platonic boy-girl friendship, onscreen or off.

Will they, won’t they… should they? Not for a good while yet. There are still a lot of romantic misadventures to be had, scenes for Schmidt to steal, with or without a shirt, and development that has to happen for these characters, so that when they’re ready to fall in love, we are, too.

‘The Newsroom’: Jim and Maggie

Current status: Everyone is operating on this need to be “a good guy,” instead of saying how they really feel. As a result of this noble act, no one is happy.

Pleasure/pain principle: It started off cute enough, but as Sorkin maneuvers them away from each other again and again, it makes one wonder if the chemistry’s worth all the self-delusion. I mean, really, you two: Who do you think you’re fooling? Certainly not your significant others.

Will they, won’t they … should they? It could happen; they’re both nerds and their neuroses get along splendidly. Of course, they’ll both need some major breakthroughs in terms of emotional honesty and self-confidence, but unfortunately we might have run out of patience by then.

‘Girls’: Adam and Hannah

Current status: Hannah is really scared. Like, all the time. Frankly, it’s pissing Adam off.

Pleasure/pain principle: Not so much pain as awkwardness, a sensation akin to pain. Seeing such a galactically screwed-up couple get their sh*t together is always heartwarming. Especially when the weird d-bag turns out to be a weird sweetheart. But baggage and insecurity are never far behind.

Will they, won’t they … should they? They might, they might not — but that’s not the point. What’s important is the struggle of each of the show’s characters to grow up and realize their potential. A happy ending for Hannah doesn’t necessarily include a man, but it does come with a balanced and meaningful life — which is good for relationships, too.

Proof that it can work:

‘Modern Family’: Claire and Phil

Here’s a couple that you can root for —because you can be sure that, bickering aside, at the end of the day, they’re rooting for each other.








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