What is comic book TV’s problem with love interests?

Gotham, The Flash, Arrow... Why do the current crop of geek TV shows have such trouble creating a central romance fans want to root for?

Contains spoilers for The Flash, Arrow, Marvel’s Agents Of SHIELD, Supernatural, Gotham, and Smallville.

At the moment, a fair amount of geek TV shows seem to be producing particularly poor depictions of love and romance. The problem is only confounded by the fact that, with fandom as vocal as it is nowadays, any negative element of a show is sure to be rigorously reanalysed. As a result, love interests come into a lot of criticism from the online community.

In an attempt to find a fix, we had look through some of our favorite shows to deduce which ones get it right, and which struggle horribly. Hopefully, we can uncover the secret to getting romantic writing right in nerdy TV…

Nowadays, the term ‘love interest’ seems a bit old hat, as if the powers-that-be of the entertainment world cynically shoehorn in romantic subplots for the sake of an obligatory snog at the end. To this end, a lot of shows introduce a love interest right from the very start out of necessity, just crossing their fingers and hoping for the best. Sometimes this takes off and contributes to the show’s overall success, but just as often it falls completely flat.

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On Arrow, the show premiered with a ready-made love triangle that the audience didn’t care for, which left it scrambling for an alternative after spending half a season setting up Oliver and Laurel as an endgame couple. The presence of a relationship only a fraction of viewers were emotionally invested in led to resentment, and Laurel’s character has never really recovered from the lashing she got back in the first season.

Listening to the fan-base

So Arrow had to find someone the audience did like, and sharpish, finally landing on Felicity after listening to the deafening chorus of shippers demanding their friendship become the romance it’s since evolved into. Felicity wasn’t even supposed to be a recurring character following a one-off guest appearance, but the show’s writers smartly listened to the fan-base, giving them exactly what they wanted, for lack of a better option.

And this can often be the best path – rolling with the criticisms and changing course when something isn’t working. Otherwise, there’s a legitimate danger of How I Met Your Mother-syndrome, in which the endgame planned from the pilot is followed through on, regardless of what’s happened since.

The problem is that the same thing seems to be happening on The Flash, which has offered viewers the slightly-creepy relationship between Barry and adoptive-sister Iris. Iris isn’t nearly as hated as Laurel was on the parent show, but common consensus has the potential romance as one of the series’ weakest elements during the first few episodes.

The fact that some of these couples are already canon in the comic book-universe makes it harder to deviate, but as Arrow has proven, it’s not impossible. The favourite for an alternative is currently Barry and Caitlin (or ‘SnowBarry’), but that may be too similar to Olicity.

To use a term we’ve just made up, this ‘underwhelming pre-decided love interest problem’ plagues Gotham too. While show-runner Bruno Heller has a perfectly acceptable everyman hero in Ben McKenzie’s Jim Gordon, whenever scripts start to dabble into the commissioner-to-be’s lovelife, things tend to go very naff very quickly.

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We were introduced to Erin Richards’ Barbara in the pilot episode, with no-one doubting that she was the prescribed love interest to Jim. However, she was sadly gifted with zero likeable characteristics or much chemistry with her fiancée. The issue of foresight had an impact here, too, hard-core comic book fans know that Jim and Barbara won’t get married and live happily ever after, seeing as they are divorced in the comics. Dragging this out in a painfully long-form way is only harming the show’s reputation, with corners of the fandom wishing that Gotham could just get to the point.

At the moment, Gotham mistreats Erin Richards (who puts in a valiant effort, performance-wise) by flitting between storming-out on Jim, getting in bed with Major Crimes detective Renee Montoya, and then briefly making up with Jim afterwards. It’s managed to seem formulaic and uninspiring after only half a season, so we’re hoping to see a change soon.

In terms of fandom’s wishes, viewers are already hoping the mild-mannered detective will pair up with someone else, quickly (Arkham employee Leslie Thompkins seems a popular choice). The lesson we can learn from this one? Don’t deliberately start with a doomed relationship if you want to engage your audience immediately.

Blame the canon?

Like Gotham, dull and doomed love interest material was totally poisonous to Smallville – over the course of the show’s ten-season run, only a certain amount of leeway was afforded the writers with regards to Clark’s love life. When tuning in for seasons one to four (aka the Lana Lang years), viewers always knew that Clark would never actually end up with any of his various love interests in the end.

This would have been fine, except an entire eight seasons of the show were dedicated to making Clark and Lana into a legitimate fan-favourite pairing that never really took off. From season four onwards, Lois Lane was around as a constant reminder of what would eventually happen and, although Smallville actually managed to stick the landing there, it didn’t erase the years of frustration.

When this happens, fandom often attaches itself to the only pairing that makes sense, which is where the non-canon couples take root. This happened on a large scale with Smallville, as Clark and Lex (‘Clex’) quickly became the biggest thing about said fandom. Of course, slash couples are nothing new, having been around since Star Trek, but the internet age has changed how they relate back to the actual show.

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Fans are now more vocal than ever, and pairings like Arrow’s Olicity can happen just because the audience demands it. That’s changed everything, as shipping has slowly become a collaborative thing between fan and show-runner.

The potential problem there – despite solving the initial issue of ditching a couple the audience don’t like – is that it can take over the entire narrative. With Arrow, season three has slowly become oversaturated with the couple, taking it from being an ensemble show to being an angsty love story that just so happens to feature an occasional action sequence.

But the alternative is often even worse, as Supernatural has demonstrated time and time again. The same level of support the pairing of Dean and Castiel (‘Destiel’) get far outstrips anything else in fandom, yet it’s a couple that doesn’t fit with the show-runners’ desired trajectory.

That’s the nicest and vaguest way to put it, of course, as we’ll never know the true reasons for its lack of canonical acknowledgement, but the prevalence of it has meant that any female love interest introduced is promptly assassinated by fans before being swiftly killed off in the actual show. It’s a vicious cycle that has resulted in constant knowing winks to the audience without any satisfactory payoff. See also: Teen Wolf’s ‘Sterek’.

Either there’s too much fan-service and it compromises the integrity of a show-runners’ vision, or writers stick so stringently to the original plan that they alienate viewers who have latched onto a particular pairing.

Getting it right

Thankfully, there are a few televisual gems that don’t fall into these familiar traps. For example, there was certainly a danger that Sherlock could go the same way as Supernatural, and that the male/male relationship could have become the only thing fans cared about. However, the stellar scriptwriting from Moffat, Gatiss and Thompson has ensured this isn’t a problem.

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While there is plenty of coy humour about Sherlock and Watson’s bromance, and sizeable sections of the internet who like to elaborate, the string of love interests introduced to the show have always been enjoyable. Series one gave us Watson’s understanding boss Zoe and confidence-lacking pathologist Molly, both of whom felt like real people, and were never presented as a pre-prescribed ‘happily ever after’ in the making. It’s a subtle difference between killing off an unpopular love interest and deliberately introducing one who was never meant to be permanent, but Sherlock manages to stay on the right side of it.

This impressive handling of inter-gender relations was maintained in series 2, particularly with Irene Adler popping up in the series opener A Scandal In Belgravia. Again, she didn’t seem to be a personified plot device, but instead felt like a fine foil for the greatest detective of all time. She was gifted with superb sass too, and didn’t hang around long enough to get squashed into generic gender roles material.

In fact, up until series 3, none of these characters became long-term partners, which is neatly realistic. It’s often irritating when shows attempt to give you a ‘love of my life’ character from the start, seeing as life is rarely that simple. Then, of course, we got Mary – a strong female character with her own agenda and secrets. Rather than batting her eyelashes, she gave John some really difficult decisions to make, too. Fine work on that one, BBC.

Interestingly, Marvel Studios’ televisual output generally manages to side step the problem of naff love interests, by not really bothering them. With the exception of the Fitz and Simmons arc (that has dallied around with the whole will-they-wont-they shtick for far too long), the multitude of writers working on Agents Of SHIELD have steered refreshingly clear of forced-feeling or boring romantic plotlines.

Even with the lingering remnants of Fitz and Simmons’ naff ‘how have they not snogged yet?’ palaver, the team at Marvel have now found a way to make the dynamic more interesting. After ditching an attempt to pair Simmons with Tripp instead, the decision was made to mentally damage Fitz. Now, he struggles to explain science stuff, let alone his emotions. The result is more interesting material for Iain De Caestecker and Emily Henstridge, and a still-potentially-romantic narrative strand that feels far from generic.

Similarly, Agents Of SHIELD toyed with our emotions through the Skye-and-Ward romance (‘SkyeWard’) – setting them up as a perfect couple in the offing before revealing Ward as a closeted HYDRA agent. Resultantly, Skye now hates the guy and would literally shoot him on sight. Both these romantic arcs are refreshing for their refusal to stick to generic narrative beats, despite beginning as seemingly stale and predictable ideas.

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Newcomers Bobbi and Lance have a brilliantly realistic relationship – if you can call it that – within one of Agents Of SHIELD’s smaller strands. Of all the small-screen sweethearts mentioned in this article, BobLance (sorry) might just be the most genuine. From Nick Blood’s foul-mouthed hatred towards his ‘demonic hell beast’ of an ex, to the speed at which they become romantically reacquainted upon crossing paths again, this has become one of our favourite depictions of love’s weird and varied forms in the superhero section of the small screen.

Love. Who needs it?

On the other side of the Marvel fence, Agent Carter has so far delivered its love-based material with aplomb. Rather than the girl falling at the hero’s feet, we have a woman who can barely think about another man after losing the love of her life during World War II. As tragic as the tale is, a female character that isn’t defined by the boys who fancy her is always welcome in our book.

It’s original-feeling ground for a comic book show, too, and it feels totally natural for her character (considering the events of Captain America: The First Avenger). In time, Peggy might be paired-off with one of her new suitors, but at the moment we’re very glad to see an independent woman on our television sets who doesn’t want a boyfriend – no matter how many offers she gets, they’re simply not the right man. And that’s not a bad lesson to teach younger viewers tuning in.

Similarly, Doctor Who’s Doctor has never felt like a hero who needed to be partnered-up with someone, but that hasn’t stopped the writers trying (with mixed results) over the years.

The first few series of post-reboot Who were an interesting case, as we can assume that Rose was never introduced specifically to be a love interest. But modern television demands that any male and female duo must have some sexual tension and, as soon as David Tennant entered the frame, the chemistry took over.

When fans can’t get over the ex

People, largely, loved it, and were heartbroken when Rose was written out and replaced with a new companion. Change is in the DNA of the show, of course, but a large portion of Nu-Who viewers were acclimatised to normal TV rules. They hated Martha for a number of reasons, but mainly because the show had misguidedly created her as a rival romantic candidate for the Doctor.

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It could be said that this is what’s happened on Sleepy Hollow, too, as the pairing of Abbie and Ichabod has been incredibly popular, yet never officially acknowledged as a prospective couple beyond friends and partners. On the flip-side, Ichabod’s wife Katrina is almost universally loathed.

Examples are numerous – Buffy’s Riley era was something that fans look back on with confusion, though it was helpfully followed up with Buffy and Spike, which was something viewers could really get behind.

The Originals has a similar predicament in that the main love interest for Klaus – the central character – is everyone’s least favourite role, yet the writers are just refusing to back down. It doesn’t help that the character’s main romance on The Vampire Diaries – Caroline – had some of the biggest and loudest supporters in the fandom, and has a fair amount of unfinished business.

So what have we learned from our examination of love interests? Well, the example of Agents Of SHIELD has taught us that mining your own fandom to see what works can be a fine idea (both FitzSimmons and SkyeWard have improved vastly since the writers got some feedback).

However, the distracting dependence on Olicity in Arrow, and the romantic dead-end of Supernatural, have shown us that too much fan-service can detract from what everyone loved about the show in the first place and lessen the viewer experience.

Additionally, not much is worse than sticking on a new show only to be told who the pre-prescribed love interest is within the first five minutes. It didn’t work for Laurel in Arrow, and the auto-assigned destiny of it all hasn’t done any favours for Iris in The Flash either. Starting with a romance that comic book readers know is doomed (Barbara in Gotham, Lana in Smallville) is equally frustrating.

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All in all, some of the largest successes in this televisual romantic arena come when two characters organically evolve into a compelling duo, and trying to force it rarely – if ever – works out. A balance has to be struck between giving viewers what they want and being willing to change, but also not bowing to their every whim and letting aimless fan-service get in the way of a good story. (Sometimes it’s worth remembering that certain characters don’t need a love interest in order to be awesome, as well.)

Naturally, our favourite love interests are those who don’t feel pre-assigned, wont necessarily last forever and have the sort of fragility and personality clashes that we can all relate to. Irene and Mary from Sherlock, and Bobbi and Lance from Agents Of SHIELD, please come and collect your prizes.