Drama on TV has become edgier and more absorbing by the minute these days. They’re pushing the envelope every year in terms of storylines, and once you move beyond the big four Mom & Pop networks, anything goes in terms of content.
That’s not to say it’s gratuitous, but production companies use the lack of censorship they can find via the other channels and networks as freedom to tell far more involved and adult stories, with fully-rounded out characters and universes.
Series like True Blood, Game of Thrones, Rome, The Tudors, Lost Girl, The Sopranos, Deadwood, Band of Brothers, Nip/Tuck and more that are coming to our screens soon would lose so much in the telling if they’d had to sterilize and compress the sex and violence that thread through the characters and storylines.
Movies have an easier time of it because they can restrict audiences and slap warnings on their movies, and a good scandal or media furor over a heated scene or two will drive people into the cinemas, which is great for business.
But while these series are great at telling stories, they suck at telling romances.
Have you noticed?
Oh, don’t get me wrong. They’re absolutely pitch-perfect practiced at doling out romantic storylines. The women are always stunningly beautiful, and the heroes are always to die-for, and there is always a pulse-pausing moment or two, at least. The actors are getting better and better at delivering those perfect looks that make your hearts leap and your adrenaline surge as your whole body urges them to kiss dammit!, but they never do. Or they might, but there’s something standing in the way of full and total committment to each other.
In the more erotic series that I’ve quoted above, the couple may even end up in bed together, but they’re not truly committed to each other. There’s something between them, unresolved. Grit in the oil of the romance, rubbing away at both of them, irritating them into petty arguments and mistunderstandings, even while the sex is clearly great.
And that’s another thing. You see the set up of great sex, and the end result: Blissfully happy couples. But no series has ever left the bedroom door fully open (True Blood comes close, sometimes, and so does Lost Girl.
When the moment of total, 100% commitment finally arrives (often after being dangled forever), it lasts for one freakin’ scene. That’s it. That’s all you get. After waiting sometimes for multi seasons. The “I Love You” lasts for three flippin’ minutes, maybe, and it’s all over, cut to the next scene, or roll credits.
I hate romance storylines on film because of this factor. Hate it. It’s like every TV and movie writer in the world gets a terminal case of worms and can’t wait to write past the scene and get the fuck out of there when they hit the “I love you” scene, because it’s dealing with those uncomfortable, yucky, make-you-squirm things called emotions. Never mind that the entire balance of their scripts deal with every other emotion under the sun. Love is too intense, too private, too feminine. It’s what all those romance writers write about, behind the florid, embarrassing clinch covers, and the screenwriters will all curl up their toes and die than be considered a romance writer, so let’s just gloss over this little “I love you” scene here, because if I write it too well, people might start looking at me sideways, thinking I’m, well, one of them…a romance writer.
Can you tell it drives me bonkers?
Series will spend four seasons letting a romantic couple circle around each other, breathing heavily, and driving ratings through the ceiling. For the sexy series, they’ll dream erotic dreams about each other, and the ratings will break ceiling tiles and punch out shingles on their way to ratings heavens.
But when the series hits the big pay off scene when the couple finally gets to say the three magic words and have real sex, or in some cases sex without their shields up, they always flub it.
I’ve never seen a pay-off scene played well.
Not the way a romance novel does it.
Even making allowances for the different mediums — where a romance novel gives the author the ability to show a character’s thoughts and feelings — I still have to stay romance authors are streets ahead of screenwriters when it comes to writing the “I love you” scene. They know how to give the reader/audience what they want. They’ll let the hero and heroine speak of what’s really in their hearts, and when that moment comes — when the hero finally leaps and says the three words, the reader’s heart leaps, too, because the tension has been steadily winding up for pages, leading to that moment.
And the author doesn’t immediately stop the scene there. She stays with it, letting the magic of the previous 200, 300 or 400 pages of tension and build-up play out for a few more pages, while the reader rolls around in the glory of that magical moment, savouring it, while the hero and heroine glow in the moment of realization that they really do love each other. That is it real, and that nothing stands in their way. Finally. It’s pay-off time, and everyone gets to party: The hero and heroine, the author and the reader.
Screenwriters have a visual medium to counter the lack of internal dialogue — beautiful people, scenery and swelling music to provide atmosphere. But they still baulk at playing out the scene for all it’s worth. One the three words have been spoken, sometimes followed up with a kiss, the scene is quickly closed. End. Finiti. No party. No savouring. While you sit there thinking But I wanted to see him look at her one more time with those eyes! the episode has already moved on to the week’s villian or mystery and you have to shift your focus, cheated of the shining moment.
Part of the screenwriter’s limitation is time, pacing and audience: They can’t linger lovingly for minutes on end while the hero and heroine deconstruct each misunderstanding and argument they’ve had in the past, the way some romance novels do. TV episode have to fit a tight schedule, and every male member of a movie audience would get up and leave after two minutes of such a scene, simply unable to withstand the yucky stuff any longer.
But there are ways the screenwriter could get around these limitations and still not shortchange the romance relationship pay-off. One way is to break up the pay-off scene into mini-scenes and insert other scenes in between, so the other storylines in the move/episode run concurrently with the romance pay-off, keeping non-romance-loving viewers satisfied while the longer pay-off scene played out.
Now, I’m not a professional screenwriter, and I came up with that one. So there has to be other ways.
And look at Fringe, the TV series. There’s another alternative. They put the couple together early in the series, then the viewer gets to see them having a healthy, romantic relationship, week after week, and it’s great. I love Peter and Olivia, and I love watching their relationship evolve. I get to see them interacting, and their love growing stronger all the time. That’s a super-pay-off, one that has lasted for two years so far, and doesn’t seem to be getting tired in the least.
In many ways, romances in novels are still far more satisfying to read than to watch on TV and in movies.
But damn, the heroes are good to watch, aren’t they?