A Rant About Television's Difficulty in Representing Committed Relationships

Two things collided over the past week for me as a loyal television viewer and I want to get them off my chest. I give fair warning that this is going to be a bit of a rant. There's almost no aca here and a hell of a lot of fan. The first is that after watching House M.D. with some great pleasure for seven seasons, I am more and more facing the grim reality that it has more or less jumped the shark this season thanks to its frustrating and ill-conceived representation of the on-again, off-again love affair between House and Cuddy.

The second is that I have been more or less inhaling Castle for the past month or so, watching several episodes a night in true "can't eat just one" spirit, having somehow failed to discover it until its third season, and much of what has fueled my passion for this series has been its sophisticated handling of the relationships (all of them in their varied forms and contexts) between the central characters. If you also have not discovered Castle, here's a first season preview which does a good job of spilling out the basic premise.

The contrast between the two series came to a head for me when I read the profile of Castle star Nathan Fillion in the March 25 issue of Entertainment Weekly, a cover story which correctly declared Fillion "Geek God," and which included a side bar asking Castle's two leads whether they think Castle and Beckett should "date or wait." The responses broke down rather predictably along gender lines, with Stana Katic, who plays Beckett, rooting for the two characters to "take it to the next level" and Nathan Fillion worrying that doing so will take much of the passion and tension out of the series. Here's what they each had to say:

Katic: "I might be naively romantic, but I believe that a relationship can be just as spicy when people get together as it was in the chase. The complications that happen when characters like Beckett and Castle get together can make for interesting viewing. They have ex-boyfriends and ex-girlfriends, he has a certain kind of lifestyle and she has a certain kind of lifestyle -- and then on top of that, they actually really care for each other. It would be neat to see how these two people attract each other and drive each other crazy. I'd love to see what happens when Beckett actually touches on a couple of his pet peeves. It would be fun to see her torture him a little bit, you know, in a fun way."

Fillion: "When you get people together, [viewers] stop with the yearning, they stop with the wanting. They go, 'Ah, finally. They're together. All right, what else is on?' I know as an audience member, I enjoy knowing more than the characters I watch on TV know. [With our show it's] looking at these two, saying 'just turn around! She's making the face right now! She's making the face! You'll see it! Ah, you missed it.' The lack of resolution is what keeps people coming back. I think the challenge is how do you serve that so it's not repetitive."

And yes, I know what Fillion's worried about -- he's worried about seeing something like what has happened to House this season. But the problem with House is not that House and Cuddy are in a relationship. The problem is that the writers do not have a clue how to depict a relationship between House and Cuddy in a way which shows any kind of emotional maturity, any kind of psychological depth, and any kind of personal growth.

I often suspect that Hollywood's inability to depict relationships that grow over time has everything to do with the divorce rate in the entertainment capital, very little to do with the constraints of the medium (given how well television depicts the unfolding of interpersonal relationships over time) and even less to do with the desire of fans. (One of the things to pay attention to is how many of the "commitment" episodes for television series are written by a small handful of writers who have consistently ruined every couple they touched.)

From my experience, fandom is all about the relationships between characters, and fans are capable of pulling out insights into those relationships from the most subtle touch, the most nuanced reaction shots, and stitch them together through their stories and videos into stories which show how relationships can grow and unfold over time. Here, for example, a fan re-edits footage from the series to imagine a different kind of relationship between the protagonists.

I've been married for more than thirty years to the same woman (well, actually, neither of us remains the same person from one moment to the next and that's part of what makes marriage such a grand adventure.) My wife remains my best friend, my playmate, my mentor and confident, my sharpest critic and my biggest fan, and living together keeps me constantly on my toes.

This is the kind of relationship which we rarely see on television, again because contemporary writers seem incapable of writing such relationships -- could it be because they are twenty-somethings still recovering from their first major breakup? If I go back to older Hollywood movies, I can see the kinds of relationships I am looking for -- all you have to do is watch any movie which couples Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracey or even better, my personal favorite pairing, William Powell and Myrna Loy. Watch how their relationship grows across the full run of The Thin Man series, even, though, gasp, they are together from their very first scenes. There's nothing dull, predictable, passionless, or static about their interactions. It doesn't fall back on House's cynical assumption that people are ultimately incapable of change and thus doomed to disappoint each other.

Part of what gives me confidence that Castle is not going to fall into the traps that House has is that the series itself has shown a close attention to the nuances of character interaction from its first season forward. Certainly, Castle and Beckett have grown closer to each other episode by episode and the writers have been imaginative at finding new ways to deepen their bonds with each other. They clearly are two people who have fun together, which for me is the number one requirement for a meaningful and committed relationship, and they are people who respect each other's intelligence and creativity. The series loves to show them pitching ideas back and forth, often completing each other's intelligence, and they take delight in showing the two very adult characters nevertheless playing with each other, teasing each other with hints of secrets not yet disclosed.

But it isn't just the intense chemistry between the two performers -- and the obvious passion between the two characters which everyone but they seem prepared to acknowledge -- that gives me faith for the future of the relationship. It is also that the series does a great job of depicting other kinds of relationships -- friendships and partnerships such as the one between Ryan and Esposito, mentorships such as the one between Captain Montgomery and Beckett, the father-daughter relationship between Castle and Alexis, the mother-son relationship between Castle and Martha, and even the complexities of relationships which unfold in a single relationships. They recently sprang on us a romance between Esposito and Parish that retrospectively seemed to have been hiding in plain sight all along. There's a powerful sense here that relationships do not just involve the partners but also extend across a larger social network which has a stake in each member's happiness.

And in each of these relationships, at each stage of development, there are hints that the characters involved are more than the sum of their relationships. They are still capable of surprising each other, they have both a history and a future together. This is what keeps me as a fan watching a series long past the point where the genre formulas shaping the stories have become predictable. So, why should the writers or cast worry about their ability to keep the relationship interesting once they move beyond the first blushes of courtship, given that the relationship so far has been so much deeper than teasing the audience about will they or want they?

Given the range and complexity of these relationships, there are surely many different dimensions of the life between Castle and Beckett the writers can pull out, many different things they can learn from and about each other, and many ways that their relationship can be implicated in the mysteries they solve. Of all of the shows currently on television, I think Castle has the best potential to show me the kind of committed couple that I long to see, and I am not alone as the broad range of fan videos and fan stories about these characters suggest.

There's something else which gives me hope that Castle might achieve this kind of representation of dating and married life - the other great couple currently on genre television, Elizabeth and Peter Burke on White Collar, another series currently on my Tivo, although alas, due to USA Network's short seasons, there's a painfully long wait before I'll see any new episodes. White Collar is another fannish show which lives and dies on the basis of character entanglements, entanglements which again go well beyond romance.

Here's a segment from a recent Paley Center event where a woman of the audience asks the program stars and producers about the intense bonds between the series male protagonists, Neal and Peter, and gets some interesting insights in return.

And there's another whole thesis to be written about Neal's other great friendships with his long-time partner, Mozzie, and with his sophisticated landlady, June, played by the great Diane Carroll. And I've been enjoying watching the sexy partnerships between Neal and his sometimes paramours, Alex and Sara. But above all, what I love about White Collar is its depictions of the domestic life between Peter and Elizabeth. Elizabeth (Tiffani Thiessen) doesn't get a lot of screen time: she may only be in a scene or two per episode, and due to the actress's maternity leave, she missed out a good chunk of the first half of the season, but when they are together, there is a playfulness and mutual respect which from where I sit show the signs of a happily married couple.

They know each other well. They call each other out on their nonsense. But there's no question that they would do anything for each other. Elizabeth is smart and she's intelligent, not always the same thing; she's got her own thoughts and her own life; she's not a simple appendage of her husband. And it is precisely because their relationship is complex and unpredictable and constantly evolving that it becomes a catalyst shaping the interactions with the other characters. Witness the Paley Center audience member's acknowledgment that part of what strengthens the friendship between Neal and Peter is that Peter is seeking Neal's advice on how to be a better husband.

Here's a fan video which does a great job in conveying some of what I value about White Collar's depiction of their marriage, again by cobbling together little bits that show a much bigger picture.

So, let me turn the floor over to my readers now. What do you see as the best representations of committed relationships on American television? Which couples demonstrate the capacity for trust and growth which has been sadly lacking on this season's House? What advice would you give to the showrunners at Castle about how they might intensify the relationship between Castle and Beckett without lowering the tension or diminishing audience engagement?

I know the comments function on this blog is more or less broken due to the intense spam protection I've had to put on here. So, if you don't want to fight with the submission process, send me e-mail directly at hjenkins@usc.edu and I will make sure it goes up on this site. But, tell me, what would you most like to teach the show runner of your choice about the care and feeding of actual human characters involved in committed relationships?