Won’t they? The power (and pitfalls) of ’shipping

Won’t they? The power (and pitfalls) of ’shipping

After two seasons of crime-solving on cult favorite Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, amateur detective Phryne Fisher has assembled a found family, solved a statistically improbable number of murders within her immediate social circle, and flirted so hard with Detective Jack Robinson that by season two he routinely appeared for drinks as if he lived upstairs. We know he doesn’t—yet—because we haven’t seen the kiss. We also know the kiss is coming; it’s been a possibility with a pin in it since the first episode, and by now it’s as much a part of the formula as the weekly corpse.

There’s a long and storied history of staring at the television and hoping for your favorite characters to survive the cliffhanger, for the reveal of who shot JR, and for the moment the will-they/won’t-they just maybe becomes they will. That is, at its heart, what ’shipping is: an interpersonal suspense, a possibility that keeps a viewer wondering—and, ideally, tuning in to find out. Oliver and Felicity will. Sherlock and Watson won’t. Mulder and Scully did. Ted and Robin never should have. And Phryne and Jack had better.

The romantic relationship is one of drama’s most reliable tropes (one pities those early Oedipus/Jocasta ’shippers, and yet, Bates Motel). But the particular frisson of the slow-burn relationship is particularly well suited to serial storytelling; it was a fixture in radio dramas, and has been a television hallmark since its earliest days. Soap operas live and die on them, and famously don’t give a damn about breaking everyone up and smashing them together in different permutations like a particle accelerator with stage directions. Genre shows often use them as a viscerally relatable element amid the jargon and effects, and sitcoms look to relationships to propel stories or add some piquancy to the punch lines. And procedurals—particularly as women became more expected in the rosters of the main cast—are perfectly positioned to make relationship tension an entry point for the weekly crimes and courtrooms to hit closer to home. (Even in the pantheon of no-personal-stuff procedurals that is Law & Order, Special Victims Unit stands out for the sheer determination with which it suggested an Olivia Benson and Elliot Stabler relationship it would never actually allow, and which powered every thwarted-love confession that precinct ever saw. For sheer coyness, though, it loses to the unspoken relationship between Claire Kincaid and JackMcCoy on the flagship series; their involvement was only confirmed after she died.)

The slow-burn is a dynamic powerful enough to hang an entire series on—see Moonlighting, Farscape, Castle, Outlander. However, when the will-they/won’t-they becomes a central tenet of a show, there’s pressure attached. A trope isn’t a concept, and when it’s made central to a show the stakes are high. Consummation is notorious for flattening critical reception and ratings, despite evidence to the contrary—the “Moonlighting curse” is quick to be mentioned, though of the shows listed above, it’s the only one that suffered a marked decline in ratings once its leads locked lips.

The degree to which a pairing directs a show, however, depends as much on ’shipping as on canon, for watching a show and ’shipping are two different beasts. Those who watch a show and absorb the canon presented to them, either care for it or don’t, and largely consider the matter closed: They deal with the show as it comes. For ’shippers, watching the show isn’t passive, but active: The actual outcome of any given relationship is only one factor to be taken into consideration, and if actual events disappoint, they’ll happily imagine otherwise. And while the break in the fourth wall between fans and creators might feel like a post-Internet phenomenon, feedback has been influencing the direction of shows since Dark Shadows first matched Barnabas Collins against Dr. Julia Hoffman and the show’s most popular ’ship was born. Even when it comes to couples the story would never consider, the fourth wall has always been thin: The Mary Tyler Moore Show addressed rampant audience curiosity by using its penultimate episode to trap Mary and Lou in a date just to prove it wouldn’t work. (Tina Fey might have been taking notes when she cut the inevitable Liz Lemon and Jack Donaghy questions off at the knees: She told EW, “Liz and Jack will never do it.”)

When it comes to ’shippers who determined the course of entire series, though, probably the most iconic are the original-issue Trekkies, who traded fanzines filled with romantic fanfiction during the 1960s run of Star Trek, giving romantic second chances to Kirk and Spock, Spock and Chapel, and probably Kirk again (and again, and again). And though the occasional mimeographed kissy-face is easy to dismiss as romantic daydreaming, fan work is an act of ownership. For Trek watchers, fanfiction often interrogated the show itself: examining queer subtext, expanding on the series’ social-justice underpinnings, and giving unofficial airtime to characters who were sidelined by the canon—often characters of color. Fanfiction hit new heights during the late 1990s, when online message boards and chat rooms made it increasingly easier for fans to connect, and the coexistence of The X-Files and Buffy The Vampire Slayer meant two cult fandoms operating at peak interest. Today, fanfic has homes all over the web (there’s Tumblr, Comic-Con, Fanfiction.net, and recap sites where fans can dissect longing glances and discuss the might-have-beens and might-still-bes). Sometimes fanfic is just a ’shipper playground: Elementary’s showrunners have declared that Joan Watson and Sherlock Holmes are determinedly platonic, and so anyone wanting to explore subtext will seek it elsewhere. But amid the sandbox-playing and the many 50 Shades epics lurking in the ether, there are are thousands of fan works for existing series that interrogate the text as much as they wish-fulfill.

But as television-industry legacies go, those Trekkies are known as much for their activism as their enthusiasm; they organized the earliest conventions and spearheaded a support campaign to keep the show on the air when it was under threat of cancellation. The idea of viewers leaning on showrunners and networks to force an outcome is at the very least an interesting one. Saving a beloved show is always going to be welcome; agitating for particular outcomes is more complicated. The feedback loop between creators and audience in television is perhaps more akin to comics than film, though the rise of the movie franchise has led to the sort of “fan service” concessions that result in Loki somehow surviving everything The Avengers and Thor 2 had to throw at him. Debate rages about showrunners writing pairings to appease a vocal fan base (The Vampire Diaries, Buffy The Vampire Slayer), networks demanding that a central relationship become more romantic in order to boost ratings (Life, The X-Files) and actors inventing their own subtext, disagreeing with showrunner decisions, or going full meta. There you can take your pick: Long before siblings Sam and Dean discovered in-canon fanfiction about themselves on Supernatural or the How I Met Your Mother finale flipped the entire viewing audience the bird, the last vestiges of the fourth wall had dried up, gotten Twitter accounts, and blown away.

This smaller feedback loop has its backlash: terms like “fan service” and “’shipper” have become vaguely derisive—and, not coincidentally, are often associated with the gendered “fangirl.” It’s most often applied to fans who appear to watch a show primarily for the romantic aspect, or for whom a romantic aspect becomes the impetus for fan work. But to divide the audience into perceived strata based on the ways they enjoy a show is something of a false process. (There’s not a television show in the world casting actors in the hopes nobody will have any chemistry; that’s the antithesis of hanging on to viewers.) The bottom line for nearly any TV series is in the size of the audience numbers—if not in volume, than in dedication. Shows that misjudge audience enthusiasm when it comes to a central ’ship can find themselves suffering: Sleepy Hollow has made several mistakes in its second season, but attempting to explore the dead-in-the-war Crane marriage at the expense of the chemistry between Ichabod and Abbie (not coincidentally, a woman of color) has cost the show a third of its audience. And plenty of shows regularly take note of the feedback: Oliver and Felicity have been locked in as Arrow’s endgame relationship based largely on fan response to Felicity, and the series’ audience numbers continue to rise.

It’s absolutely arguable that the general quality and creative approach of a series can affect the nature and intensity of the fan base. A zippy, episodic procedural like Castle is the perfect backdrop for a slow-burn payoff with several years of Comic-Con ahead of them, probably more so than more self-contained “prestige” shows like The Leftovers or The Affair, in which the relationships are in service of an overall theme and critical-mass fan bases tend not to develop. Then again, for every ’shipper, there is a fandom. It’s hard to predict where one will appear—Syfy has been trying to recapture lightning in a bottle since the intensity of Battlestar Galactica spawned a million Kara Thrace cosplayers—but you can be sure every showrunner wants one. Some are more gracious about it than others, some of which has to do with good old audience matrices. Veronica Mars creator Rob Thomas has cultivated a small but dedicated audience he calls “marshmallows,” a long-standing in-joke in the fandom. Mega-showrunner Steven Moffat tends to dismiss his fans, most pointedly with direct jabs in Sherlock, a show often taken to task in fandom for “queerbaiting”—teasing a gay relationship only to have everyone avow heterosexuality as a punch line—in fan works.

Is the centrality of slow-burn relationships—and the openness of showrunners to the voices of the audience it needs—an inevitable commodification of something serial storytelling has long relied on, or is it just another attraction for a coveted demographic? In the new television landscape, the answer is a bit of both. A television show is, to some degree, its own merchandising, and in that sense a happy customer is always right. On the other hand, upending audience expectation in a particular storyline is one of the things television’s best at. (On 90210, Kelly chose herself and inspired a generation of young women to invest in some independence... and some scrunchies.) But it’s closer to the nature of serial storytelling to plant seeds you want to see in bloom, eventually; it’s the essential nature of fandom to actively invest in that process.

Miss Fisher’s third season is slated to air this year. Its core cast is delightful, its production values lavish, its mysterious hilariously convoluted, its dialogue charming: the whole package is eagerly awaited. But by the time the end rolls around, we’re all expecting a kiss. And why wouldn’t we? That’s how it goes: signed, sealed, delivered, and just a little bit ours.