Jumping the Shark
Does the End of Sexual Tension Mean the End of Your Favorite TV Show?
This essay is based on a talk given at ACMI as one of its Lounge Critic sessions, in July 2003. It is included in Lounge Critic: the couch theorist's companion Annabel Rattigan & Terrie Waddell (eds), ACMI, 2004
When people dance together it is the fact that there is distance between two bodies that makes the dance interesting to watch. The air between skin, the tension that vibrates before bodies in motion resolve. There is strength in this space between, an unresolved sexual tension that holds audience interest and provides narrative momentum, for many of our favourite television shows. Consequently most shows go to an extraordinary length to make sure unresolved sexual tension (URST) never resolves. They attempt to draw out the tension for as long as possible, taking the risk that if they stretch the tension too thin, the audience gets bored. Alternatively they give in to the inevitable and get the characters together. Either way, the show Jumps The Shark. For those of you who don't know what jumping the shark means, throw your mind back to a TV show far, far away, in which teenagers of the 70s pretended to be teenagers of the 50s. Their days were happy and carefree, until a young man called the Fonze went on a beach holiday with his friend Ritchie Cunningham and went water skiing, leather jacket and all. Here the legend gets hazy, but apparently a shark loomed and the Fonze jumped over the shark, water skis and all. After that, according to the true believers, Happy Days was never the same again. It had JUMPED THE SHARK. This momentous event is enshrined on the website: www.jumptheshark.com, which strives to capture the moments a show goes off the rails by compiling viewer's votes. There are many different reasons, divided into categories on this website, that a show jumps. Some categories are obvious, like the death of a major character,an event that occurs at the end of most seasons of most shows. There is the majorly naf, like the actor leaving but the character carrying on - think of the morphing of a suburban witch's (Elizabeth Montgomery) husband from Dick York to Dick Sargent in Bewitched. Graduation often does it, and Dawson's Creek, a show that began when its characters were at high school, was canned after its first year at college. Some say Buffy the Vampire Slayer - originally set among a group of students who attended a school known as Sunnydale High that was situated over a vampire-ridden 'Hellmouth' - jumped when the so-called Scooby Gang, finished their final year of school after three seasons. Sometimes it is as simple as a character wandering off into the sunset- and I must confess ER , a show that is still America's highest rating drama and is set in the emergency ward of a Chicago hospital, hasn't been the same for me since Dr Ross (George Clooney) left. But the reason most regularly given, and the one most relevant here, is 'They did it' and the related category 'I do'. 'I do', it seems, is more of a killer than simply doing it. Think of I Dream of Jeannie (35/73 voters said the show jumped after the astronaut and Jeannie married) or Get Smart (32/132 say the show jumped after Max and 99's wedding). A show that I became intensely involved with in the late Sixties was The Ghost and Mrs Muir. Mrs Muir lived a house that was haunted by an English ship captain. She was in love with him, but they couldn't get together unless she was prepared to be a ghost as well. For me, this explains both a hapless twenties spent pursuing men who disappeared in a puff of smoke, and, an addiction to Buffy. Buffy and Angel faced a similar dilemma to The Ghost and Mrs Muir: one was alive and the other was dead. In their case, Angel flipped back into his demonic self if he ever achieved moments of perfect bliss: orgasm. However despite the plot possibilities offered by the supernatural, URST is not only the domain of fantasy TV shows. The importance of this narrative device can be traced back through thousands of years of literature, to Celtic myths such as that of Oengus who becomes ill after falling desperately in love with an apparition, to Greek and Roman mythology where there is even a God, Anteros whose job it is to avenge unrequited love. Shakespeare's characters lurch from desire to longing to agony to joy in a way that is totally recognisable to lovers of I Dream of Jeanie, Felicity, Seachange and The Secret Life of Us - just to name a few shows that have used URST, with varying degrees of success. Soaps seem to get away with abusing viewers more on the URST front. On the long-running Australian soap Neighbours the lovely Dee died on the day she married Toady after he accidentally plunged their car into a lake as they headed off on their honeymoon. Tactics like this are, perversely, good news, because they mean you get the build up of URST between a couple, a (usually) high rating wedding episode, then move straight into a grief and recovery story line which will in this case include new love interests for Toady. In fact you could argue that there is only URST, never resolution, in soap. You accept that characters will all end up sleeping with each other, break up or die. No one in his or her right mind would have watched Melrose Place, that soap opera set in a groovy Los Angeles apartment block, thinking that a relationship was permanent. The excitement would be to see who slept with whom, and in what particular way things would go wrong. But outside soap narrative I think viewers find themselves in a more confusing situation when characters that have been yearning for each other get together. The X-Files, a show in which two federal agents, Dana Scully and Fox Mulder looked into criminal cases that may have involved the supernatural, is one of the shows that used sexual tension most authentically - in its early seasons anyway. By authentic I mean it captured the tension that can exist between people, in this case work colleagues Scully and Mulder, without making it about sex - and the thing about URST is that it is about not having sex. Here's what one fan had to say on the subject: 'This show has not jumped the shark for one apparent reason; Mulder and Scully are still abstaining from each other. The moment they fall into bed (or whatever surface may be closest), the shark will be miles below them.'
URST usually occurs between opposites. The vampire and the vampire slayer (Buffy and Spike/Angel). The believer and the sceptic (Mulder and Scully). The gay man and the straight woman (Will and Grace). The hard working doctor and the slack layabout writer (The Secret Life of Us's Alex and Evan). The judge and the slack layabout café guy (Seachange's Laura and Diver Dan.) Of course one of the reasons for this notion of opposites attraction is that it gives the writers endless excuses to create friction between the characters. This means you can keep the URST going that much longer. Seachange, the highly successful Australian comedy drama based on the adventures of a lawyer, Laura, who decides to abandon city life for the slower pace of the country, was another particularly successful user of URST. The brevity of it - the first season was only 13 episodes - allowed for there to be a beguiling build up, then a release just before the end. In many ways Seachange has the classic URST arc: attraction, almost getting together, then not, several times over - though in one very sexy moment Laura and the guy who runs a local café, Diver Dan, do dance together. They don't actually 'do it' until the thirteenth and final episode. After sex and at the beginning of the second series? Well Diver Dan heads out of town. That tension between the characters also occurs between the viewer and the characters. Often you can chart your relationship with a show alongside the relationship between the characters in it. So, for example, I was interested in the relationship between good friends, Ross and Rachel, in the extraordinarily successful American sitcom Friends the first time around, but lost interest when the writers dragged it out endlessly (in fact at the time of going to press it seems that after ten years the series will finally end by getting them together). Even by the end of The X-Files the URST had been had stretched too thin. The problem for the show's writers is, that even though the viewer gets tired of characters being on again / off again, they don't actually want the characters to get it on for good. Someone put it to me like this: it is like with friends that you have introduced to each other. You think you want them to get together, and then when they do you get upset. This former fan of the American Eighties comedy Moonlighting puts it perfectly. 'I waited and waited and waited! And then it happened! Maddie and David "did it". I could never have imagined that the show would plummet down the toilet like it did. But up until that point I absolutely loved the show.' As the passion of quotes like this suggests, falling out of love with a show is like a relationship ending. Once it is over, you wonder what you ever saw in it. I have ex-shows scattered all over the channels. It's over with Friends and me. My enduring affair with ER has petered out. When Dr Carter and his unrequited love, Nurse Abby, finally kissed last season I didn't even feel a flicker of abdominal churn and when Carter lifts an engagement ring out of his jacket pocket, fingers it, then puts it back, during a candlelight dinner with Abby, I wanted to throw something at the screen23. When it seemed that the (usually) intelligently written Australian drama The Secret Life of Us (set, like Melrose Place, in a single block of flats) had satisfactorily resolved the triangle between housemates Evan and Alex and Alex's co-worker Rex, by marrying off Alex and Rex, I got on with my life satisfied that everything had turned out for the best. Except, of course, like Glen Close at the end of Fatal Attraction, the script writers keep bringing this one back to life. Very few TV shows figure out just how far to stretch things, and the last three episodes of the third season of The Secret Life of Us, in which Evan and Alex almost get back together despite her having chosen to move to London with Rex, are a classic case of not knowing when enough is enough. Joss Whedon talks about trying to deal with ambivalent audience expectation: 'we had Angel go bad when he and Buffy got together. Because -- and I've gotten into so much trouble for this phrase -- what people want is not what they need. In narrative, nobody wants to see fat, married Romeo and Juliet, even if fat, married Romeo and Juliet happen to be really cool and having a great time in their lovely relationship and really care about each other and have nice, well-adjusted children. That was the problem we ran into with Riley [one of Buffy's love interests]. We said, "Let's give Buffy a healthy relationship," and people didn't want it. They did some great work together. But at the same time, when they were happy, it made people crazy. We found this with Willow and Tara [her girlfriend], we found it with Gunn and Fred [from Angel]. It's fine for a while, but ultimately the course of true love is not allowed to run smooth.'
Shows aimed at younger people that tend to be set in school or college or group households (like Dawsons Creek, 90210, Felicity, Secret Life of Us) fall particular prey to the perils of URST because the plots are so relationship driven. A show has a lot more life in it, I think, when URST is one element among many. Something like West Wing, a show set in the White House during a democratic administration, has angst or URST - think of the relationship between the Deputy Chief of Staff, Josh and his assistant Donna - but it is never the sole focus of the narrative. The possibilities of love provides frisson, but it is the highly intricate dance of politics that carries the series. When the love stuff can become tiresome in ER, there is always emergency surgery to distract us and in the X-Files you can count on some conspiracy theory to tide you over. Compare this to a show like Felicity (an American college drama about a country girl who moves to New York) got itself into terrible trouble because the whole plot was about the triangle between Felicity and fellow college residents Ben and Noel. The attempts to keep Felicity and Ben apart became increasingly artificial and tiresome.
I could spend all night giving examples of URST and discussing the subtle differences. But perhaps I should address why URST has such a hold over us and why, if mishandled, it causes a show to jump the shark. URST is a form of longing. Longing is something we often call by other names, like love or desire. We tell ourselves 'we are meant to be together' when we long for someone, but it is the state of longing, rather than the person, we are hooked on. Just as, in TV, we think we want characters to get together, and then we don't. As Kath Albury puts it, 'I longed for my now-ex lover when I was married to someone else - that's why I loved all the longing between Buffy and Angel.' All emotions are hard to pin down, but longing is particularly elusive. When people talk about longing what they describe often seems to be the same as desire. What is the difference between the two emotions? If we imagine we are in love with someone and miss him or her keenly, is that longing, or desire? If we find ourselves waiting anxiously on the beginning of the mango season, which emotion is that? Everyone I spoke to seemed to agree on this: longing hurts more and the feeling endures over time. Longing is an intensely physical feeling, one that makes us ache. While longing and desire both cause physical pangs, it is often easier to figure out what makes us feel desire and then to reduce the distance between us and the object of desire: we eat, we drink, we have sex. The experience of longing is both more shapeless and more passive. We often do not know exactly what we long for and even if we figure it out it is harder to resolve. There is this sense that we are powerless, that we must wait for fate to play its hand. It is static and passive; it is a kind of entrapment. This is why URST is a tricky plotting device because it is about lack of movement, lack of action. There is an image a friend of mine uses, which helps me conceptualise this distance, or stretch, in the emotion. My friend tells me he feels an acute sense of longing when he is sitting on the beach at Bondi looking to the lights on the other side of the bay. He says he doesn't even know what it is he is pining for, but that looking at the sea, looking at the uncrossable space between him and the lights and all that they might mean, is like looking at longing itself. I wonder if the television has that effect on us - whether it is like looking across at a distant place across the water. One of the things/people/ places we often long for is the unavailable. Everyone here will have flirted with this syndrome. It might be as minor for falling for someone in your class that you never actually have met. It might be as major as not being able to let go of your feelings for someone who has died. The bottom line is they aren't available to you and that drives you wild. Longing needs absence to exist. And what is more unavailable to us than a television character? We've all had to face this as I did when it came to myself and Dr Ross (from ER). Not was he only never going to go for a girl like me - he doesn't actually exist. That's right folks, these characters we long for are made up. There, I've said it. The X-Files is particularly interesting on this subject as the main characters are barely in the same room together. Mulder and Scully are often on the phone to each other. Sometimes they are separated via alien abduction or FBI manoeuvring. The angst is all about their separation. In the episode 'Ascension'30 it is light that joins them; Mulder looks into light after Scully's abduction, and at the end of the light, in a different place, lays Scully, tied to a table, about to be operated on. In other episodes they are joined by breath, as we see in an episode called 'One Breath'31 in which their breathing is in rhythm even when Scully lies unconscious in hospital and Mulder is some distance away, still unaware of her fate. As a viewer, there is another key issue. Longing doesn't just need absence - it also demands a third party. We know this too from personal experience. How much easier is it to fall in love with someone who is involved with another? We, as viewers of a relationship between two television characters, become that third party. Mulder himself is often the third party in a relationship, being an obsessive watcher of porn, something that is hinted out throughout the series. Anne Carson (1998) writes of this in Eros: the bittersweet.'Sappho perceives desire by identifying it as a three-part structure. We may, in the traditional terminology of erotic theorizing refer to this structure as a love-triangle and. . .We see in it the radical constitution of desire. For, where Eros is lack, its activation calls for three structural components - lover, beloved and that which comes between them. They are three points of transformation on a circuit of possible relationship, electrified by desire so that they touch not touching. . . When the circuit points connect perception leaps. . . The difference between what is and what could be is visible. . . In this dance the people do not move. Desire moves.' That is, the viewer is necessary to allow the cord of desire that runs between, say Buffy and Angel, become visible. But once they actually get it on? Well, you're not needed at all. There is one particular X-Files moment in which the more Mulder looks for Scully, the closer he comes to himself. After she has been kidnapped and he is searching her apartment for clues he looks through her shattered window hoping to see her, only to see his own face reflected in the glass. This suggests the narcissism inherent in longing. Of an intense relationship to self, because the other does not exist. In this analysis, love is an attempt to dissolve difference and overcome separation. A completely primal emotion. Kathryn Harrison(2000) wrote on this subject in a recent article, 'Connubial Abyss'. 'What we've all had with Mother are undrawn boundaries, individuality that is, as yet, unrealised. We began not knowing where we left off and the loved one began; our flesh was one, and this absolute togetherness still has the power to compel and to terrify.' Harrison does not romanticise lack of boundaries. Her longing to know the father she had not seen since she was a baby led her into a four-year affair with him when she met him as an adult, and discovered, in this world with no boundaries, horror. Most of us long for, rather than experience such primal love. Perhaps this is why many of us secretly yearn for that lover who eluded us when we were younger, or for people we hardly know, or for fictional characters up on the screen. The act of longing becomes a pulse that seems as essential to us as our heartbeat. Perhaps for this reason the pain of longing is soothed, but not cured, by being in a happy relationship. Perhaps this is why we are not happy when the characters we want to get together actually do. Because longing/URST is so passive it doesn't allow for certain types of plot and character development. To get around this, some shows tend to get key couples together without URST and throw them straight into committed serious-ville. Like Dr Mark Green and Dr Corde in ER. These less URST driven relationship open up a range of new plot possibilities - such as tension over babies, and infidelity (which means, of course, more URST). Very few viewers get as hooked on married couples which adds to my sense that there is something quite primal about longing. Something hard to articulate. Something I know we could talk about, or run clips about, all night. Perhaps the clearest thing I can say is that URST is, and is not, something to dance about.