What Do 'Shippers Even Want?

I can’t really deal with the fan outrage over last night’s Chuck. Seriously, I can’t do it, so I’ll let the links do it for me. I understand that many fans are invested in particular relationships (Chuck-Sarah, in this case) and feel upset when they see the writers resorting to the Frasier Technique, the introduction of a new love interest to separate the two people whose romance is the focal point of the show. (Frasier Crane, you will recall, was introduced into Cheers as a take on the stuffy fiance characters from old screwball comedies, a way of keeping Diane and Sam apart for a while.) They know the writers are doing it to try and stretch the show out. And they may feel even more upset when this technique is tried by a low-rated show that could be canceled at any second. Chuck is not a show that can take its time in giving the fans what they want, and fans are understandably worried that the show could end without ever giving them what they’ve been waiting for.

On the other hand, here’s what I find weird about ‘shipping: it often seems so divorced from any specific goal for the characters. In a way, ‘shipping is a holdover from “closed” storytelling forms, like novels and films and plays, where the ending of the evening’s entertainment is literally the end. In those forms, we root for two characters to get together, i.e. get married or at least go steady or something. If it’s a comedy, they get married; if it’s a tragedy, they die. Either way, it ends. But in a television series, unless it’s specifically intended to have a limited run, there is no pre-set ending. More importantly, the people who are producing the show want to keep it from ending. Everything they do is geared towards making sure that the show won’t have to end. That’s one reason shows introduce obstacles to the will-they/won’t-they relationship: by keeping the two leads apart, they hope they can sustain interest in the show and keep it from ending.

Because TV ‘shipping is a closed-form idea applied to an open-form medium, it’s inevitably vague about what exactly the fans want for particular characters. Do they want them to be together in the end? Not exactly, because they don’t want the show to end. ‘Shipping is rarely expressed as a wish that characters will get married or even just start dating. It’s more of a general feeling that characters should be “together,” without a definite feeling about what “together” means. Basically it seems to just mean that the characters should be kissing each other instead of kissing other people.

‘Shipping a TV show may have made more sense back in the days when almost every show would push the reset button at the end of every episode (particularly drama shows). ‘Shipping Jim Rockford and Beth Davenport, or Kirk and Uhura, was a harmless pastime because you knew nothing was going to change anyway. It was part of the interactive way that the fans themselves created continuing story and character development for shows that didn’t actually have any. Once we entered the post-Cheers era where actually had ongoing romances (shows that weren’t soap operas) the fans’ rooting interest became a bigger problem, because we now have an expectation that our favourite romances will actually happen and be an ongoing part of the show. The writers know this, and devote a lot of attention to the romances, trying to keep the tension going without angering the fans. And there’s the biggest problem with ‘shipping: not that people do it, but that it comes to dominate the conversation about a show and even the way it’s written. There’s something unfortunate about the way an action-adventure-spy show is going to be dominated for as long as it lasts (maybe not long) by romance.