‘Shipping’ and the power of the will they won’t they in TV. From Star Trek to Succession: Why we’ll never stop rooting for our favourite couples.

by | Feb 18, 2022 | All, Opinions

For most people these days, “shipping” is when an online shop adds half the price of your shopping cart which allows you to have a delivery person chuck your purchases vaguely at your front door. But there is another definition of the word is a mystery to most, except for those of us for whom “shipping” is, in fact, everything. In the world of TV fans, “shipping” is a tale as old as time, to quote that great philosopher Mrs. Potts. It is the act of falling in love with people falling in love, and it is as old as creation, and as enshrined in entertainment as the pratfall.

“Shipping” is quite possibly the pastime (if it can be called that, rather than all-consuming passion) which generates more bytes per minute online than any other (non-porn) topic.

The word “shipper” (one who “ships”) came from the term “relationshipper” – the self-description X-Files fans had for those who were more invested in the potential romantic relationship between Mulder and Scully, rather than any conspiracy or alien the pair may encounter. This was shortened to “shipper” and gave way to all the related verbiage we have today. You “ship” (verb; support and yearn for) the romantic love that is there, will be there, or you wish was there for your “ship” (noun; two or more people whose relationship captivates you).

Although the word originates from the 90s, obviously the interest in unspoken love has been going on forever, with fictional couples and the fans who love them. Like many things in the world of fandom, Star Trek likely gave birth to “shipping” in the realms of TV. The show birthed nerd and fan culture, and it was fans of the potentially homoerotic relationship between Captain Kirk and Mr Spock who planted the seeds that would produce the shipping fandom we find online today.

The “undercurrent” and “unspoken” aspect of Kirk and Spock’s ‘ship is key to the attraction with most ships. It’s the potential for romance that keys up fans, rather than the eventual expression of it. Wanting, waiting and wondering if there is more to this relationship, and these interactions, is the absolute bones of shipping and the carrot on a stick that keeps shippers tuning in.

Soaps tapped into this world early on, and primetime TV toyed with it through the 70s though no show seemed to fully embrace it as a central topic until the 80s. In the UK, To The Manor Born was likely the first show truly created to centre around the will-they-want-they premise. While in the US, Cheers appears to be the first show conceived with it in mind.

The Tracey/Hepburn dynamic of Sam and Diane was carefully crafted to tap into that Beatrice/Benedict, biting banter of two opposites who are “horribly attracted to each other, much to their own disappointment” captivating appeal. And it was a blueprint for will-they-won’t-they ships to come – most notably that of Maddie and David in Moonlighting.

When you mention shipping, Moonlighting is the one show that will come to most people’s minds. The mid-80s romcom detective series was the definitive shipping show, where the entire nation(s) became utterly hooked on whether and when blue-collar, wise-guy shoestring David Addison would finally get horizontal with ice-cool, uptown, former model Maddie Hayes.

When the pair finally clashed with their lips as well as their words, it was practically a sonic boom in television, and the aftershocks still reverberate today. Because very soon after Maddie and David hit the sheets, the show hit the skids. Thus, in TV vernacular, we have the “Moonlighting Curse” – the idea that as soon as a wished-for couple actually get together, the audience immediately loses interest.

In terms of Moonlighting’s demise, it’s an unfair label. The truth was the show was beset with a huge amount of insurmountable issues all at once, which included (but is not limited to) pregnancy of female star, severe injury of male star, writers strikes, loss of showrunner, and major fallings out behind the scenes. Nevertheless, there is an element of truth in the idea that shippers are prone to wander off when they get what they want.

So it is that show-runners walk a line of trying to find the balance in building the slow tension of a will-they-won’t-they, without dragging it on too far or reaching a climax too quickly… so to speak.

UK writers are especially adept at this skill, with shows like The Office, Peter Kay’s Car Share, Mum, and Dinnerladies dishing out just the right amount of shippy rations before delivering the goods. It is the benefit of the short British TV series that gives them the upper hand (also the name of a classic British ship-com) over their American counterparts.

Telling a love story over 3 series comprised of six episodes is much easier than making that relationship work over five seasons of 22 episodes, as was the norm with American network shows. Yet, they too try and often succeed.

Bones and Castle are shows which managed to cross the bridge of a canon couple without torpedoing the entire programme. Both had the benefit of a “murder of the week” to keep the plot bubbling along, and some backup cast members to take the pressure off the lead couple once their love was consummated. And in recent days, Lucifer has done the will-they-won’t-they crime-fighting couple to perfection, with an awareness of the Moonlighting “curse”, references to Bones, knowing-winks at the common tropes (eg. a phone call interrupting a potential kiss) and the best McGuffin for keeping them apart when we know their feelings – Lucifer being the devil is the best possible reason for Chloe to not want to give in to her feelings.

In shipping shows, that is the biggest puzzle piece they have to deliver. There must be a believable reason why the potential couple are holding back. Be it internal struggles with self-worth, outward pressures such as being with someone they work with, or coming to terms with their sexuality, or not wanting to ruin the friendship they already have – there has to be some obstacle that allows for the drawing out of the courting which the couple must overcome in order to finally admit their feelings. And preferably they should do it in a dramatic and grand way.

It is vitally important that when the couple does get together that the shippers (and general audience) get their money’s worth. When shippers get involved with a ship, they are utterly devoted on a huge level and will put so much time and emotional investment into the relationship. They need and deserve the full payoff for that input, with every single detail of their couples’ consummation playing out on screen. The only thing worse than your chosen couple not getting together, is them getting together off-screen, with a later reveal, and the shippers missing out on that visual climax to all their hopes and wishes. And yes, I’m looking at you The X-Files’ Chris Carter.

Chemistry between two actors is a huge gift to a show, and while many show-runners embrace it and run with it (such as the Friends producers saw with Monica and Chandler, and decided to take what was simply meant to be a fun one night stand into the central romantic relationship), others baulk at the idea of giving fans what they want.

There is a belief that shows should not cater to fans, shouldn’t give in to popular demand for a ship, and that doing so somehow would compromise their artistic integrity. However, it’s important to remember that TV is not like film or novels. TV does not go into the world fully formed; it is by its nature collaborative. In order to keep on telling the story, the creators must please the audience enough to keep them watching. Without an audience, your story ceases to exist.

Reacting positively to an audience who are loving a specific storyline or dynamic is simply good business sense, and can lead to amazing artistic creations. A current example of this being the weirdly twisted and sexy relationship between Gerri and Roman on Succession. The storyline came entirely from the actors’ chemistry and friendship, and it’s one of the most gripping, highly praised, and talked about aspects of the show.

Fans know what they want. They often know a show far better than its own creators – the writers write the show, make it, and then are on to the next. Fans will watch it hundreds of times and analyse every single moment inside out. Although it’s not a fool-proof system (you can never satisfy all shippers, as there are always rival factions), largely, fans are rarely wrong in knowing where they want stories to go, and time and time again, TV creators have reaped the benefits when they have tapped into that.

Many of the greatest shows in recent years have had ships at the heart of them, and many also have learned at their cost what happens when you choose to ignore that shipping core audience and go the way you believe is more artistically truthful. Game of Thrones had several hugely popular ships which helped drive its audience on. Unfortunately, in the final couple of episodes, in its final season, the writers decided to betray those ships (Jon killing a crazed Dany, and Jaime abandoning Brienne – and his character growth – to return to Cersei), which contributed to the hugely bad reaction to the final season.

So too did the makers of US sitcom How I Met Your Mother who decided to stick with the romantic pairings they had originally set out to deliver, ignoring the fact that the natural chemistry and character compatibility had led to them exploring others and devoting the entire final season to the marriage of that “new” couple Barney and Robin. To then kill off that marriage along with the mother of the title, in order to get central character Ted together with Robin, angered fans so much that many will never rewatch what was a brilliant show.

Ultimately, the award for “Best Destroying Your Shipping Fans” goes to the creators and writers of sci-fi drama The 100 – where they managed to destroy both sets of rival shippers with their choices. By killing off heroin Clarke’s warrior girlfriend Lexa in an early season, they forever angered their LGBTQ audience, but still kept the rival shippers who wanted Clarke to get together with her male bestie Bellamy. These shippers clung on to the very last season hoping for canon coupling, only to have Clarke shoot and kill Bellamy. There may be an artistic satisfaction in going against the shippers, but there isn’t money in it.

The decision to rail against shipper may be partly down to the fact that in some corners shippers can have a bad reputation as rabid teenage girls or menopausal women, and of course, there is misogyny in that. Romance is always seen as somehow lesser in the eyes of serious art, as though anything liked largely by women must be frivolous. Yet romance is the most central topic in all of creation, and our greatest male writers embraced it fully.

The playing out of a well-written ship is a real thing of beauty. The frailty of ego, the complexity of emotion, social rules, self-esteem, along with the duality of hope and fear that comes from falling in love with someone you aren’t sure feels the same way is the most heart-achingly captivating thing to watch. It’s what made Jane Austen the woman we know her as today, and it is a divinely hypnotic dance when done well. To see the game of chicken the creators play with the audience, deciding just when the pair of lovelorn fools will swerve away from each other at the last moment out of fear of rejection, and when they will finally collide and explode in an expression of love, is one of life’s great joys. Be it Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth or Smithy and Nessa.

And yes, shippers can be passionate to an almost violent level – it’s like picking your football team and defending that to the death – and of course, some do overstep the mark horribly in terms of threatening writers and actors. However, shippers are also the most powerful fans for good.

It was the shippers who saved Syfy’s cowboy supernatural adventure Wynonna Earp from cancellation, and shippers who convinced Netflix to pick up Lucifer when that was dropped – for it to become one of Netflix’s biggest hits. Shippers have also been the instigators and activists in many charity drives and good causes – because that passion and collective group affinity is a powerful force.

They also are massively creative, with the ubiquitous fanfiction that goes along with every potential coupling, as well as myriads of exquisite art, meta-analysis and music videos. Art begets art and nowhere is that more true than in the world of shipping.

So it’s no surprise that shows will deliberately foster ships and tap into that utterly devoted and loyal fan group. I am a proud shipper since I hoped for Hank to hug Sheila on Dungeons & Dragons, and it’s as much a part of me as breathing. Nothing in life makes me happier than seeing that spark between two characters, feel myself getting reeled into their world, and knowing I am utterly hooked on their every emotion and thought until the love that I know they are harbouring will be expressed. I bless the show-runners and creators who play with my emotions like a harp and then give me – and every other shipper – that incredible emotional orgasm. And I’m not even sorry I used that word. Here’s to love, and those that love it.

Dawn Glen

Dawn Glen

18/02/2022

Scottish TV obsessive, who has been writing about TV since she sent a letter to Playschool and tracked Neighbours ratings. Co-creator of The Ship Yard, devoted to all slow-burn relationships - an all-consuming passion, especially in Britcoms. Wants to be Victoria Wood when she grows up.

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