It’s cheap. It’s easy. It’s insidious. It’s relentless. It’s the most over-used plot device on television – UST.
UST (unresolved sexual tension), to the best of my recollection, is a term coined by X-Files’ fans to describe the chemistry between Mulder and Scully.
This year, UST and its variations can be found in Desperate Housewives, Chuck, Reaper, Life, Journeyman, Grey’s Anatomy, Californication, Pushing Daisies, Tell Me You Love Me, Ugly Betty, Women’s Murder Club, Moonlight, Dexter, Big Shots, Brothers & Sisters and the list goes on (and on and on).
In the hands of talented writers, UST is fun. On rare occasions, it’s a delight. Mostly, however, writers use the device to taunt viewers. Networks and/or the writers play the highly manipulative, two- steps forward one-step back game, often over the course of several seasons. UST is a cheap and easy technique for getting viewers to cling desperately week-after-week-after-week
But the networks and showrunners are playing with fire, too. When a series RUSTs-out - due to RELENTLESS unresolved sexual tension - once loyal audiences can quickly turn into furious web mobs. And their word of mouse can be scathing and potentially damaging - which is pretty much what’s happening at the moment to Grey’s Anatomy.
UST has a long and iffy history, from Bonanza to Mod Squad, from Moonlighting to X-Files to Friends and Frasier to Desperate Housewives. One of my earliest television UST memories is a brief (two-parter) Dr. Kildare romance with an epileptic surfer played by Yvette Mimieux. It all ended tragically, of course.
(Omg! Imagine my astonishment when I discovered this clip from that very Dr. Kildare episode! Youtube, I love you.)
Heavy use of UST signals that a series could be creatively bankrupt and running on empty in terms of character and plot development.
UST is usually strictly limited to young, heterosexual couples, although the situation has improved somewhat over the last couple of years. ABC’sBrothers & Sisters made my appointment tv list for several reasons. One is Sally Field; two is snappy writing and flawed, relatable characters and three, a believable gay couple (with chemistry)! (See clip below.)
The following shows are currently threatened by RUST:
Chuck: NBC dangled the Chuck/Sarah carrot in their promos. In one episode, they lie in bed and talk. Later, Sarah admits (under the influence of sodium penathol) that there is “zero” chance for the relationship, but eventually reveals (just not to Chuck) she’s been trained to resist the effects of the drug. She watches tearfully as Chuck fires up another relationship.
And, darn - the bane of Buy More’s staff – despotic assistant manager, comic foil and RUST-oleam, Harry Tang (C.S. Lee) was packed off to Hawaii! (Perhaps Lee is too busy on Dexter where he plays the cheeky, deviant lab tech Vince Masuka, the amputee devotee.)
Other UST endangered series: Reaper (Sam/Andi), Journeyman (Dan/Livia), and Life (Charlie/Constance), and Moonlight(Mick/Beth).
Hmmm – Mick/Beth. It has a certain, um, ring to it…
I tried hard, really hard, to slog through the pilot of Moonlight, but quickly threw in the towel.
A few weeks ago, I gave the series another chance to redeem itself. Mick and Beth were still RUST’ing after one another. Convinced Mick’s ex-wife is a vampire, Beth stabs her in the chest. One minute Mick is upset and worried about his hospitalized ex; in the next he appears at her bedside, drawing blood and badgering her for information on how to undead himself.
Mick’s old (old) friend (as in 400 years), the hedge fund vampire, is killed in an explosion. This "tragedy" is a thinly veiled driver for a tearful moment between Mick and Beth. Hedge Fund Vampire springs back to life moments later - sometime after the commercial break and the soapish purpose is served - and then acts like a complete jerk, behaving in a manner so stupid and implausible and unlikable that it’s impossible to understand why Mick grieved in the first place..
I slogged through this sorry mess for about 35 minutes before I cleared my DVR for programming worthy of the limited space.
Sorry writers’ room. There really is no excuse for this sloppy work.
NBC’s Life centers on Detective Charlie Crews (Damian Lewis), exonerated after twelve years in Pelican Bay for a shocking triple murder. Framed by his fellow cops for reasons yet unexplained, he wins a $50 million settlement, and returns to his old job amid a sea of resentment and suspicion. His wife divorced him while in prison, but he wants her back too. It’s The Count of Monte Cristo Meets LA’s Ramparts.
Charlie has a zest for zen after stumbling upon a book in prison. He eats a lot of fruit, a familiar mannerism somewhat overplayed. (I’m pretty sure that Lewis conversationally munched on a green apple in Band of Brothers, too.)
I loved this series at first and still have a soft spot in my heart, in spite of the inconsistency week-to-week.
Charming and underutilized, Adam Arkin plays Ted Earley, a former financier and white collar ex-con who lives above Charlie’s garage and manages his money. Ted develops an urban wildlife phobia after a coyote (the trickster in Native American mythology) innocently wanders onto the property and confines him to the pool during his afternoon swim. To Charlie’s dismay, Ted orders a chain link fencing installed around the perimeter of the property.
Charlie maintains a secret room in his mansion where he works to unravel the plot behind his conviction. (One wall is lined with photos, another favorite device – also used in ABC’s short-lived The Evidence.)
Life began to slip after the coyote episode. Charlie’s fiercely loyal lawyer is smacked around by one of her pro-bono clients. (The writers had been USTing over these two for a while – sonorous lines, fraught with meaning, slowly delivered over wine and the granite countertops of the kitchen.)
“I didn’t know anyone else to call. I’m so scared!” wails the lawyer helplessly in Charlie’s arms. “He hit me. I’m so stupid. [sob! ] I just wanted him to be you! Because you’re not mine anymore. All those years you were mine. [sob!] Hold me!”
Omg!! Woman-in-Jep UST!
At one point, Ted is stranded in the desert with Olivia (Mad Men’s Christina Hendricks) who sings – wince! - a lullaby under the stars and beneath a solar farm. (It was “Green Is Universal” week on NBC.)
“What is this #$^&*$#!?” groused my daughter. “That actress is terrible.”
I defended Hendrick’s honor. “She’s not!” I said defensively, ”You should see her in Mad Men. She’s terrific. It’s the writing.”
But I clung to Life. To my surprise what followed the next week was a satisfying episode - taut, with nicely linked subplots. The storylines introduced during the pilot suddenly started to advance again, and the episode concluded with a zingy little plot twist.
But herein lies the problem. As a red-blooded, fencing-sitting viewer, I would have abandoned Life the moment Charlie’s lawyer wailed helplessly in his arms.
In this competitive media environment, where viewers have plenty of alternatives, a show can ill afford three to four weak episodes back-to-back. Nevertheless, NBC picked the series up for another nine episodes
Per James Hibberd on his blog: The “Life” pickup especially is a surprise, as the show has performed modestly in recent weeks, coming in last place on Wednesdays at 10 p.m.
Desperate Housewives’ interminable Mike/Susan romance dragged on for multiple seasons. The writers even prolonged the agony by placing Mike in a coma and casting Dougray Scott as a place-holder vying for Susan’s hand.
This year it’s the Carlos/Gabrielle relationship, recycled - or DivorcedUST since Carlos and Gabrielle are now divorced
A variation on the theme, Divorced!UST is a preferred theme found in Desperate Housewives, Life, Women’s Murder Club, Big Shots, Journeyman and Californication. This is where divorced or separated couples carry a torch for each other (as if!), a sure set-up for conflict. It works in Californication because Hank (David Duchovny) is written as such a smart-mouthed, conflicted, greasy slob.
Women’s Murder Club recently combined Divorced!UST with Infant-in-Jep! on top of a miscarriage – a crippling triple shot of emotional manipulation. I wasn’t crazy about Women’s Murder Club from the start but this is where I called it quits.
Aside from the embarrassing stereotyping of the gay community – the series is ostensibly set in San Francisco (but you can totally tell it’s not), and the studio makes do with a few stock footage shots of the Ferry Building clock tower, the Golden Gate and cable cars….
Okay – where was I? Oh, yeah. The awkward gay-queen stereotyping in the clip below. The scripted gay queen should come with a suitable warning: don’t try this at home, unless you’re the showrunner of Ugly Betty.
ABC even promoted the Divorced!UST between Lindsay (Angie Harmon) and Tom (Rob Estes), spicing it up with a splash of child-in-jep! (in clip below)
By the time DH’s Mike/Susan finally tied the knot, nothing could make me care about these characters. It was always difficult to muster enthusiasm for Mike, a lackluster character. Worse, Teri Hatcher (Susan) and James Denton (Mike) have zero chemistry.
Also recycled (from season two) this year: Mike harbors more secrets, another character with a secret mysterious Chicago past moves into the neighborhood, a teenager has a secret past etc. etc.– it’s all very SEKRET.
And, in a new twist, during the tornado episode - the one that "changed everything" - Mike has a rage attack in the ER and decks an orderly. He’s been caught lying and using drugs. He’s sullen and he blames Susan for his drug habit because he’s upset about the cost of pre-school.
Seriously, is the Mike/Susan story line not THE worst?
Mike needs to man-up!
There is not enough motivation in the WORLD to make me sympathize with this unlikable character.
The producers have not been forgiven for one of their most questionable decisions: writing out the classy, multi-faceted Richard Burgi who swaggered on screen as Susan’s self-absorbed, caddish ex, Karl. This was one of television’s few charming, fun examples of Divorced!UST. Before Burgi was unceremoniously dropped, there were hints of redemption in his character, and Burgi and Hatcher had chemistry by the bucketful.
Burgi gives great swagger. In a recent episode of Big Shots, Burgi seriously upstaged Dylan McDermott.
I stopped watching Desperate Housewives on a regular basis for many reasons. One big one: the women are often at each other’s throats. But I’m most unhappy about Burgi’s departure. Bring Back Burgi, and put some fun back in DH.
About a year ago, Chicago Tribune’s critic Maureen Ryan broke from the pack and declared Desperate Housewives the “worst show on broadcast networks.” I’m not quite there with Desperate Housewives (but close). My choice for “the worst drama on television…”
And the winner of Mary’s Spike Heel award for 2007 (for the show most likely to provoke a viewer into pitching a spike heel into their plasma screen), is….
for the Meredith/McDreamy string-along.
Grey’s Anatomysharked out during a February’s sweeps ferry explosion arc. Meredith Grey tumbled into the bay and flatlined, a plot feint that had viewers and critics rolling their eyes. ABC hyped the melodrama as “the most important hour(s) of television this season” and “destined to become the most talked about television all year.”
I seem to recall that audiences were told by ABC not to “miss the devastating conclusion.”
Riiiighhht, snerked the fans commenting on Maureen Ryan’s blog - like ABC was going to change the name of the series to “Anatomy.”
Ellen Pompeo (Meredith) and Patrick Dempsey (Dr. Shepherd or McDreamy) are yet another pair of actors whose chemistry can only be measured by the nano-thimble.
The drowning stunt may have led to bedside UST (or hurt/comfort), but I never returned to Grey’s Anatomyto find out if McDreamy declared his love over a bedpan, in true fanfic tradition. (But the fanfic writers do it a lot better than most television dramas anyway.)
Grey’s Anatomy fans are apathetic. Worse, they’re angry. Creator Shonda Rhimes, claim the fans, likes to reframe this fury as a sign that fans still care enough to be passionate. No, it is what it is. They’re just mad.
Here’s a small sample of frustrated and angry comments culled from Television Without Pity. Frustrated and angry comments mean that viewers could jump the ship. (ship: short for relationship.) Taunting the wild viewer is a dangerous game.
dmdell119, Loyal Viewer Nov 14, 2007 @ 2:26 pm, Post#7354
<All this nonsense just breeds apathy.>
WORD. I never thought I wouldn’t be able to muster some kind of excitement for GA. But, as everyone said…I am so tired. I can’t even bother to be upset like I was, or care like I was…..
McMeredith123, Video Archivist, Nov 14, 2007 @ 5:45 pm Post#7373
<I am in awe at Shonda and Co.’s utter stupidity. What the f*ck kind of writing is that? Here’s an idea…Come with new godda*n ideas because I’ve seen this one about 20 times already on this show.>
Total word. I’m honestly apathetic toward this latest plot point….FYI Shonda, nothing has changed for Meredith and Derek in the last 15 or so episodes. It’s the same emotionally draining, depressing crap. They don’t have any new stories, any new movement. I am just tired of this show.
CSphillyeagles, Couch Potato, Nov 14, 2007 @ 9:13 pm, Post#7397
Ok, why don’t they just literally rip open my chest, tear out my heart, and stomp on it? Uggghhhh. Ok, step 2 in my 12 step-plan: "Pushing Daisies." Efffing terrific.
Okay, then. It’s not just me. Here’s the promo for the ambulance crash episode mess, this time during November ‘07 sweeps. It was another “life changing” moment. Do they have no new ideas on this show?
The viewers are right: nothing has changed since last year. The ferry crash was followed by a school bus crash, was followed by an ambulance crash - and Meredith is still a commitment-phobe. (I’m having a little trouble keeping track of the timeline, to be honest. The plots are all bleeeding together.)
Meredith finally tells McDreamy that she doesn’t want him to date other people. Such progress! But wait! – they’ll talk about it later. Patrick Dempsey (McDreamy) strains to convey a tender facial expression, but really looks nauseous, probably because he’s just as bored with this tedious storyline as we are. And besides - he just kissed Rose for fixing a computer in his O.R., stretching motivation and believability past the breaking point.
Hinting at disastifaction over the show’s failure to grow the characters, Dempsey told reporters he was ready for a change.
On a TV Guide blog, annoyed viewers unloaded.
Said one: Meredith and Derek are following the same formulaic path that about 2842963 TV couples have followed before them. I wish showrunners would catch on to the fact that their viewers are smart enough to recognize these formulas and be bored by them.
Lost in this miasma is the fabulous Chandra Wilson (Bailey) and the incomparable Sandra Oh (Cristina), their talents diminished by the absurd plots, the narcissistic characters, the irritating voice overs (topping CW’s Gossip Girl for worst television v.o.) and the stiff Ellen Pompeo. Sandra Oh dances circles around Pompeo in more ways than one. “Stop!” Cristina says to Meredith’s non-stop moping about dating McDreamy, “Dance it out!”
Unfortunately, I don’t see the big network’s weaning themselves from RUST any time soon. I suppose in ’08 I’ll be assessing another crop of RUST’ed series, propped-up by the predictable sweeps stunts: weddings, storms, deaths and crashes.
And next year at this time I’ll have a blog post entitled "The ’08 season: The Big Networks, still doing what doesn’t work harder.”
Part two of this post and the last assessment of ‘07 tv is upcoming. Last but not least: television worth living for, the use of UST in Californication,Ugly Betty and Pushing Daisies and why it works. Brotherhoodas the new Sopranos, Dexter, Mad Men and more