I’ve got your back: longterm relationships in genre

beckett and castle back to back

Last Sunday, Steven Popkes talked about rewatching three old films. Briefly, he discusses how, viewed as an adult, the Thin Man films and His Girl Friday hold up, while the famous It Happened That Night, starring Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, doesn’t.

It brought to mind something I hadn’t been aware of: though as a kid I’d watched the Gable/Colbert film when it was syndicated, I hadn’t sought it out again for rewatching—though I’ve enjoyed a number of other Claudette Colbert films as an adult.

But the other two, yes. Especially the Thin Man films—and Steven is right. Aside from the witty writing, at the center is the relationship.

Which brings me back to film and television. Judging by how very few films and shows feature married couples with a good relationship, their makers seem to assume that tight and complex buddy relationships are all right, but no hero or heroine is interesting if married or committed. These relationships aren’t entertaining, so a lot of high emotion has to be manufactured, and what is higher than “first time” encounters? We get endless meet-cutes, arguments and breakups, ending with moving in/wedding bells/sleeping together as denouement. But what about those of us who feel the real story is just beginning?

There is a large audience for manufactured angst, just as there is for sports movies, horror, and any number of other tropes. No quarrel with them.


But this assumption that relationships aren’t interesting, that I can’t get behind. One of the recent TV shows I enjoyed most was Castle, especially the seasons after Rick Castle, the highly successful thriller writer, and Kate Beckett, the homicide detective, got together. Those two back to back, fighting evil while trying to work with trust and anxiety about the other’s safety, was far, far more interesting than quarreling all the time.

To my disgust, it just got cancelled after eight good years.

At least the makers stuck a few seconds of a good future onto what was obviously meant to be yet another cliffhanger season ending. (Another thing I hate. But one hate at a time!) The best episodes, by far, were those in which they were striving to understand one another and to compromise as well as deal with roller coaster emotions, while also dealing with the outside threat. They didn’t bicker endlessly, they communicated, and then dealt with the result of that communication.

I loved watching the evolution of their relationship, the icing on the cake being Castle’s relationship with his mother and daughter. (One of my favorites of all time was the one in which the daughter gets kidnapped, usually a storyline I’m tired of, but driving this episode beneath the hair-raising action was a story about the strength of love.)

nick and nora

Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn were admirable in various films, though each storyline was separate. The Thin Man films were comedic detective episodes that featured a married couple over the series.

These had a highly stylized structure—most of them ended with all the suspects gathered in a room as Nick delineated the clues that reveal the killer in a big surprise moment. Okay, many times you can guess ahead, but the pleasure wasn’t in the mystery, it was in how Nick and Nora Charles handled mysteries as a married couple.

nick and nora threesome

During the action, the writers often steered the couple toward the standard drama-causing moments—Nora walks in while a platinum blond floozy is hanging on Nick, Nick enters while a slick gangster is moving in on Nora—but then the wit would kick in, turning away from standard bickering, jealousy, and accusation.

Either Nick or Nora would cleverly evade the trap, often with a witty exchange—but underneath the fast quips was the sense that these two knew each other well, that their relationship was based on trust. As well as a sense of humor as dry as Nick’s endless supply of Martinis.

zoe and walsh

Back to TV series, Zoe and Wash from Firefly come to mind—and Tara and Willow from Buffy—but in both cases, Joss Whedon was at the helm, and he can’t seem to avoid flogging the dramameter with sudden death, rather than letting us have the pleasure of seeing these couples’ relationships evolve as they deal with their crazy lives.

In books, one of my favorite married couples of all times is Aral Vorkosigan and Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan.

cordelia's honor

Watching the two of them get together was a pleasure—they were enemies, trying to survive on a hostile planet—but their relationship really blossoms as they deal with civil war, their house being attacked, their son nearly destroyed (and surviving to become severely handicapped physically), then protecting and guiding said son as well as a young emperor.

Even when the focus of the series shifts to Miles, Aral and Cordelia are still vital parts of the long story, as they are part of Miles’ life.

lee miller local custom

Another set of books that features couples is the Liaden novels  by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller. Over the course of these, we see the development of an entire clan, with all kinds of interrelationships, generational included.

And if you want an enduring relationship that includes a heavy dose of fire and flair, Alec Campion, Duke of Tremontaine, and Richard St. Viers, introduced in Ellen Kushner’s Swordspoint;  we don’t see the enduringness of the relationship until a generation later in The Privilege of the Sword,  but what we do see is poignant in all ways.


How about you? Any working relationships you favor in genre books and TV?



I’ve got your back: longterm relationships in genre — 79 Comments

  1. There was one TV show in the 1970s, a detective show featuring a husband-and-wife team, but now I can’t think of the name. (Husband supplied it: Hart to Hart.) I recall enjoying it in an uncritical, teenage way. I don’t know what it would seem like if I looked at it now.

    We just finished watching all but the last season of Fringe. (The last season is a sudden, lurching change in story type that we just couldn’t bring ourselves to complete.) The center of the show was in some respects the mad scientist character played by John Noble (Denethor in The Return of the King film), but there was also a young attractive female FBI agent and the young attractive son of the scientist, and they slowly, over the course of the show, became deeply committed to each other. The series played with timelines and alternate universes, so various episodes and episode arcs imagined different levels of future relationship for them, but even in their most estranged periods, they remained sensitive to each other and strove to communicate, and I really appreciated that. The whole show was really good at showing people trying to communicate and work through the consequences of bad decisions.