Get the TV kisses right and everybody wins

From <em>Friends</em> to <em>Cheers</em> to <em>Buffy the Vampire Slayer</em>, not all television couples have to ruin the show.

 

“A kiss is not a contract but it’s very, very nice,” sang the Flight of the Conchords in their HBO series. They’re correct but a kiss is a sort of seal on a romantic deal. A kiss says: “We have started something.” But that’s in real life. On television, a firm lip-lock is just as likely to be the end. If a face can launch a thousand ships, a kiss can just as easily sink ’em.

This summer, as I venture through the wasteland of pop culture, I’ll also be making the case for why it’s important. Television is real life as much as it’s not: we are often looking to it to show us worlds that we could never enter, while also reflecting the everyday situations we can connect with. The ABC show Scandal is exciting when Olivia Pope walks into the Oval Office to talk communications strategy with the president but when the pair swerve out of the range of the security cameras so they can kiss adulterously – that’s what we recognise as “real”, at least to an extent.

It was the same with the “Will they/won’t they?” of Ross and Rachel in Friends a decade ago. The kiss is important and when beloved characters give in, sometimes after months or years of yearning, missed connections and other writer-induced obstacles, our reaction can be visceral. Why, we often find ourselves wondering, would you go and do a thing like that and ruin everything?

Television fans, like most fans of popular culture, are inveterate list-makers: their favourite, their least favourite, the best, the worst, and so on. Telly kisses are a category all on their own. A request on social media for people’s opinions on TV programmes ruined (my emotive word choice, granted) by an ill-judged – or, more usually, “ill-handledin- the-aftermath” – kiss yielded several examples, accompanied by howls of rage un - dimmed by the years since cancellation.

One that sits in our collective TV memory is the smouldering consummation between David and Maddie in the 1980s comedy drama Moonlighting. It’s spawned the “Moonlighting curse”, referring to the diminished fizz between Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd after their season-three clinch (“I’m sick of this – two years of ‘Is you is’ or ‘Is you ain’t’,” barks David, before the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” kicks in and they kiss and roll around on the carpet).

Moonlighting’s dwindling ratings were not solely down to the kiss but the myth persists. Look away now, fans of E4’s New Girl, but that barnstormer of a kiss Nick and Jess shared recently (“I mean, yeah, I saw through space and time for a minute but that’s not the point”) has brought it back to the fore. It’s still a fact that giving in to characters’ lust is playing with fire and can be tricky as hell to pull off.

There can be no one out there who will defend the Niles and Daphne kiss – and eventual marriage and baby – on Frasier, nor the terrible pairing off of Joey and Rachel in Friends: those decisions were indefensible acts of TV cruelty.

But consider this – the first Ross and Rachel kiss came relatively early, in season two, without wrecking the show and the show-runners did it again with Monica and Chandler several seasons later. Did Buffy and Spike getting together kill Buffy the Vampire Slayer or ultimately enhance it? The Mulder and Scully kiss, ambiguous when it came in season seven of The X-Files, was somehow perfect; the kisses in NBC’s Community are practically built into the set. Perhaps the lesson here is to do it with minimum fuss – no unnecessarily extended arcs that can provide too many opportunities to mess up the delicate ecosystem of a show. The kiss is not the problem, you see – it is the handling of the after-effects.

In Fox’s crime drama Bones, after a long and celebrated denial of attraction, the forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan and the FBI agent Seeley Booth hook up off-screen and return in the next season with a pregnancy and work as usual. In NBC’s Parks and Recreation, Leslie and Ben manage to get – and stay – together with almost no show fallout.

So the kiss doesn’t haven’t to be a deafening record scratch in a TV show. The real test, which, for my money, New Girl is handling realistically and admirably so far, is how the resulting shockwaves are dealt with. It can and has been done well, from Cheers to Ed. Get that right and everyone wins.

Ross and Rachel in Friends.

Bim Adewunmi writes about race, feminism and popular culture. Her blog is  yorubagirldancing.com and you can find her on Twitter as @bimadew.

This article first appeared in the 20 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Dream Ticket

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Love a good box set? Then you should watch the Snooker World Championships

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. 

People are lazy and people are impatient. This has always been so – just ask Moses or his rock – but as illustrated by kindly old Yahweh, in those days they could not simply answer those impulses and stroll on.

Nowadays, that is no longer so. Twitter, YouTube and listicles reflect a desire for complex and involved issues, expansive and nuanced sports – what we might term quality – to be condensed into easily digestible morsels for effort-free enjoyment.

There is, though, one notable exception to this trend: the box set. Pursuing a novelistic, literary sensibility, it credits its audience with the power of sentience and tells riveting stories slowly, unfolding things in whichever manner that it is best for them to unfold.

In the first episode of the first series of The Sopranos, we hear Tony demean his wife Carmela's irritation with him via the phrase “always with the drama”; in the seventh episode of the first series we see his mother do likewise to his father; and in the 21st and final episode of the sixth and final series, his son uses it on Carmela. It is precisely this richness and this care that makes The Sopranos not only the finest TV show ever made, but the finest artefact that contemporary society has to offer. It forces us to think, try and feel.

We have two principal methods of consuming art of this ilk - weekly episode, or week-long binge. The former allows for anticipation and contemplation, worthy pursuits both, but of an entirely different order to the immersion and obsession offered by the latter. Who, when watching the Wire, didn’t find themselves agreeing that trudat, it's time to reup the dishwasher salt, but we’ve run out, ain’t no thing. Losing yourself in another world is rare, likewise excitement at where your mind is going next.

In a sporting context, this can only be achieved via World Championship snooker. Because snooker is a simple, repetitive game, it is absorbing very quickly, its run of play faithfully reflected by the score.

But the Worlds are special. The first round is played over ten frames – as many as the final in the next most prestigious competition – and rather than the usual week, it lasts for 17 magical days, from morning until night. This bestows upon us the opportunity to, figuratively at least, put away our lives and concentrate. Of course, work and family still exist, but only in the context of the snooker and without anything like the same intensity. There is no joy on earth like watching the BBC’s shot of the championship compilation to discover that not only did you see most of them live, but that you have successfully predicted the shortlist.

It is true that people competing at anything provides compelling drama, emotion, pathos and bathos - the Olympics proves this every four years. But there is something uniquely nourishing about longform snooker, which is why it has sustained for decades without significant alteration.

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. Most frequently, snooker is grouped with darts as a non-athletic sport, instead testing fine motor skills and the ability to calculate angles, velocity and forthcoming shots. However, its tempo and depth is more similar to Test cricket – except snooker trusts so much in its magnificence that it refuses to compromise the values which underpin it.

Alfred Hitchcock once explained that if two people are talking and a bomb explodes without warning, it constitutes surprise; but if two people are talking and all the while a ticking bomb is visible under the table, it constitutes suspense. “In these conditions,” he said, “The same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!’”

Such is snooker. In more or less every break, there will at some point be at least one difficult shot, loss of position or bad contact – and there will always be pressure. Add to that the broken flow of things – time spent waiting for the balls to stop, time spent prowling around the table, time spent sizing up the table, time spent cleaning the white, time spent waiting for a turn – and the ability for things to go wrong is constantly in contemplation.

All the more so in Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre. This venue, in its 40th year of hosting the competition, is elemental to its success. Place is crucial to storytelling, and even the word “Crucible” – whether “a ceramic or metal container in which metals or other substances may be melted or subjected to very high temperatures,” “a situation of severe trial”, or Arthur Miller’s searing play – conjures images of destruction, injustice and nakedness. And the actual Crucible is perhaps the most atmospheric arena in sport - intimate, quiet, and home to a legendarily knowledgeable audience, able to calculate when a player has secured a frame simply by listening to commentary through an earpiece and applauding as soon as the information is communicated to them.

To temper the stress, snooker is also something incredibly comforting. This is partly rooted in its scheduling. Working day and late-night sport is illicit and conspiratorial, while its presence in revision season has entire cohorts committing to “just one more quick frame”, and “just one more quick spliff”. But most powerfully of all, world championship snooker triggers memory and nostalgia, a rare example of something that hasn’t changed, as captivating now as it was in childhood.

This wistfulness is complemented by sensory pleasure of the lushest order. The colours of both baize and balls are the brightest, most engaging iterations imaginable, while the click of cue on ball, the clunk of ball on ball and the clack of ball on pocket is deep and musical; omnipresent and predictable, they combine for a soundtrack that one might play to a baby in the womb, instead of whale music or Megadeth.

Repeating rhythms are also set by the commentators, former players of many years standing. As is natural with extended coverage of repetitive-action games, there are numerous phrases that recur:

“We all love these tactical frames, but the players are so good nowadays that one mistake and your opponent’s in, so here he is, looking to win the frame at one visit ... and it’s there, right in the heart of the pocket for frame and match! But where’s the cue ball going! it really is amazing what can happen in the game of snooker, especially when we’re down to this one-table situation.”

But as omniscient narrators, the same men also provide actual insight, alerting us to options and eventualities of which we would otherwise be ignorant. Snooker is a simple game but geometry and physics are complicated, so an expert eye is required to explain them intelligibly; it is done with a winning combination of levity and sincerity.

The only essential way in which snooker is different is the standard of play. The first round of this year’s draw featured eight past winners, only two of whom have made it to the last four, and there were three second-round games that were plausible finals.

And just as literary fiction is as much about character as plot, so too is snooker. Nothing makes you feel you know someone like studying them over years at moments of elation and desolation, pressure and release, punctuated by TV confessions of guilty pleasures, such as foot massages, and bucket list contents, such as naked bungee jumping.

It is probably true that there are not as many “characters” in the game as once there were, but there are just as many characters, all of whom are part of that tradition. And because players play throughout their adult life, able to establish their personalities, in unforgiving close-up, over a number of years, they need not be bombastic to tell compelling stories, growing and undergoing change in the same way as Dorothea Brooke or Paulie Gualtieri.

Of no one is this more evident that Ding Junhui, runner-up last year and current semi-finalist this; though he is only 30, we have been watching him almost half his life. In 2007, he reached the final of the Masters tournament, in which he faced Ronnie O’Sullivan, the most naturally talented player ever to pick up a cue – TMNTPETPUAC for short. The crowd were, to be charitable, being boisterous, and to be honest, being pricks, and at the same time, O’Sullivan was playing monumentally well. So at the mid-session interval, Ding left the arena in tears and O’Sullivan took his arm in consolation; then when Ding beat O’Sullivan in this year’s quarter-final, he rested his head on O’Sullivan’s shoulder and exchanged words of encouragement for words of respect. It was beautiful, it was particular, and it was snooker.

Currently, Ding trails Mark Selby, the “Jester from Leicester” – a lucky escape, considering other rhyming nouns - in their best of 33 encounter. Given a champion poised to move from defending to dominant, the likelihood is that Ding will remain the best player never to win the game’s biggest prize for another year.

Meanwhile, the other semi-final pits Barry Hawkins, a finalist in 2013, against John Higgins, an undisputed great and three-time champion. Higgins looks likely to progress, and though whoever wins through will be an outsider, both are eminently capable of taking the title. Which is to say that, this weekend, Planet Earth has no entertainment more thrilling, challenging and enriching than events at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield.

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