One of my least-favourite tropes is UST, or Unresolved Sexual Tension, which is pretty much what it says on the tin. Two characters have romantic feelings for each other but either don’t admit them to themselves or don’t act on them for various reasons. For years. It’s most egregious in non-serial or semi-serial TV drama, where the UST is often introduced in the very first episode and seems to form the core of the relationship between two characters for multiple seasons. When one character is clearly the protagonist, however, I tend to find that this leaves the other one feeling underdeveloped, as their relationship with the protagonist, and by extension overall character development, is defined by the sexual tension rather than anything else.
When the characters are both well-developed, however, I still find extended UST tiresome. By hinting at a potential romantic relationship yet never establishing one, the writers prevent the characters’ relationship from growing in either a platonic or romantic direction, and as a result stunt their overall growth. As a viewer, it feels like the writers are trying to keep options open, by creating the opportunity for a romance but not committing to it, but instead of giving the relationship momentum it stagnates it. Either beginning a relationship or nixing the possibility of one provides opportunities for the characters to develop, but the perpetual ‘Will They or Won’t They?’ keeps that from happening.
Of course, you need some level of UST in order for the fulfillment of the relationship to resonate with the audience. Two friends suddenly snogging leaves the audience wondering what happened and feeling like their behaviour was out of character. Where to draw the line between relationship buildup and incessant UST is naturally subjective, but ultimately what it boils down to is whether or not there’s progression. If the characters are gradually drawing closer together (or further apart), or overcoming issues that impede a relationship, then there’s satisfying development and character growth. It’s when each episode features a bit of flirting, maybe some held gazes, but ends with them in the same position as the last that I dislike it. If you could watch an episode from season 1 and an episode from season 5 and the characters treat each other in the same flirtatious manner, that’s what I’m talking about.
An interesting example is Castle. At the start of the show, Beckett finds Castle irritating (though she secretly loves his books) and wishes she could get him out of her police station. They gradually become friends, but then spend a good season and a half pretty much defining this trope, before beginning a relationship at the end of season 4. I’ve only watched about as far as season 6, but in my opinion, their relationship, and the role it played in the overall story, improved from that point on. In a largely episodic show like Castle, a happy relationship can fade into the background, in much the same way that the characters’ platonic relationships simply are. Ironically, characters who are actually in a romantic relationship are, in the context of the narrative, much less defined by that relationship than characters stuck in endless UST, providing better opportunities for character growth.
That’s not to say that characters can’t grow as a result of extended romantic tension. As of the seventh season of Murdoch Mysteries, William and Julia are finally engaged. However, their relationship has not been in a perpetual state of ‘Will They or Won’t They?’ up to this point; instead, there have been various barriers to their relationship that have forced each of them to reconsider their beliefs and what they want in life. In other words, their feelings for each other drive a substantial part of their character development, so that when they do get together they do so as people who have a real chance at happiness together, something that would not have been the case had they married five years earlier.
Romantic relationships have so much power to drive character development that it’s frustrating when they instead work to hold it back, which is exactly what happens when creators are reluctant to either commit to a romantic relationship or negate the possibility of one. In many cases, this seems to be an effort to keep options open, but perhaps even more frustrating is when the writers seem reluctant to even acknowledge the UST is there, as is the case with The X-Files.
Mulder and Scully’s friendship in this series was intended to be wholly platonic, which I think is absolutely wonderful. God knows there are far too few strong male-female friendships on television (especially those where the characters have never once had a romantic relationship with one another), not to mention the scarcity of female characters who are, as Scully is, allowed to exist without trying to define them in relation to a male character. And I think Carter’s dedication to this is both why it takes so long for the show to admit Mulder and Scully’s feelings for each other and why, when it does, it keeps their relationship in the background.
However, the attempt to downplay their UST actually makes it more prominent; there’s just enough to suggest that something’s going on, but without the satisfaction of seeing the resolution of it, and, as a result of that lack of resolution, something that wasn’t even meant to be a part of the show takes on an importance greater than it needs to have because it’s kept simmering under the surface. At once, their relationship is defined by their attraction to each other and the show’s refusal to allow that attraction to change anything. We neither see them come into conflict over their feelings nor watch their relationship fade into the background like Castle’s and Beckett’s (in essence, the romantic version of the platonic friendship that was envisioned).
I’ve focussed on TV shows here because in my experience TV is the medium where this trope tends to crop up. There may be UST between two characters in the first 2.5 books of a trilogy, but there’s an expectation of some kind of resolution of it by the third book; whether they get together, drift apart, or confess their love only for one of them to die, it’s unlikely the author will leave the relationship hanging. In a TV show, on the other hand, the writers never know in advance how much time there will be to tell their story, and so they’re more likely to draw out the possibility of a resolution much longer than makes sense for the characters.
Moreover, in an episodic programme the UST between the characters may be the primary source of drama that runs longer than a single episode, and writers are often reluctant to abandon that for fear of changing something that keeps the audience invested, meaning it carries on far longer than it necessarily needs to. However, I would argue that drawing the romantic tension out too long eventually causes the audience to no longer care because it seems unlikely they’ll ever get together anyway. Besides, this trope tends to appear in shows that aren’t primarily about the relationship; whether Castle and Beckett or Murdoch and Julia or Mulder and Scully are colleagues, friends, friends with UST, or lovers is secondary to the fact that each pair works together to fight crime.
On the whole, I adore romantic subplots. Whether the relationship is one to root for or not, they often showcase a different facet of a character’s personality and can be effective drivers for character development. Like any subplot, however, there needs to be progress towards some sense of resolution in order for it to serve that purpose and to be something that it’s worth becoming emotionally invested in. Unresolved sexual tension, by its very definition, falls short of resolution, meaning that if it goes on for too long it becomes less emotionally resonant and, in some cases, downright irritating.