Column: Why the Will-They-Won’t-They cliché works

Scott Patterson (who plays Luke Danes) and Lauren Graham (who plays Lorelai Gilmore) are the perfect example of the will-they-won't-they cliché. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.

By Madalyn Watson | Editor-in-Chief

If you are single and living vicariously through an on-screen, fictional couple right now, you are probably all too familiar with the will-they-won’t-they trope.

From Luke and Lorelai and Ross and Rachel to Jim and Pam and Nick and Jess, the will-they-won’t-they cliché is ingrained into our collective understanding of pop culture.

Without romance, television shows would be boring. If you try and fight me on this, remember that even shows like “Breaking Bad,” “The Walking Dead” and “Mad Men” feature romantic sub-plots.

Without the on-screen tension of a will-they-won’t-they relationship, most popular television comedies and dramadies would fall apart.

A couple with a will-they-won’t-they relationship shares romantic chemistry, but their relationship is threatened by external obstacles and internal uncertainty.

In fiction, these kinds of relationships force its audience on its knees, begging for some sort of relief. The sexual tension and the romantic, or non-romantic, chemistry pushes the plot forward and makes viewers care for the characters involved.

In an interview with the Huffington Post, Dr. Jared DeFife, a psychologist and adjunct professor at Emory University, said our fascination with on-screen romantic couples getting together is rooted in the psychological phenomenon called the Zeigarnik Effect.

The Zeigarnik Effect originally applied to waiters in restaurants that don’t write down your order. The waiter’s memory of that order remains as long as it isn’t filled and once the order is filled, they forget about the order. Basically, you care about something until it’s completed.

“[Romantic tension] over the course of a series or over the course a novel or set of novels that’s unresolved keeps our interest. We kind of keep playing that out in our own heads,” DeFife said. “It keeps our engagement with it going cognitively.”

As soon as the couple is together with no obstacles in their way, a poorly written will-they-won’t-they coupling tends to lose interest or propel quickly into a dumpster fire of boring domesticity. However, not all fictional ships have to end like this.

Usually, a will-they-won’t-they romance is ruined by the fans — even I fall into that category. Dedicated fans that ship a couple and routinely harass a television series’ creators get exactly what they asked for and realize it’s not what they wanted.

When producers and creators give in to pressures from rabid fans, it normally — but not always — ruins the show.

Most will-they-won’t-they couples aren’t actually all that great. It’s the fact that their fans never get to see them together that propels the relationship forward.

It’s kind of like that concept that you want what you don’t have, but once you have it, you realize it wasn’t worth it. The grass is always greener on the other side, my friends.

However, not all will-they-won’t-they relationships end in complete chaos. And not all will-they-won’t-they relationships are as horrible as Ross and Rachel.

Even though Ross and Rachel are one of the most popular will-they-won’t-they ships in the history of television, they are an absolutely horrible relationship. In “Friends,” the only couple you should root for is Monica and Chandler. No one will ever be able to change my mind.

So you’re probably wondering if Ross and Rachel don’t work, then what will-they-won’t-they ships work? I will tell you. Here are the three most successful examples of a will-they-won’t-they ship on television:

Nick and Jess, “New Girl”

Because of their conflicting personalities, Nick Miller and Jessica Day are the perfect couple. Her doe-eyed manic pixie dream girl look and his turtle-faced grumpy Gus vibes just work so well together.

Since the “Wedding” episode in the first season, fans knew that this “New Girl” couple was end-game. Jess has to pretend to be Nick’s date to a wedding that his ex-girlfriend is attending and the chemistry is instantly apparent.

Within the same season, “Naked” is probably one of the funniest episodes of the television series and I can’t help but giggle thinking about Jess refusing to say the word “penis,” and singing it instead. Not only is the episode absolutely hilarious, but when two people see each other naked “by accident” so early in a series, you know the creators are doing it on purpose.

I think I rewatched Season 2’s “Cooler” about three times this summer alone.

The fact that Nick refuses to kiss Jess after a dare because it’s not how he envisions their first kiss, is so important to the progression of their relationship. Then, later in the episode where he grabs her by the arm and pulls her in for a dramatic kiss, I practically swooned.

The best part of their relationship is that the series is still funny even when they’re together. Although Nick and Jess are off-and-on-again, the show doesn’t diminish in quality in the episodes where they are happy together. This is partially because they are such well-written, dynamic characters and partially because there are several other hilarious characters in the series to carry the tension. I mean, what would “New Girl” even be with Schmidt, Winston, CeCe and Coach?

Luke and Lorelai, “Gilmore Girls”

Even though every single driven teenage girl majoring in journalism wants to be Rory Gilmore, they all want a romance like her mother. Lorelai Gilmore and Luke Danes’ caffeine-dependent relationship is what “Gilmore Girls” hangs onto.

“Gilmore Girls” is about the familial relationships. The relationships between Emily, Lorelai and Rory Gilmore (the grandmother, mother and daughter) are what hold “Gilmore Girls” together. But out of all the romantic interests the lead characters meet in “Gilmore Girls,” Luke is the only one that matters.

Lorelai, the coffee junkie, and Luke, the diner owner who warns her of her unhealthy ways and snaps at her when she uses her cell phone in his restaurant, is the only constant in the series. Not only is Luke an important part of Lorelai’s life, but he’s been there for her daughter.

In Season 5’s “Written in the Stars,” Luke takes Lorelai on their first official date to his favorite restaurant. He reminds Lorelai about the first time that they met.

An annoying woman — that’s Lorelai — was in a caffeine frenzy in the middle of lunch hour at Luke’s Diner. She asks him for his birthday and then opens the newspaper to the horoscopes. Next to his sign, she writes “You will meet an annoying woman today. Give her coffee and she will go away.” Then, Luke shows her that he’s kept that scrap of paper in his wallet ever since then. Eight years.

“Lorelai, this thing we’re doing here. Me, you. I just want you to know I’m in, I’m all in,” Luke says.

Annie and Jeff, “Community”

This is a controversial choice, I know. A few probably exited out of this tab as soon as they saw my third choice for the perfect will-they-won’t-they couple. But I have my reasons.

When the series begins, Jeff is a selfish, materialistic and manipulative lawyer who conned himself into a high paying job without a college degree and can con his way out of almost every other situation. Annie is a recent high school grad who would have probably had a bright future at an Ivy League college if it wasn’t for her crippling addiction to study drugs.

By the end of the series, both characters have grown into so much more than their initial stereotypes. And their phenomenal character growth is not only thanks to the support of their friend group, but their support of each other.

Yes, I agree that they have a large age gap. Yes, I agree that the sexed-up, baby talk song Annie sings to Jeff to try to get him to join the Glee club in “Regional Holiday Music” is the stuff of nightmares. And yes, I agree that “Community” plays up the creep factor of their relationship a little too much sometimes.

Yet, the couple helps each other learn and grow. And it’s made incredibly apparent in Season 1’s “Debate” when Annie convinces Jeff to help her on Greendale’s debate team. Annie teaches Jeff that he should take life more seriously while he teaches her to let loose and go with the flow a bit more. As the series progresses, both of them grow individually as well as together.

Out of all the couples that fall into the will-they-won’t-they category, these are the most successful by a long shot.

You might be asking, what about Jim and Pam? And even though I love “The Office,” I think it’s time the series took a break from the limelight and let other comedies get a shot.