Long Live the Love Triangle: TV's Truest Trope

There's a good reason why the love triangle is a tried and true TV trope.

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Complex Original

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On a recent episode of CW’s Jane the Virgin, the titular character was struggling to choose between the two men in her life—ex-boyfriend Michael or baby daddy Rafael. Almost 25 episodes in, she realized where her heart was. She finally chose. Naturally, a bunch of drama happened and she couldn’t be with him. A few months passed, she gave the other guy a chance but of course, another mishap occurred and she couldn’t be with him either. Therefore, the love triangle shall continue. On paper, this sounds boring—like how can this go on forever? But believe you me, Jane the Virgin is anything but. Since its first episode, the show has established that while several subplots and excellent characters matter, the basic and most important story is the overarching love triangle.  

A love triangle is the party trick that never gets old. Show runners have used it as a honey trap for audiences forever. Love triangles on the surface seem ridiculous—they divide fans, they drag out storylines, they seem unnecessary and forced. And yet, we invest in these shows, the couples and the characters. We root for them, whether it’s Beverly Hills 90210 or Scandal or Jane the Virgin. Love triangles reel viewers in and we keep watching (as much as we promise ourselves we won’t). And guess what? That’s what these shows are banking on. With each show we’re served the recycled love affair on a platter and we gobble it up like cookie dough.

There are probably many reasons we succumb to the love triangle. Entertainment is obviously number one. The triangles consist of all the key ingredients that make a show entertaining: romance and chemistry,  happy endings, mystery, comedy, overcoming obstacles, and most importantly, drama is the obvious result. 

Even in small amounts, this hackneyed idea is present everywhere. CW, the ever prolific champion of the love triangle, has minted it for all its worth. From its WB days of Felicity to One Tree Hill which gave viewers the best (or the worst) triangle in the form of Peyton-Lucas-Brooke, the network hasn't given up. Gossip Girl also thrived on this: Chuck-Dan-Blair, Nate-Blair-Serena, Nate-Serena-Dan, I could go on; The Vampire Diaries probably led to the most debated love triangle ever with Damon-Elena-Stefan. And now Jane the Virgin, wherein the triangle isn’t too convoluted and includes all the key entertainment ingredients. So far, so good.  

It’s not just the CW, obviously. Almost every network, producer and writer relies on the love triangle like it’s the only way to bring about a twist in the story. This overuse is because it is just simply reliable. The tested formula has the same results every time: audiences love the drama. It really depends on when and how you insert it into a story. Grey’s Anatomy, for example, in just a few episodes of season one made fans go all out over Meredith and McDreamy (RIP)—but then the show added an extra layer by bringing in his wife, Addison, in the finale and made the affair that much more complex. And in turn, it made viewers care about the central couple even more. That’s the good kind of twist.

There are bad ones too though, like the incessantly long triangle on Scandal. I doubt there is even one fan left who isn’t over the Fitz-Olivia-Jake chaos. This show is a prime example of love triangles gone wrong because at this point it doesn’t even make sense for the characters to be with each other.  

If love triangles are overwrought, they end up being tedious. Viewers begin losing interest and consider giving up on a show. Why? Because every other plot suddenly revolves around the couples and ends up not adding anything to the show. The only way of escaping this is to come up with fresher, different and more realistic ideas. The Mindy Project is probably on the verge of splitting their lead duo, Danny and Mindy, without maneuvering into the love triangle tactic (even when they have Garret Dillahunt at their disposal!). Instead, the show is throwing light on real issues that divide couples in the post-engaged or post-baby phase. 

The crazy thing though is by the time we realize that the love triangle has sunken its teeth into us, we’re already knee-deep into the show. The prevailing feeling is, well, we’ve come too far to quit now. We are laying inside the trap. We might as well enjoy it. 

This trap also makes fans go kinda crazy. In a good way. One of the more fascinating things to come out of these TV love triangles are the fan wars/fandoms, shipping, and otp. No, I am not making this up—those are real terms. OTP (one true pairing) is the stuff of your TV dreams—you know, when you pick the fictional couple you love and they become your #relationshipgoals. You ship a couple (basically you hope and pray they overcome their stupid obstacles and get together). Amalgamating the names of your favorite couple is not even a new concept (read: Delena, Olitz, Brucas, and round and round we go). And the world we live in has made it easier to express these deep feelings, thanks to the internet. Early days had forums where fans would get together online and discuss their favorite shows. Now, if you get mad at Shonda Rhimes for splitting Olivia and the President once again, you can just tweet your anger at her.

Fans resort to tumblrs, pages and fansites. Thirty-five-year-old graphic designer Sophie G created her blog, indamonseyes, as a dedication to Damon and Elena, Ian Somerhalder and Nina Dobrev’s alter egos from The Vampire Diaries. She even remembers the exact episode she started shipping them: the third from season one. Like other #Delena fans, she sees Elena’s first love from the show Stefan (also Damon’s brother) as a big, fat obstacle in her epic relationship with Damon. One of the most polarizing couples during the first four seasons, they really danced around before finally coupling Delena together. Currently in its seventh season, the show is unabashedly going for another love triangle (Caroline-Stefan-Valerie). With more than 23,000 followers on her blog, Sophie uses it to express all her emotions about the couple and the show. Like most, she finds love triangles to be boring if stretched for too long. “It feels like the writers play their audience to keep everyone watching,” she says. “It is dangerous and ruins the story in order to please everyone. They lie to us and betray our trust to keep high ratings.”

As consumers of these shows on a daily basis, it’s only natural for us to get attached to a particular couple. If they don’t end up together, believe it or not, it begins to affect your heart and mind too. Why? Because we look at these characters and we relate to them. That’s what showrunners bank on when they create love triangles. It may seem extreme to say a couple can relate to counterparts from all these mythical, sci-fi shows. The essence doesn’t change whatever the genre might be. Classic comedies like Friends couldn’t escape this either. Ross and Rachel’s ‘will they or won’t they’ concept couldn’t go on forever so they devised the same old play and voila, Ross-Rachel-Joey came into play. Now there exists a whole bunch of fans out there who still wish it was him who Rachel had ended up with, and not Ross. The same debate continues for other iconic shows too. Hello, How I Met Your Mother.  

These shows are long gone but we’ll keep arguing about how Ted and Robin should or shouldn’t have ended up together. And new arguments will continue to arise, as long as there are new hits like Jane the Virgin. Clearly, love triangles are going nowhere. So let’s just accept love triangles because they remain in the TV world forever. Let’s just sit with our popcorn and wine Olivia Pope style,  and watch the drama unfold. 

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