Warning: this column contains major spoilers for “Grey’s Anatomy” and “The Mindy Project.”
If someone were to pick up a scalpel and open up my chest, he’d discover a skippy, sloshy heart. A surgeon would take one look and say, “That girl’s heartbeat is more irregular than a German verb conjugation,” and the nurses would groan and contemplate leaving this hospital and finding one where the doctors tell better jokes. To the layman, however, my heart’s most unusual quality would be the hundreds of little signatures decorating the atria and ventricles — Jim and Pam, Scully and Mulder, Alicia and Will, Kurt and Blaine.
I have a shipper’s heart. Since I was a little girl watching Doug and Carol on “E.R.” through the crack in my parents’ closed door (they thought “E.R.” was not an appropriate show for a seven-year-old, and they were probably correct), I’ve cultivated an appreciation for the thrill of will-they-or-won’t-they relationships. There’s something so rewarding about following seasons and seasons of a show and anticipating the ignition of romance, waiting and waiting until some far-off season finale when those two will finally freaking kiss.
But what comes after that magical kiss? A relationship, a.ka. the shipper’s ultimate nightmare. It seems paradoxical that someone who loves TV couples would feel so negatively about … actual TV couples. But really, my hesitation makes sense. Relationships are terminally undramatic. Once the characters commit, fans can look forward to an inexhaustible stream of dates and smiles and sex and fights and tears as the ship reaches its endgame. It’s possible for a combination of these actions to be compelling — romantic comedies work so well as movies because the characters can have a fight and make up, and then the credits can roll. Unfortunately, TV shows rarely end when it’s convenient for the story. “Bones” is still on TV because people still care about Booth and Brennan, and for every person who cares, there’s another million dollars in the pocket of some FOX network executive.
If I consider all the pairings I’ve loved on TV, I’d be hard-pressed to find one that didn’t turn sour somewhere along the line. Time, the very thing that makes following TV couples such a gratifying experience, is also capable of sinking a ship faster than a surprise courtroom shootout. All those beloved names tattooed on my heart read like epitaphs on a gravestone, memories of pairings that were great until somebody died or the relationship eroded into something so droll I’d wish somebody would die and liven things up.
Derek and Meredith on “Grey’s Anatomy” are an archetypal case of a great pair turned awful. In the early episodes of “Grey’s Anatomy,” Derek Shepherd was a knight in shining navy scrubs who mentored new intern Meredith through the crazy halls of Seattle Grace hospital (and did a lot more than mentoring in the on-call room). But Derek was married and trying to work on patching things up with his icy wife, which meant that Mer would have to move on and accept that Derek was a fantasy. He’d never choose his sad mistress over his gorgeous, successful wife — except that he did. Derek and Meredith got married, had babies and inched toward stagnation as the show dragged onto its 11th season. I stopped watching around season eight, but I jumped back in last winter when I felt a fleeting pang of nostalgia for my beloved MerDer.
On Apr. 23, 2015, an Entertainment Weekly article about Patrick Dempsey’s departure from “Grey’s” leaked just hours before the penultimate episode of the season. I read the headline and immediately gasped, clicked out and decided immediately that I was done watching “Grey’s Anatomy.” I read my friends’ lamentations on Twitter: Derek was in a terrible car accident, somehow lived through the injuries and died at the hands of a hack surgeon. His demise dragged out over the course of an entire episode, punctured by cruel stabs of hope that were ultimately a middle finger to the viewers who grew to care about Derek in the 11 years he graced “Grey’s.” Just like Denny, Henry, Mark and George before him, Derek was ultimately a pawn for the show, more valuable as a ratings-bait corpse on the table than a dynamic, living character. “Grey’s Anatomy” delivered seven languid seasons of MerDer dates, smiles, sex, fights and tears, stringing viewers along only to punch viewers with the reveal that Derek Shepherd is dead, and so is TV romance.
TV shippers can also face strife more tragic than death. For many couples, the simple act of staying together kills the romance. “The Mindy Project” used to be one of my favorite shows, because Mindy and Danny were such an exceptional couple. In the beginning, Danny was highly unlikeable, ridiculing Mindy’s curves and bubbly personality and treating her like an insubstantial ditz. The two had chemistry, but in the same vein as Daniel Cleaver and Bridget Jones — the kind of chemistry that might lead to a volatile, doomed courtship before she finds someone nicer who will appreciate her spunk. “The Mindy Project” surprised me by spinning Danny from handsome scoundrel to romantic hero, redeeming him with deft character development and genuine change. Suddenly, he was good enough to deserve Mindy’s attention, and the show evolved into a close approximation of movie rom-com cuteness and magic.
But of course, this is TV, and every flame of a good couple is doomed to burn out spectacularly. For Mindy, the deciding tragedy was an ill-timed pregnancy. The pregnancy exposed cracks in Mindy and Danny’s relationship, but these struggles were a far cry from the frothy Bridget Jones-style romance “Mindy” delivered in earlier seasons. Mindy struggled with whether to prioritize her career or the baby, Danny balked at the idea of his conservative Catholic mother meeting the unapologetically nontraditional Mindy, and Mindy resented that Danny kept making her the villain. Mindy hoped for marriage, while Danny shirked commitment. Suffice it to say that will-they-or-won’t-they-get-married is not enough to keep the show’s romantic heart beating strong. Dismal ratings following the marriage plot were enough to get series was canceled on FOX, but “Mindy” will return for a fourth season on Hulu this fall. I’m not sure I’ll be watching.
Having a shipper’s heart is a blessing and a curse. I’m glad that I’m wired as a true romantic, and can appreciate blossoming love on TV and in real life. I’m glad that I can rewatch scenes from the first season of “Glee” and still smile at Finn and Rachel singing “Faithfully” at their regional competition, and I’m glad (and a little embarrassed) that I can go back to Nick and Jess’s first kiss on “New Girl” and still surprise myself by squealing in my empty living room. I’m glad I can watch shows like “Looking” and “Jane the Virgin” and feel the beginnings of another favorite couple etching themselves into my affections. TV romance has let me down a thousand times — but I’m still hopeful that one day, somebody will get it right.