Poldark, the BBC’s new ratings hit, owes a lot of its success to the beauty of its setting and actors. People fundamentally enjoy looking at aesthetically pleasing sights, something producers obviously noticed way back when. Further to this though, the industry heavyweights have decided that attractive people unable to make romantic decisions equals ratings alchemy. To this end, we’ve enjoyed a barrage of programming, effectively installing the love triangle as an absolute standard plot device. To Poldark’s credit, the drama and narrative of the show avoid falling too heavily on the shoulders of the love triangle. Rather, they focus on the class warfare it generates, thereby skirting the unsustainable nature of other shows.
This has to be the most fundamental problem with love triangles: they are insufficiently durable to carry the entire weight of a show’s narrative. The Vampire Diaries is possibly the single best example of this on air today. Now in its sixth season, the romantic entanglements of the three protagonists are decidedly stale. The girl has now dated and pledged undying love to both boys during the show’s run, making her declarations seem retrospectively hollow in both instances, thereby robbing the show of any gravitas. At this point, only the most dedicated viewer could still have the capacity to care for the outcome of this particular triangle: in short, they have run it into the ground.
While this easy trap can be avoided by show-runners, the solution is often just as dangerous, especially if a show has built itself primarily on the foundation of romantic discord. Solving the triangle, having the protagonist make a firm choice, leaves no new avenue open to the writers. They are forced to change either the focus of the show, or separate the characters once again, just for the convenience of plot. The US version of The Office, took this bold step, uniting Jim and Pam, though most impressively of all, they stuck it out. Roy and Karen, who had each taken a shift as the third point in the triangle, were not brought back to wreak havoc in the relationship, and the show simply rumbled on. Having other main characters, as well as a huge ensemble, allowed the writers to alter the focus of the narrative now that the central couple had been brought together. Of course, the quality of the show declined over the seasons, but it never became so cheap as to divorce Jim and Pam, reinstating a love triangle. Triangles also have to walk a delicate line between balance and bias.
Poldark, thus far, has been exceptionally clear on which side of the triangle it intends the audience to be. Who is going to root for the lady of the estate, sitting in her husband’s drawing room doing needlework and dutifully bearing children for a man she does not love, over the feisty maid who refuses to be parted from her dog, exceptionally competent and effective in the work she undertakes? Perhaps as the series develops, the balance will become less weighted, though this is not a necessarily automatic improvement. There is satisfaction to be had in knowing what the right choice is for the characters; it becomes a unifying aspect of the show for the audience. To create a balanced love triangle is to divide the audience, leaving half disappointed, whatever the end result.
Examples of this are so numerous as to have created shipping culture, where viewers are encouraged to tweet about their preferences for the protagonist’s choice. Shipping and the advent of social media have meant that love triangles remain on an upwards trajectory of popularity, as they necessitate the audience’s direct engagement with the story. The flip side of this phenomenon is that the viewer is now able to have an effect on the progression of the narrative; a potentially concerning development. Arrow, CW’s adaptation of the Green Arrow comics, is the prime example in this case. The Green Arrow’s love interest historically has been Black Canary, in the same way that Superman and Lois Lane are simply lore at this point. However, the writers initially made their iteration of Dinah Laurel Lance (Black Canary) a love interest, with little other relevance to the plot, played by an actress who doesn’t seem able to move her forehead. Naturally, therefore, the audience fell for the awkward, beautiful tech genius, leading to a shipping campaign that has seen the Black Canary/Green Arrow pairing abandoned in favour of new paths. For the most part, this has been a positive change; it just somehow seems strangely meddlesome in terms of narrative integrity.
The final problem I’ll address with love triangles is the difficulty of making the person in the middle seem ‘worth it’. If a triangle is drawn out as a focus of a show, the viewer has to understand why the protagonist is so desirable. Having them simply be attractive is rarely sufficient; they have to connect to both male and female viewers in a significant way to avoid the romance becoming unbelievable. A viewer with indifference to the focus of attraction will likely not engage with the relationship. This forces the writers to create a character that sparkles: someone who is different, but not egregiously so; someone intelligent and progressive, but not alienating; someone aesthetically pleasing, without good looks being the dominant aspect of their attraction. It’s a difficult line to walk, and certainly one not achieved often.
To return to Poldark, our protagonist is so obscenely handsome, that in order for it not to be his dominant feature, he is an almost hilarious paragon of virtue. Truly, this character is a parody of chivalry: saving damsels in distress, creating jobs for the townsmen, and standing up for the rights of the poor and oppressed, all the while trying to do his duty to the family name. In the four episodes broadcast, we really have little reason to believe that this isn’t the second coming. This lack of nuance is clearly a real effort on the part of the writers to make sure the audience knows that their protagonist is worthy of all the fuss and attention. It’s easy to see why they would want to go for this end of the spectrum, as the other end is the far greater crime. Elena, the protagonist of The Vampire Diaries, is at this point, a charisma vacuum at best. She may have had her merits when the series began, (I can’t remember) but honestly her current form is a beautiful, whiny, incompetent individual, utterly consumed by her own romantic troubles. And as the viewer, I couldn’t care less about them; I just want her to leave, and take all her on screen worshippers with her. If this was the reaction the writers were going for, job done.
Love triangles are really the lazy man’s way of creating drama. They serve their purpose, but burn out faster and faster as the market becomes more saturated. I would go so far as to say that a protracted love triangle, unsolved for series at a time, has never benefitted a show. So many distract from other, potentially more interesting stories within their shows, that it’s somewhat depressing to see writers treading the creative ground repeatedly, particularly in this golden age of programming. It is understandable that romantic indecision must always be the province of the teen drama, and in this regard, I have probably been ungenerous to The Vampire Diaries. It is when shows of supposedly better quality plumb these depths of desperation in the plot, that the love triangle becomes a real curse. Perhaps we are soon to turn a corner, and leave this route writing behind, though I fear this unlikely while shipping remains such an effective way of causing viewers to tune in and engage. It’s a pity.