Why We Love the Love Stories That Don’t Happen

In movies and on TV, heartbreak and missed connections can be as powerful as lasting love.

If you’re like me, by now you’re probably well on your way to knowing Michael Stuhlbarg’s Call Me By Your Name monologue by heart. The words his Mr. Perlman shares with Elio (Timothee Chalamet) are profound and tender, but it is his thoughts about heartbreak as a necessity that are still on my mind months later:

“To feel nothing so as not to feel anything — what a waste…Right now, there’s sorrow, pain. Don’t kill it, and with it the joy you’ve felt.”

That bright, blistering anguish of love which doesn’t last has rarely ever been described with such warm sentiment on screen. In celebrating finite love, Call Me By Your Name achieved something that’s rare in the Hollywood narrative machine, but an unavoidable everyday reality: a true love story that ends without any semblance of happily ever after. Why do we flock to these types of stories, finding romance in onscreen relationships that are ill-fated or never fully realized, when in our real lives these types of relationships often leave us feeling wounded and fragile, with no deeper significance for our pain in sight?

With stories like Call Me By Your Name, we get to see our sadness, which feels so purposeless at the time of heartache reframed, made cinematic and therefore important or even formative. When that blinding sorrow is all we can see, the stories we seek out on screen are a prism, multiplying our perspective into something a thousand times more vibrant than that numb, one-tone mindset that comes with a broken heart. And while our most vulnerable and intimate moments are in actuality small and fleeting, the movies reimagine them big and unforgettable, immortalized at 24 frames per second with a Sufjan Stevens song thrown in for good measure.

Our preoccupation with unhappy endings isn’t all heavy, though, and extends beyond standalone films. On TV, love is a whole different ball game, played out across years and seasons by writers attempting to serve the truth of their story while constantly being inundated with harsh and often conflicting audience feedback. Mulder and Scully, Sam and Diane, Sherlock and Watson, anyone on Game of Thrones or Buffy the Vampire Slayer there’s a seemingly endless list of popular “ships” who either met an unhappy fate, were written and rewritten into oblivion, or never even ended up together on screen. With romance on TV, we rarely get that Call Me By Your Name-level moment of clarity, a chance at cathartic, if heightened, self-recognition. What we get instead, which is perhaps just as vital, is a life that exists before and after love.

A well-made TV series can write around, beyond, and within a relationship without feeling like it’s doing so for ratings. Shows like Gilmore Girls, Veronica Mars, and Buffy all gave their young leads multiple love interests, then (revivals and post-series finale add-ons aside) allowed them to outgrow those relationships and end up single, satisfied in their careers and friendships and unworried about romantic entanglements. Meanwhile, Mad Men is masterful at conveying the passage of time, exploring the slow erosion of old relationships and the flourishing — and subsequent slow erosion — of new. Matthew Weiner’s series was able to convey the bittersweet (in this case, mostly bitter) life cycle of love in a way that no film ever could in its limited format. Again, we feel echoes of heartbreak, but these impermanent states of being, when told with enough skill and artistry, are tinged with the specific loveliness and safe distance of a birds-eye-view of reality.

There’s another reason for our love of will-they-won’t-they relationships where they, well, don’t. This one’s simple, if also embarrassingly unpoetic when compared to the rest: despite its obsession with love stories, Hollywood doesn’t have a great track record when it comes to creating happy couples. You probably know the Moonlighting curse, named after the Bruce Willis and Cybil Shepherd series whose ratings plummeted after the central couple finally slept together and the writers lost inspiration. But let’s not forget House, an epic cluster worthy of its own entry in the lexicon. In the Hugh Laurie-led show, a couple was teased for six seasons before imploding horrifically in a single-season arc that ended with the protagonist driving a car through his love interest’s dining room. Let’s not even get into Shameless, which wrote one of the best modern love stories on TV (Ian and Mickey, of course) into a corner as many times as possible before abandoning it completely.

After being burned too many times, we learn not to trust writers who manipulate our emotional investment for the sake of a single morning of watercooler conversation. This is especially true for fans of LGBT couples, who until recently were almost always hinted at on TV without ever being made canon. Queerbaiting is the phenomenon of writers making same-sex characters appear to be potential love interests before revealing them to be straight, or else endlessly teasing the possibility but never pulling the trigger to make it real (see: Sherlock, Riverdale). For LGBT folks hoping to see themselves and their relationships reflected on screen, this habit feels cruel in a real and significant way. In these cases, it feels safer to love the couples who will never get together, because the possibilities of their relationship are endless when left to viewer imagination, but limited in the hands of inconsistent writers.

Despite these diverse stories which, be it through intentionality or clumsy writing, disrupt the old Hollywood happily-ever-after narrative, there is still room on screen for depictions of lasting love. Take for instance the plot-twist resistant, endlessly optimistic works of Mike Schur. With The Office and Parks and Recreation — and now, hopefully, Brooklyn 99 and The Good Place — Schur and his writing teams have over and over created happy, sustainable, fulfilling relationships between characters within and beyond the romantic relationships that often got us hooked on the shows in the first place. Jim and Pam, Andy and April, and Leslie and Ben are no less hilarious and quirky because of their togetherness, and neither is their togetherness ever seriously threatened for the sake of a cheap storyline. Similarly, Jason Katims’s Friday Night Lights and Parenthood both featured enduring, realistic marriages which buck the idea that writing a married couple is boring.

Those of us raised on pop culture have grown up prepared for that end-credits kiss, and it’s great if you can get it, but it’s not the only kind of love worth celebrating. Relationships on screen are finally beginning to mirror real life in their representation, complexity, and realism. They’re fleeting, or they’re forever, or they only exist in fanfic, but the good ones are all worth feeling. Don’t take my word for it, take Mr. Perlman’s.

Valerie Ettenhofer :Bay Area freelance writer, podcast producer, TV lover, and cheese plate enthusiast.