Warning: this is long. I tried to be brief, but what's the fun in that?
Perhaps no television convention is more universally recognized than the "will they or won't they" couple. However, this convention is at the same time one of the most problematic and troubling to play out and resolve.
The problem with the WTOWT couple lies in progressing the individual characters as well as their relationship without ruining the dynamic or alienating the viewer. You're likely to see the WTOWT duo set up in the first season - often the first episode, even - and then subsequently kept apart as long as possible so as not to dissolve the tension or unrequited love. In the meantime, the situation is mined for miscommunication, longing, bad timing, and near misses that are usually quite effective both dramatically and comedically. It's agonizing and thrilling at the same time, and therefore keeps the viewer invested.
But what happens after several seasons of this, or worse, when it's resolved? Either the couple gets together or doesn't, and there are a slew of negative consequences of both. Many shows "jump the shark" when their WTOWT couples take the plunge (see: "Frasier," "Moonlighting," and to subject to debate, "Friends" and "The Office" [US version]), but if you just endlessly string them along in singledom, you run the risk of losing fans.
One of the main WTOWT couples on television right now consists of FBI Agent Seely Booth (David Boreanaz) and forensic anthropologist Dr. Temperence Brennan (Emily Deschanel) on Fox's "Bones." Their relationship began five seasons ago, mostly in the form of bickering that stemmed from a fundamental difference in beliefs (the whole head vs. heart, reason vs. intuition debate - she, being the scientist, scoffed at his faith in "gut instincts"). Since then, they have both relented a bit to each other's way of thinking and found a mutual respect, and even playful chemistry towards one another in their professional relationship.
Last night's episode of "Bones" was its 100th, and it was a big one. Basically, it was a flashback episode, a whirlwind tour of all the incarnations of Booth and Brennan's relationship through the years. In present day, the duo revealed to their occupational psyciatrist (Dr. Sweets) that a case study he had conducted on them was misguided - their first case together, upon which he based his whole study, was actually not their first case. Instead, we were shown Booth and Brennan's true beginnings, pre-show. And in fact, they were not mired in a stubborn clashing of personalities, but rather they exuded a spark of flirtation that even led to a drunken kiss. Plans for sleeping together were thwarted only by Brennan, who cited her reason simply as tequila.
This was news to all of us, Dr. Sweets and audience alike. I'm fairly certain all "Bones" fans were scraping the floor with their jaws watching their WTOWT couple kissing one year before the show had technically started. How did they get so cranky at each other by the pilot? According to Dr. Sweets, they had missed their window of opportunity, and combined with some other unfortunate mishaps and offenses, they were essentially punishing each other.
This bit of information is how "Bones" has taken the WTOWT couple and turned it on its ear. Essentially, Booth and Brennan played out their "Will they or won't they?" scenario before we had ever met them. They had chemistry, they kissed, they continued their working relationship, and discovered differences between them that they at first couldn't negotiate. Once they had, it was too late to get back to their roots - they had too much at stake in them being friends and partners. In a roundabout way, "Bones" has set itself up for success: you can't spoil the sexual tension if they get together, because technically, it was already spoiled once, and guess what? It resurfaced again.
So, Dr. Sweets urged Booth and Brennan to break their standoff and take a chance. And then came The Scene: Booth went for it. With this, we witnessed the second point of deviation from traditional WTOWT couples. One of the characters didn't have "the epiphany" and finally see what was in front of them all along. No supporting character accidentally let slip the secret of one's undying love for the other. It didn't happen when one of them was about to be married to someone else. It wasn't a drunken encounter to be dealt with later.
Instead, it was the two characters acknowledging what they've known (and what we, as an audience, DEFINITELY knew) all along: there's something there. Booth confessed he knew it since the moment he saw Brennan, and he wanted to give it a shot. But she said no. And even though it was painful to see them both with tears in their eyes trying to deal with this reality, it makes sense. It's in keeping with Brennan's character to say no. She's not one to take a chance. She is a foster-child-turned-scientist (bear with me) whose issues with abandonment and whose need for empiricism trump all else. She has no logical way of knowing whether or not she should be in a relationship with Booth, and without that reasoning, their current relationship is therefore too valuable to jeopardize. So she said no.
Of course, as a viewer, I'm fairly positive this isn't the end of that road for this WTOWT couple. The episode ended with Booth and Brennan resolving to stay professional partners, and walking off with her head on his shoulder.
It was a bittersweet moment, and perhaps one that could have divided fans. But I for one appreciate the episode for advancing the WTOWT relationship in a realistic and impactful way without demeaning the characters or couple, or compromising the integrity of the show. You could argue that going back in time and tweaking the couple's origin is cheating a little bit, but in the long run, I think it's necessary. If (when?) the WTOWT couple gets together, this episode is the one that their future success, and the future success of the show, is hinged upon. Because of this episode, the chances of the show falling apart upon resolving the WTOWT couple are fewer. And ultimately, keeping the show intact is the goal.
Believe it or not, this was not the season finale. We still have a few more episodes, and supposedly, another gamechanger at the end of the season. We'll see how it inevitably affects Booth and Brennan, and their WTOWT status. In the meantime, we'll keep watching for the good chemistry and character development both independent of and instrumental to their relationship. Because even though every show loves a good "will they or won't they?" couple, it's probably best if you have something else that can headline. Just in case.