Monday, April 09, 2007

Shipping is for sailors

There's a famous film editing experiment from the early 1900s that spawned the theory known as the Kuleshov Effect. Russian filmmaker Lev Kuleshov cut frames of an expressionless actor with a can of soup, a woman in a coffin, and a girl. The audience interpreted his expression differently depending on which they thought he was looking at.

Though its purpose was to demonstrate how filmmakers can manipulate the emotion of a scene, the experiment has stuck with me since Film Studies 101 as a nice metaphor for our tendency to see what we want to see in any context. I'm sure there was an experiment to prove that point more directly in Psychology 101, but that was an 8 a.m. class and not much stuck with me at that hour.

I'm ready to posit a variation on the theory: the Shipper Effect, where viewers see evidence for or against a relationship between TV characters depending on their own desire to see those characters together.

For the uninitiated, "shipping" is the practice of watching a show with the fervent desire to see two characters hook up. Relationshipping is, apparently, too clunky a word. In a show like Bones, the prevailing ship is obvious. In a show like House, there are different factions in the fandom, and each has enough ammunition to arm their ship because the writers are clever enough not to commit to a pairing, but to play with them all.

I've said it before - I don't get the appeal of shipping. Looking at a show through that lens limits the show, in my mind. There's often a degree of distorting events in order to be able to look at it through a particular lens, and there's definitely a large degree of inflexibility. Shippers reject the idea of going along for the ride down roads not yet imagined, and long instead for the tired boy-meets-girl scenario to be fulfilled, despite the fact that once it is, we'll inevitably get bored and stop watching.

When everyone's happy, there's no drama. When there's no drama, there's no audience ... except for those who will watch the show in order to clog the Internet with their bitching about how it's jumped the shark.

Even in shows where there's a will-they-or-won't-they pairing (so not, like House, where the main character has chemistry with every woman, some men, and various inanimate objects that step onto the set), getting those characters together never improves the show. If the shippers get what they want, tension will burst, ratings will plunge, and no one will live happily ever after, least of all the viewers. Moonlighting is the famous example, and I can't think of an exception to the rule. Friends had to keep finding new ways to break up Ross and Rachel until a murder-suicide wouldn't have offended me.

House has cleverly avoided that one obvious pairing they'd then have to deal with. By having more than one possibility, they won't be faced with Frasier's Daphne and Niles dilemma, where not getting the characters together starts to seem ludicrous by about season five.

So I don't get shipping, but I do find it amusing to contemplate the shipper effect. A friend pointed out that I was a topic of conversation on a House board, and some of the discussion centred around my personal "agenda." One poster disparagingly claimed I was a House/Cameron shipper, and another suggested she (it's gotta be a she - do men discuss this kind of thing?) might want to tell the House/Cameron shippers that, since they firmly believe I'm a House/Cuddy shipper. Others pointed out that I'm a self-declared non-shipper.

I'm not an expressionless face cut with images of Cameron and Cuddy, but I have, in fact, expressed dismay at the idea of the show going down either path definitively, and joy at the charged moments between House and Cameron and House and Cuddy. What's a shipper to think? It seems they can interpret my preference in opposite ways, depending on what they want to see. I want neither, so shippers can see either in my reviews, and ignore evidence to the contrary. Just as they can watch the show with an eye towards seeing evidence that House is meant to be with Cameron and ignoring his relationship with Cuddy, or that House is meant to be with Cuddy, and ignoring his relationship with Cameron.

Stepping into the reality of the series, if Cameron were my little sister, I'd be staging an intervention to try to cure her of her crush on House. There's this nice Australian boy she works with .... As the series has progressed, House's influence has led to Cameron's hardening, to the point where the duckling he most maligned as being too soft has shown she's capable of being calculating, cruel, and devious. She might be good for House, if he were capable of an intimate relationship, or if I believed the love of a good woman cures all, but he would definitely not be good for her.

Stepping into my reality where these characters are fictional and meant to entertain me, this is the pairing I think would doom the show no matter how the writers treated it. Because either Cameron needs to become an even flintier character, or House needs to soften in order for it to work. The glimpses we've seen of a softer House add nuances to his character and that relationship, but a House who's cured of being an emotionally screwed-up mess would not be the House who propelled this show into one of the most compelling character studies on TV.

I don't want to see House be an asshole to his sensitive girlfriend. That would make me think less of him. And I don't want to see a Cameron who's no longer sensitive and allows herself to be treated in an intimate relationship the way he treats her. That would make me think less of her.

In addition, Cameron fills a role on the show that would leave a gaping hole were she to move further toward the forces of darkness - and that's not even considering the troubling Pygmalion overtones of that kind of transformation. Though she's hardened, Cameron is still the one who cares and isn't afraid to show it, who lets the patients affect her, who lets House know that his words can cut as sharply as the scalpel he unfathomably yields in "Fetal Position." I don't want her to be the Eliza Doolittle of callousness and glibness.

We already have a House. We already have a mini-House in Foreman. We already have a Cuddy who matches House barb for barb and lets them slide off her back ... usually. The series needs the balance a sensitive Cameron provides.

I can see a relationship between House and Cuddy changing the dynamic between the characters and the chemistry of the series less than a House and Cameron relationship would, depending on how it played out. Cuddy is older, has more positional power (though that's of course also an argument why she shouldn't go there), and seems less likely to self-destruct under House's influence. I still don't want to see that pairing, unless it's as an end game after the show's 10 year run.

ER and Grey's Anatomy are two of the many shows I abandoned partly because once everyone had slept with everyone else, the magic quickly disappeared. I have faith in the writers of House, but not so much that I think they could avoid the tedium of playing musical chairs with the main credits cast. House and Cuddy might have wonderfully snarky sex, as someone phrased it long ago on those same House boards, but there's the very real danger of having nowhere to go with the relationship, or to take it too far and knock the snarky non-sexual relationship off balance.

If shippers derive additional pleasure from their shipping, that's all that matters. But I think they're missing out on the pleasures of being able to cheer at the hotness of the House/Cameron kiss as well as at the revelation that Cuddy and House had a night of passion in their past. I want to see where the writers take the show, not where fans whose collective amnesia makes them think they want happily-ever-after would take it.

So my fervent wish for the show is to keep them flirting. All of them. House/Cameron, House/Cuddy, House/Wilson, House/Random Guest Star. But I don't want to see one of those ships sail, until the series is ready to sail off with it.