This isn’t an official trope name as far as I know among trope watchers, partly because it’s a combination of three other tropes, but it’s a combination that comes up a lot. And they’re easy to explain by their names: belligerent sexual tension, will they or won’t they, and opposites attract. Combining them gives you the romance of Sam and Diane from Cheers, the NBC sitcom set in a Boston, Massachusetts bar.
The thing is I don’t have a problem with their relationship. They were good characters and they had good chemistry, as did the actors portraying them. However, this formula has gotten rather out of hand not only with creators but with fans and slashfic writers, and some of them are an ornery bunch to begin with. Maybe it also helps, or hurts depending on your perspective, that the three parts often get misused by themselves.
First for those of you who aren’t aware of the show. Cheers takes place in the titular sports bar, run by Coach, a former sports coach. Sam Malone is one of his old ballplayers, who is the head bartender and later owner after the actor playing Coach passed away. Diane Chambers is a well-educated woman who really needed a job and has to become a waitress at Cheers to earn a living while pursing her writing career. The two don’t get along at first. Sam is a ladies man and a bit lower class while Diane is high class and scholarly who is also a romantic and rather naive at times. They butt heads quite often but over time they see another side to each other and start to fall for each other. Eventually the bickering ends, and resumes, and ends, and resumes and only Shelly Long (who played Diane) leaving the show ended their relationship completely.
As I stated, their relationship is the combination of three tropes, and each has their own faults as to how it’s been done since then.
Belligerent Sexual Tension:This isn’t just sexual or romantic tension. This gets downright violent if one of them is that Tsundre trope from anime, the girl who gets violent to hide her affections for the male lead that’s played up for laughs. Basically neither side will admit to the slightest attraction because they focus on their flaws. They may even have other relationships, as Sam and Diane did, or break up and get back together, sometimes repeatedly. By itself I don’t have a huge problem with this as long as the writers and directors know what they’re doing.
Will They Or Won’t They: This doesn’t necessarily have to involve hating the other person, like Dave and Maddie on Moonlighting. Despite professional disagreements Scully and Mulder on The X-Files kept themselves from going beyond partners despite a strong attraction. I think there was also one on both the original UK and US remake of The Office but I never watched it. My biggest problem with this one is that the creators, or sometimes the higher-ups at the network, keeps this going way too long for fear of not having any material once they do become a couple (and because it draws the viewers in) and can stretch it out longer than tolerable.
Opposites Attract: Look, it’s one thing to have characters who are from different circles or different tastes. But too many romantic movies push this way too far. The result are couples that come together, often because of the aforementioned tension, despite all possible logic. Opposites attract as a relationship because their differences balance each other well, strength for weakness, and that’s how they thrive. There is something that connects the two, even temporarily, that they can build a relationship out of. Pushed to the extremes however, you end up with couples so wrong for each other supposedly falling in love that all suspension of disbelief is lost by the audience. Bad Movie Beatdown has reviewed a lot of those kinds of romantic comedies.
It’s not a bad story idea but unless the actors have chemistry together, the characters have something to build on beside sexual attraction, and the two compliment each other, the story is going to fall flat. It’s not as easy to tell this kind of story as one might think. It takes effort. But what really gets me is the section of fans who seem to assume the bickering duo are immediately going to “just kiss already” even if that’s not the intention of the creators. Maybe they will gain some respect for each other or even become friends but they don’t have to become a couple. It’s not a requirement just because the Sam & Diane relationship happened. In the same vein two people with a close friendship aren’t necessarily going to fall in love, especially when both characters are straight. We have enough problem convincing people that opposite sex friends can remain platonic, but now we have to do it for the same sex platonic friends. It’s rather annoying.
Do I want to see this trope die? Not necessarily. It’s not a bad idea but your characters have to be thought out and properly cast to make this trope work. Otherwise you have two people with no logical reason to be a couple being a couple and just making the non-slashfic fans wonder what kind of horrible relationships you’ve had in your life. Sam & Diane wisely, story creators.