The Problem With Love Triangles, TV’s Favorite Romantic Trope

Love triangles have long been a staple on television shows, often used as a means to introduce a little drama into a relationship that has grown stale. Writers are always looking for ways to keep long-lasting relationships fresh and interesting to audiences, and one way to do that is by bringing in a third character to shake things up. Love triangles are also a way to provoke fan debates and discussions, splitting a show’s core audience into teams — think of how the majority of conversations surrounding Veronica Mars are more about Team Piz vs. Team Logan than any of the mystery plots. Without a doubt, love triangles are a fun thing to get invested in, but more often than not, these storylines bog down shows and take the focus away from other, better storylines.

ABC Family’s Switched at Birth is a surprisingly good drama despite its ridiculous title. The show deals with some refreshing topics: the two girls who were switched (one is deaf) are from completely different economic and social backgrounds, and each, understandably, has trouble adjusting to this new, mixed family. The third season, which was split into two parts and aired its spring finale last night, had a great mix of unique, interesting storylines. There were Toby’s attempts to find his place in the world, and how that place may not include his new wife. Daphne discovered a love for medicine but soon realized all the extra difficulties she’ll face if she wants to become a doctor. Bay’s injured wrist impaired both her ability to sign and her ability to create art.

But Switched at Birth also insisted on throwing in love triangle storylines for both of the girls. Daphne’s clinical work was overshadowed by the fact that she found herself in between two fellow employees; Bay was going back and forth between Tank and Emmett (while still not completely over her other ex). Bay and Emmett rekindling at the end of the finale undid all the great stuff with Tank, who is now largely inconsequential. That’s the problem with these hastily shoved-in triangles: they undo all the good, non-relationship stuff that surrounds them. I would have loved to see more time invested in Daphne’s new dream, rather than watching her ping-pong between two boys again.

Switched at Birth is just one of many shows that has had this same problem with love triangles. There was Veronica Mars‘ Duncan/Veronica/Logan love triangle — which was, to an extent, necessary to the show’s plot, but it never felt very organic in the second season. It turned Logan into a bigger jerk than he needed to be, and Duncan and Veronica’s overly dramatic scenes pulled the focus away from the more engaging mystery of the bus crash. In Season 3, the show basically substituted Duncan for Piz, but it was always clear that poor Piz wouldn’t stand a chance, so what was the point? For all its greatness, Veronica Mars sometimes suffered when it was less about Veronica as a person and more about Veronica as an object of affection.

Lost, oddly enough, was also the victim of a boring and inorganic love triangle. There was so much happening on the island that every episode was an enthralling mystery — until Lost decided to devote time to exploring a poor triangle between Jack/Kate/Sawyer. It slowed down the wonderfully frantic pace of certain episodes and tried (but mostly failed) to get most viewers fully invested. Yet the show tried again, later in the series, with Kate/Sawyer/Juliet, with even worse results.

The biggest problem with Lost‘s love triangle, and many others, is that all of the characters involved were far more interesting as individuals. Forcing them into a poorly written triangle stripped them of their fascinating characteristics and put them in a situation where individual personalities didn’t matter. The majority of television love triangles, when not done well, all seem to conveniently forget what these characters are really like. They often become too hateful or too repetitive.

The recent Cece/Schmidt/Elizabeth love triangle on New Girl is by far the worst story the show has ever explored. Schmidt was previously a fun, harmless douchebag, but the triangle turned him into a complete jerk to the point where he was practically irredeemable. It was unnecessary, and many episodes of the usually-fantastic show suffered from it. There was no humor in the way he treated these two girls, and it didn’t do much to advance his character. Sure, he’s a little softer now, but that seems to be more about his temporarily distance from the loft.

I’m not against love triangles — I find myself getting just as invested in them as many people do — but they always run the risk of going horribly wrong. When these triangles overtake stories that are more important or turn characters into shadows of themselves, they can end up taking all the fun out of the shows they’re so often introduced to reinvigorate.