The Vampire Diaries left us on Friday, and it took one of TV's biggest love triangles with it.
Elena (Nina Dobrev) may have chosen Damon (Ian Somerhalder) over his brother Stefan (Paul Wesley) several seasons ago, but the fans have never let Stelena die (and neither did the creators), or forgotten how the show started: with one girl, torn between the bad boy and the hero.
Over time, we learned that Elena wasn't even the first, and that not only had her own doppelganger also found herself torn between the two Salvatore brothers, but that even the most ancient of Elena's doppelganger ancestors had also been involved in a love triangle with Stefan's ancient doppelganger that ended up getting her killed and anchored to the deaths of all supernatural creatures.
Basically, there was no chance of Elena ever having a normal, uncomplicated love life, or of any love triangle on The Vampire Diaries not having dire, often fatal consequences, and for a long time, it was truly thrilling to watch. Thanks to some fantastic casting and irresistible charm, no matter how badly Damon (or sometimes Stefan) behaved, you could still always understand why Elena couldn't let him go.
"The recipe for a love triangle is as old as the recipe for gingersnap cookies, but the ingredients, it's something that you can't control, which is chemistry," executive producer Julie Plec tells E! News. "So as a writer, you can create as much as you want, but when it all comes down to it, you need the three parts of the love triangle to work. And we had Paul, and Ian, and Nina, who instantly just worked. Paul and Ian had chemistry as brothers. Ian and Nina had chemistry as the bad boy and the good girl, and the hero/heroine chemistry between Paul and Nina was just so beautiful, so that worked, and you can't force that, and you can't write that on the page. It just has to exist."
Over the years, The Vampire Diaries has featured more love triangles than we can probably count. If it looks like someone might finally be in a happy relationship, someone else was surely about to come along and make the grass look greener on the other side. If someone's not longing for someone they can't have, something's not right in Mystic Falls.
"Longing is the best version of conflict in drama in my opinion," Plec says. "I'd much rather watch longing than I would watch happy functioning relationships. So I think myself as a storyteller, there will always be some element of someone torn between kind of their shadow self and their good self, or someone in an unrequited situation with someone who's with someone else. So there's definitely a trope there that I'm fond of, that I will probably continue to live in."
Tina Rowden/The CW
The final end of this particular sequence of triangles is significant because The Vampire Diaries was one of few remaining shows with a big love triangle at its center.
While not a lot of shows have started with the premise of one person torn between two other people, many shows have ended up with a triangle at the center that left fans arguing years after the shows said goodbye. Buffy the Vampire Slayer has Team Angel vs. Team Spike. Felicity has Team Ben vs. Team Noel. Gossip Girl gave us Team Chuck vs. Team Dan. Beverly Hills, 90210 pitted Team Kelly against Team Brenda. Dawson's Creek had no choice but to end its series by telling us whether Joey chose Pacey or Dawson, and judging by the number of "Rory's boyfriend" articles that popped up with the return of Gilmore Girls, people still cannot decide between Dean and Jess. (Sorry, Logan.)
And then of course, there was Lost, Veronica Mars, True Blood, Friends, How I Met Your Mother, Sex and the City, One Tree Hill, and even Jane the Virgin, which is currently on the air but recently killed its love triangle off.
There aren't many of those epic love triangles left on TV. Some people still argue over whether Olivia Pope should be with Fitz or Jake, but Scandal has been fairly busy with much bigger plot points lately. There are arguments within fandoms like The 100 and Arrow, and other shows like New Girl, Empire, and Grey's Anatomy all dabble, but those shows are not rooted in those relationships. TV, for the most part, seems to have found other things to focus on than which love interest is the right love interest.
Even The CW's Riverdale isn't fully utilizing its readymade triangle just yet. The Betty/Veronica/Archie dynamic is so iconic that Betty and Veronica are love triangle tropes themselves, and it's the most basic thing that most people know about Archie Comics. So far, Riverdale is being cautious in that department.
"One thing we knew we didn't want to do is we didn't want to have two girls fighting over the same guy," Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, creator of Riverdale and Chief Creative Officer of Archie Comics, tells E! News. "We love the love triangle, and there's something so simple in the design of it, but we kind of that that rather than immediately set Betty and Veronica against each other over Archie, that we would kind of slow it down a little bit and truly build up Betty and Veronica's friendship more, especially in the first season."
Instead of playing up the girl vs. girl angle that everybody already knows and that was introduced in the pilot, Riverdale went a different route, throwing Archie's traditionally asexual best friend Jughead (Cole Sprouse) into the mix and having him kiss Betty (Lili Reinhart) in the sixth episode, and leaving Veronica (Camila Mendes) on her own for now.
"As Jughead and Betty's relationship deepens and develops before the end of the season, Archie is going to feel conflicted about that, because I do think that there is a part of Archie that kind of always thought, rightly or wrongly by the way, oh I kind of thought that I was meant to be with Betty, or she was meant to be with me, after I figured out my stuff and maybe Betty had figured out her stuff," Aguirre-Sacasa says. "That's not necessarily what Betty thinks, and definitely not what Jughead thinks. So I do think that we play the love triangle, but it might not be Betty/Veronica/Archie centric, it might be more Betty/Jughead/Archie centered."
Aguirre-Sacasa says he wanted to give Jughead and Cole Sprouse as much material to play with as possible, but he was also interested in what it would do to Archie (KJ Apa), despite his blossoming romance with Valerie (Hayley Law).
"There was something interesting about what happens when your two best friends start dating," he says. "Your two best friends, where the only thing they had in common was you, but they start developing their own friendship and relationship. That felt like an interesting dynamic to play with Archie, that again, shifted the love triangle a little bit, kind of almost into a friendship love triangle."
That shift not only completely changes the gender dynamics (a whole other essay in itself), but it also makes the focus on the show's love triangles a little less intense. It's no longer about whether Archie finally chooses Betty or Veronica, but it's about how Archie feels about his friends dating, and about Veronica and Betty's friendship, and about Archie and Jughead's friendship. Less competition, more casual exploration of various pairings.
But of course, the friendships and romances among Archie and all his friends are not the central premise of Riverdale, because Jason Blossom (Trevor Stines) is dead, and someone murdered him.
Aguirre-Sacasa had revealed during this year's winter press tour that when master executive producer Greg Berlanti joined the creative forces of Riverdale, his advice was "You're going to need a dead body." The slice of life show about high school kids falling in and out of love with each other in an extremely Dawson's Creek sort of way wasn't going to work on its own, no matter how archetypal the Archie/Betty/Veronica dynamic is. The show needed another, darker element, and thus Jason Blossom had to die.
This seems to point to the idea that shows just about everyday life and love no longer work in this time of Peak TV.
Columbia TriStar International Television/Courtesy of Getty Images
"I love Dawson's and I love the original 90210, but it's exactly right that I think people's expectations of shows, with the amount of shows people can watch, I think you do want something a little bit extra," Aguirre-Sacasa tells us. "That's why we do try to balance…in every episode, there's at least a little bit of soap and at least a little bit of mystery. Some episodes have more mystery but they still have a little bit of the relationship and the romance stuff, because I think the people love that."
Plec didn't need to add a dead body to her show, because there were already plenty, given that both of the guys involved in the central love triangle were technically already dead.
In fact, the end of The Vampire Diaries also marks the end of one particular trope's hold on pop culture: one human girl in love with two supernatural creatures.
"I think that when you look at say, Buffy, obviously, perfect example, you know not a love triangle from the get go, evolved into an unconventional one, but a love triangle nonetheless, and then True Blood and Twilight, if anything it perhaps has been a bit played out in this particular genre for the moment," Plec tells us. "But that doesn't mean that it can't work again."
She's also feeling the loss of those more innocent, less murdery shows of yesteryear.
"I will say I miss the days of the Dawson's Creeks. Even 7th Heaven," she says. "I miss the days when you could just tell human stories about human beings, and tell great love stories and love triangles and family stories and friendship stories and high school stories without needing to have someone drop dead."
The fact that those shows have been in such short supply lately makes it all the more impressive that NBC's This Is Us—a show firmly rooted in reality and so far completely devoid of murder—has become such a success. It's a show with a couple of dead bodies and two slightly annoying but very short-lived love triangles, but it's still an indication that stories focused on complicated human relationships can still flourish.
"I think that This Is Us has at least given us a sort of glimpse into a world in which these kinds of shows can exist, and I hope that other people will take a chance at making them, even if they don't always explode into the zeitgeist," Plec says. "I think there's a reason why those shows are held up as the standard of the best coming of age shows of all time, you know? And we should keep trying to make them, even if it's a struggle."
So what has changed? Why is it such a struggle to get shows like that to catch on, or to even get made in the first place? One of our theories is that maybe viewers' ideas of good love stories have evolved. For the past two years in a row, the E! News TV's Top Couple tournaments have resulted in finals between two gay couples, and this year, the winners were two teen boys from a Norwegian series called Skam that became popular internationally in its third season for its highly praised coming out story. Most of the love stories that dominate lists of TV's best love stories—and particularly love triangles—do not include LGBT couples or people of color, and maybe viewers are craving more stories that aren't just hot, straight white people fighting over each other.
It's also possible that there simply are no love triangle stories that haven't already been told over and over again.
"I think that's always a concern," Aguirre-Sacasa says. "I generally think that there's more story when people are together than when they're not. I think it's a balance. I think as long as you're telling interesting stories that are revealing new things about the characters, I think that's what's most important."
Whatever the reason, it's clear that something about the way relationships are being portrayed on TV has changed. We can't say that we're complaining, but we also have to admit that a good Damon vs. Stefan debate has always been more fun than politics.
Now before we leave you, we must give a shoutout to Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW's musical anti-romcom that has a thing for flipping TV clichés on their heads and turning them into catchy songs. As our gift to you, here is "The Math of Love Triangles." May it be stuck in your head for the rest of the week.
Riverdale airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. on the CW.
For our coverage of Buffy the Vampire Slayer's 20th anniversary, click here.