The Art of “The Look”

By Niamh Cullen | September 10, 2021

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a TV show reaches its peak when two characters share a stolen longing glance with one another after at least half a season’s worth of angsty build-up. As Alanna Bennett notes in her thread on the topic, chemistry is determined by the sacred art of looking. The power of a look can not be underestimated, but what is it that categorises “a look” as THE look? It is this look (“THE look”) that signals to the audience that they are witnessing a shift. That their assumptions in reading between the lines, picking up on indications in the writing and obsessively dissecting it through tweeting into the void will be validated. “The look” is the first look between two characters which will underpin their dynamic and will become the catalyst for around three seasons worth of relationship based drama. It presents itself laden with cliché signifiers and gets utilised by essentially every popular TV series at one point or another. This trope of “the look” is one I resent almost as much as I love. 

We can categorise a look as being “the look” when it combines both a betrayal (of a third party who is in with one of the “lookers”), tense build up incorporating repressed feelings, and it marks a pivotal shift in relationship dynamics. This look marks the start of a new relationship coming to the forefront of the plot. It’s the moment you pause, take a breath and sit with what you’ve just heard (or seen) as Laurie Metcalf advised in Lady Bird (2017). However, for me this moment is bittersweet. The plot after this look becomes a distant memory to me as I sacrifice it’s ‘rewatchability’ at the altar of a two minute supercut edit on YouTube documenting in precise detail the couples barely there interactions in the build up to this “look”. The look is the confirmation we seek, but once the moment has passed you can never get the rush of vindication again. Following this heated longing stare the show falters and fails to ever reach the dizzying heights of that loaded moment. The conclusion I have come to is that tragically, a TV show dies the moment of this perfect immaculate scene — “the look”.

Pacey (left) and Joey (right) share “The Look” while she dances with the titular Dawson, cementing an inevitable fate: that they should be together. Dawson’s Creek, 3×22 (2000). The WB.

The acceptance of this trope as being the thing that my attention is dependent on came about in a That’s So Raven-esque vision. I was minding my own business watching a new show half heartedly, allowing my focus to drift. It was a “two windows open at the same time, I think I’ll check my email and Twitter and maybe paint my nails” kind of focus that I was giving to this show. Then, something happened. It was like kismet, or divine intervention. I glanced over to the show and gave it my full undivided attention in time to witness a scene that triggered this realisation. The show was Panic (2021) and the scene was the one where Jack Nicholson’s definitely not a teenager and certainly on the horizon of his thirties son snogs a girl whilst looking at another girl who had up until this point maintained a rivalry with him.

Panic (2021-) Amazon.
“Bearing witness to an immaculate use of the ‘with someone else but staring at another’ look is a gift from the screenwriting Gods.”

Bearing witness to an immaculate use of the ‘with someone else but staring at another’ look is a gift from the screenwriting Gods. It is predictable and perfect. We know what it means. I eat it up every time. It was in this moment when watching Panic that I saw all of the other moments this trope had been executed perfectly. And I also realised that generally when rewatching, I will watch up to these scenes. The problem with any blissful high is there will always be an inevitable come down. Once this scene has transpired the show begins to falter for me. The couple together? Ok great. The couple suppressing feelings for one another and making their tension the pillar of the story? Unmatched. 

Before focusing more on why this scene is a show’s final breath for me, I would like to pay homage to some of the finest TV moments demonstrating “the look”. These are specific moments, looks that once pass can never be replicated. The couple can share many a lingering stare at one another throughout the rest of the show’s run, but it is THE look which pushes things off the precipice and confirm the character’s are indeed going down the path we viewers had predicted (or perhaps just longed for). The couple in question may have gotten together by this point, but it is this look which solidifies it as being the show’s new focus. Cut to Katie Holmes swaying on the dance floor; we are around the start of the new millennium and are about to witness the modern day romantic pining standard of which all other shows strive to achieve. She glances up over the titular Dawson’s shoulder to see Pacey, sitting… staring. She watches him, he watches them. She looks away, guilty over a look. And just like that the ending is written. Anyone could see these two should be ending up together just from this one look. Before this transpired the writers could’ve back-pedalled and reestablished Joey and Dawson, but after this look the stage has been set for Pacey to take his place as the main romantic lead. We see this echoed in season three, episode seven of Gilmore Girls ‘They Shoot Gilmores Don’t They’ with Jess and Rory. It could be argued this “look” comes in the big break up scene where Rory is in the arms of her eight foot first boyfriend, however, I would argue the real “look” happens earlier at the twenty three minute mark. Here, Jess obnoxiously snogs his girlfriend on the bleachers after a sustained and tense staring standoff with Rory on the dance floor with her mother. The two look at one another with disdain bordering on hatred. I swoon every time! 

‘They Shoot Gilmore’s Don’t They,’ Gilmore Girls, 3×07 (2002). The WB.

Or we could look to the moment of guilt ridden longing a la Damon and Elena in season two of The Vampire Diaries. In the eighth episode, ‘Rose’, Elena looks over Stefan’s shoulder into the disturbingly blue eyes of his brother. The look suggests both a weariness of their own predictability in utilising such a trope whilst also having a touch of ‘obviously we will get together within a season’. I would go as far as to say Veronica Mars and Logan in episode fifteen of season one exhibit “the look” with a subversion of expectations. Technically, she shares the classic longing look with ex boyfriend Duncan as she slow dances with a pre New Girl Max Greenfield. The look lacks chemistry and any real commitment. However, Logan’s drunken interruption of this scene lays the foreshadowing for what less eagle eyed viewers would see as this unexpected coupling. This poor execution of “the look” feels purposefully done as it sets up the Logan and Veronica storyline which kicks off mere episodes later. The look scenes don’t lie, they heavily imply!

Perhaps there is a latent masochist in me who enjoys watching pining and suffering over the actual relationship. Or maybe it’s just that I know not long after “the look” the pair will get together and writers will give them ten episodes max of happiness before things get messy in a bid for new drama. It’s not to say I hate the show after “the look”, it’s just that before this moment they are protected from harm. From “the look” onwards they are ripe for destruction. 

I suppose I could pin it all down to the writing, that it becomes poorer because shows do not allow relationships to survive under the melodrama. But if I’m being honest with myself, after “the look” I can stop playing detective. I crave “the look” because I want the show to pat me on the head and congratulate me for knowing instinctively and intuitively where the chemistry lies and what the writing is leading to. Perhaps, regardless of how writers treat the couple once they get together, I will always come crawling back to the crumbs we were fed at the start as opposed to the overindulgence of a feast. Without the analysis of convincing myself and others that I know where the plot is leading and what subtle moments are suggesting, my motivation to watch is gone. I would rather rewatch a scene from season one where the couple have their feet angled towards one another across a room and scream into the abyss I KNOW CHEMISTRY WHEN I SEE IT like I’m Charlie from that ‘Its Always Sunny’ scene with the board of feverishly drawn string between evidence behind me. 

“The look” captures everything that I want. Betrayal, tension and pain met with acceptance of the longing. This look says to audiences ‘do you see where this is all leading? Have you backed the right horse?’. It isn’t the Big Kiss or romantic declaration. It is as much a look between the characters as it is a look between the writers and us: And it’s the only reason I want to watch.

Niamh Cullen (she/her) is an English Literature undergrad based in Edinburgh who is currently trying to work out what she will do with said degree. You can find her discussing her fleeting obsessions on Twitter @niamhcullenn.

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