How writers and directors manipulate sexual tension in television to lure you into a binge watch k-hole.

Two people on TV are plainly attracted to each other, but no matter what they do, some cruel element conspires to keep them apart sexually — one sexually charged close encounter after another — yet nothing happens between them. You, on the other hand, are left with the bluest balls that balls can be. 

This cockblocking scenario is what the entertainment industry refers to as Unresolved Sexual Tension, and it’s a common trope used to retain viewership in the absence of a strong storyline. It’s so vital to the core process of television series, that NCIS actor Michael Weatherly even referred to it as “The engine that makes television run.”

However, TV relationships are not dependent on sexual tension itself per se; rather the maintenance of it. On-screen romance is hard to pull off because in order for shows to remain fresh, the story and characters must continually evolve. If it’s not evolving, and if the tension ceases to build as it would if the characters finally ravaged each other, the whole show falls apart. Think of sexual tension on TV like a string. The tighter you pull it, the more excitement and anticipation you build (When will it snap? How long can it hold out? Who will cut the cord?). The second you pull out the scissors and cut it, the show, like the string, falls apart and the viewer moves on to something else. If you remove the main obstacle to the characters’ relationship within the first season, don’t expect the show to last much longer, even when the characters have such tangible, electric chemistry that they’d give their right boob to watch the tension come to fruition. Therefore, the success of many of your favorite TV shows is dependent on manipulating the tension to the advantage of the TV networks and producers. They’re leading you on as much as the characters are each other in the show.

Here are a few shows that mastered the use of unresolved sexual tension in order to carry on an arguably weak storyline.

The Killing

This is a dense detective murder mystery set in Seattle that deals with the consequences of overzealous political manipulation. The two main characters, detectives Linden and Holder, first seem like complete opposites when they’re paired together, but once they learn to appreciate each other’s quirks and past hurts, it’s obvious all they want to do is bang. However, the show’s writers kept them apart throughout the entire series, save for one infurating moment where they almost kiss … but then decide not to. However, despite how infuriating that is, without the tension that lasted until the series finale, the complicated, depressing and constantly grisly storyline would have sent viewers elsewhere.

New Girl

Did anyone else here stop watching this show after Nick and Jess finally had sex? After a season’s worth of sexual tension and magnetic romantic buildup, they finally shared a flooring hallway kiss that sealed the deal, and even though the episode ended right then, your raging arousal damn sure didn’t. But in the morning, after you and your hand had some fun, the vibe was distinctly different. No longer were you in it to see them resolve the tension; it was obvious they’d have to start dating after that (they live together) and you could see the future of their relationship clear as day. This show, more than any other we can think of, is a perfect example of how writers and directors manipulate the tension to keep you hooked, then mess it all up by giving you what you want.


Who knows what was ever happening in Lost; there were time traveling islands, energy monsters, displaced polar bears and insane death comebacks. The only thing that felt real was the electrifying tension between Kate and Jack, who immediately hit it off the moment they woke up covered in blood after that plane crash. But although you know instantly they’ll end up together, you never get to see a satisfying physical manifestation of how they get there. It’s even more irritating when she eventually has sex with Sawyer, who is very much not Jack, when all you want to see is her and Jack doin’ it. If it weren’t for a burning desire to see Jack and Kate finally give in and fuck with abandon, we would have abandoned that mystical-island shit forever ago.

The Office

This show was unique because it still crushed in the ratings department after the sexual tension between Jim and Pam resolved itself. However, that’s only because beyond the seduction and marriage of Jam, the writers had a host of other characters to dupe into sexually tense relationships. Angela and Dwight, Andy and Erin, and Kelly and Ryan were all available for sexual manipulation. The show was smart to have so many backup options; would you have continued watching if Jim and Pam just went about their merry business having kids? No. Please. You stayed tuned for the sexually-tense Jim/Pam replacement relationships … and Steve Carell.

By contrast, truly great TV shows like Breaking Bad, True Detective and Mad Men all have steroid-strong plotlines to focus on, and thus have no need to use sexual tension as a vehicle for viewer retention. Although there are sex scenes in all of them, they’re both impulsively wrought and have very little influence on the subsequent storyline. Of course Mad Men has more sex in it than a Tijuana brothel, but the tension around it is always resolved, so it’s not so much sexually tense as it is constantly sexual. In all three series, there also aren’t lengthy seductions, which are the main organ of sexual tension.

So, if you’re wondering why it is that TV shows continually torture you with unresolved character coitus, know it’s a ploy to retain your loyal viewership. If you want to watch a series that has a lot of sex in it, go with Game of Thrones or True Blood … otherwise you might want to get used to the atmospheric, sky-blue color your balls, or lady balls, have turned.