Love gets expressed in some wonderful and very weird ways in the world of television, from a passionate kiss to a penetrating bite on the neck. But last spring on Fox's Fringe, Peter Bishop (Joshua Jackson) set a radical new standard for romantic gestures: He tried to change the future in order to save the life of his destined-to-die soul mate, Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv), and wound up erasing himself from history (and her memory) in the process. All together now: Awwwwwww.
Exec producers Jeff Pinkner and J.H. Wyman whose careful cultivation of the relationship between the two sci-fi heroes over three seasons includes monitoring message boards and social media for fan feedback believed that viewers would be moved by Peter's trippy sacrifice. Fox and Warner Bros. Television, which produces the show, were cool with the decision. But they did warn the writers that their heartbreaking cliff-hanger could backfire with fans deeply invested in the Peter/Olivia relationship. Fans who write sexy fan fiction and produce music-video valentines about the characters, and who would be suspicious and alarmed by any move that kept them apart, even temporarily.
Turns out the suits were right. ''The shippers,'' says Wyman, ''have not been very happy with us this year.''
No, we're not talking about Fringe's legion of seafaring viewers. We're talking about an increasingly influential subset of TV fandom fixated on romantic relationships (hence the name ''shippers''), or the potential for romance, between characters. Once, shipping was mostly a sci-fi/fantasy thing. Today, shipping like love knows no bounds. 30 Rock has Jack-and-Liz shippers. NCIS: Los Angeles has Kensi-and-Marty shippers. There are even no joke Simon-and-Paula shippers. (They're grieving, so please: soft giggles.) Most showrunners in Hollywood consider shippers to be a minority voice but an important one. ''Shippers are the people who are the most engaged with a show, so they don't represent the biggest statistical sample,'' says Andrew Marlowe, creator of Castle. ''But they really are your core audience, and you can gauge the level of investment of your entire fan base by their interactions with you.'' And because shippers express their passion so publicly, they produce a noisy energy that showrunners can't ignore, even if they wanted to. ''I put all my efforts into shutting out the shippers,'' says Bones exec producer Hart Hanson, who last season finally allowed Dr. Temperance ''Bones'' Brennan (Emily Deschanel) and FBI agent Seeley Booth (David Boreanaz) to consummate an epic, six-season will-they-or-won't-they dance. ''But it had to have an influence. It had to.''