There is no romantic narrative device more beloved than the slow burn. Loosely defined as when a couple takes a long time to realize their feelings for one another, some of the most well known TV couples ever (especially in teen dramas) fall into this category, from Delena (Damon and Elena) on The Vampire Diaries to Stydia (Stiles and Lydia) on Teen Wolf and many more. Slow burns keep audiences invested by playing the long game rather than providing instant gratification by getting popular characters together quickly. And by slow, we mean slow: Stydia did not share their first kiss until the third season of Teen Wolf, for example.
There are many advantages to a slow burn arc. For one, the audience is invested in the “will they or won’t they” push and pull, leading to higher ratings and water cooler discussion of the show. The characters involved tend to be better developed since the focus isn’t immediately on romance. Writers add more meaning via small touches and glances, not needing to contrive situations for the characters to be together and allowing the show other storylines even while keeping the romance in the minds of viewers. And last but certainly not least: you get to write and tease The Moment that the characters realize they are in love and everything changes. It’s the stuff that makes great television, and it has been a staple of teen dramas in particular for years.
But recently, the slow burn has been diluted and seems in danger of disappearing entirely. With bingeable shows on streaming services that last only two or three seasons, there’s less of an incentive for writers to include relationships that build over multiple seasons. Even on network television, shorter episode orders make a true slow burn hard to pull off. The biggest threat to a slow burn is potential cancellation before all that careful planning can be fully executed. After all, if you only have ten episodes to convince your audience to watch, you need to condense your timelines and give the people what they want before they click away. In addition, the explosion of shows based on pre-existing concepts like novels or reboots of beloved old properties creates pressure to stick to the script and not deviate from the source.
But this focus on pleasing the audience quickly and efficiently can be a detriment of the overall show. Arrow’s Olicity only happened because producers decided to upgrade Emily Bett Rickards to a recurring character due to her electric first scene with Stephen Amell, abandoning the comic book canon for the new relationship early on. Summer Roberts was only supposed to appear in the pilot of The O.C. before the writers decided to lean into her character, creating the iconic pairing with Seth Cohen. Monica and Chandler of Friends were only supposed to sleep together in London, but the fans loved the pairing, and the writers kept the relationship going. The writers of Dawson’s Creek originally intended for Joey and Dawson to end up together before new writers realized Joey and Pacey would make a fantastic slow burn based on Katie Holmes and Joshua Jackson’s appeal together. That change and the creation of the Dawson/Joey/Pacey love triangle ended up contributing to a massive boost in popularity for Dawson’s Creek, showing that sometimes switching up the “endgame” couple can breathe new life into a series.
With no guarantee of multi-season arcs these days, or even large episode orders, many showrunners go for the pairings in front of them and follow the plan, less able to take chances on unexpected chemistry between actors or audience reactions. But there’s one network show taking that chance right now: Nancy Drew. For the past two and a half seasons, the writers of the new take on the classic sleuth have been building a slow burn romance between Nancy (Kennedy McMann) and Ace (Alex Saxon) — a relationship that never should have existed and is one of its greatest strengths.
Much like the ships discussed above, Nace was not a part of the original blueprint. Nancy starts the series paired off with Nick Nickerson, her book pairing, while Ace is with Laura Tandy. The main love triangle for Nancy is between Nick and new suitor Owen, with Ace mostly involved as the comic relief for the show. But something shifted in episode ten of season 1. In “The Mark of the Poisoner’s Pearl,” Ace and Nancy go on a solo mission for the first time, and the chemistry between McMann and Saxon is electric. His laid back energy is the perfect counter to her anxious and driven nature, and as the writers began putting them together more, it became clear that there was something special about their relationship. Nancy is able to tell Ace what she is too scared to tell her friends, and Ace responds by being a rock when she desperately needs one.
Fans responded well to the potential pairing, and this is where the ability to change narratives became a valuable tool. Even though Nancy Drew is a mythology heavy show with a lot of plot planned out ahead of time, the writers are still in tune with their audience. With 18 episodes in their first and second seasons, the writers of Nancy Drew had time to change gears. They wrote off Owen and focused on developing Nancy and Ace as people. Nancy confronted her depression through her emotionally abusive relationship with Gil in season 2, realizing in the meantime that Ace’s supportive presence is what she needed. Ace began dating Amanda as he discovered that he wanted to be more than the town burnout he started out as, at least partially influenced by Nancy’s belief in him and his desire to fit into her life. It all comes to a head in the season 2 finale when Nancy finally gets the courage to tell Ace how she feels, only to have Ace leave on a trip with Amanda before she can find him.
A slow burn is not an easy storyline to pull off. Too little chemistry and the viewers will lose interest, too much chemistry with zero payoff will anger the audience, and too much pining could pull focus from the other characters and make the couple less interesting as individuals outside of the ship. Nancy Drew is handling Nace with precision. As season 3 has progressed, the writers have made it clear that they are building to a perfect slow burn payoff. Romance lovers will recognize the many tropes Nace encompasses: aborted declarations of love, accidental hand holding, risking it all to save the other, the ship becoming canon before it’s revealed to be a dream, and of course, pining (so much pining). The fans have responded to the teasing, with whole accounts devoted to chronicling every glance between Nancy and Ace and the cast frequently teasing the pairing on social media. It has undoubtedly driven more viewers to the show at a time when they are sorely needed.
The writers followed the obvious chemistry between McMann and Saxon, they have given small breadcrumbs to the audience to keep them invested (hello, dream makeout session), and Nancy and Ace have become more interesting on their own as the two have separate stories outside of Nace. Any fears of Nace taking up all the story space from the rest of the Drew Crew are unfounded, as the other characters have only been given more to do even as the Nace storyline builds to its conclusion (Fanson, anyone?). In a time when two characters taking five episodes to say “I love you” is seen as a slow burn in some circles, it feels like a welcome throwback for Nace to build over three full seasons (and potentially more, considering the show is only four episodes into season 3). While the slow burn is an established trope, the Nancy Drew team is reinventing it for a new era of television and thus ensuring the trope’s (and the show’s) survival.
Nancy Drew airs Fridays at 9 p.m. ET on The CW. You can find our other coverage of the series here!