Are we in a new era of Filipino love teams?

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DonBelle, which pairs up Donny Pangilinan and Belle Mariano, garnered a massive online following even before “He’s Into Her,” their first series as a love team, wrapped filming. Photo from ABS-CBN ENTERTAINMENT/YOUTUBE

Lunch breaks were always the hardest for my high school friend Bea. Our quaint Catholic school had no WiFi and we had to surrender all gadgets in a station fashioned like a supermarket baggage area. So Bea had to live with the fact that everyone but her was already witnessing Alden Richards and Maine Mendoza, then most known by their love team AlDub, celebrate their second month of “being together.” It was 2015. The hashtag #ALDUB2ndMonthsary was tweeted 3.58 million times.

“AlDub na lang talaga nagpapakilig sa’kin non,” Bea tells me with a laugh, half a decade later. She said she belonged to “Team Replay,” while other fans were either “Team Bahay,” “Team Office,” “Team Studio,” “Team Barangay,” or “Team Abroad,” based on when and where they watch the pair’s segment. Bea remembers being thankful that most major AlDub moments, like the love team’s first “date,” happened on school-less Saturdays.

The novelty of our catch-up, of course, is nostalgia. AlDub Nation — the name given to AlDub fans — has gradually dissolved since Mendoza’s open letter in 2017. The actress opened up about her struggles with being in a love team and clarified that she and her onscreen partner are just friends. “Napagtanto ko na nakokompromiso na yung kalayaan at kaligayahan ko. At hindi ko kayang mamuhay nang ganoon.” This, coupled with AlDub’s lack of projects together outside Kalyeserye and a few endorsements, caused fans like Bea to leave the fandom.

Th year 2015 was the height of AlDub, the loveteam composed of Alden Richards and Maine Mendoza. Photo from MAINE MENDOZA/INSTAGRAM

A few days after Mendoza’s open letter, actress Solenn Heussaff urged fans to support love teams without expressing hostility when the actors work on projects separate from their pairing. “You want to act with different people, because you learn from every new person you act with,” she wrote in a blog post.

We saw this in 2019 with “Hello, Love, Goodbye,” starring AlDub’s Richards and KathNiel’s Kathryn Bernardo. It came in the year Bernardo and her usual onscreen partner Daniel Padilla agreed to not accept projects together, which the pair deemed a move towards their individual growth. While there was initial backlash, “Hello, Love, Goodbye” went on to become the highest-grossing Filipino movie of all time. (The record was previously held by KathNiel film “The Hows of Us.”)

The following year began with JaDine, the portmanteau of James Reid and Nadine Lustre, announcing their split after nearly four years of reel-to-real romance. With enhanced community quarantine and the shutdown of the ABS-CBN franchise happening in the span of a few months, major love team projects were understandably put on hold. Aside from KathNiel’s pandemic-set digital series “The House Arrest of Us,” love team powerhouses KathNiel, JaDine, and Liza Soberano and Enrique Gil of LizQuen, have yet to formally return to our screens.

LOOK BACK: Behind the scenes of “On the Wings of Love”

That said, film critic and professor Richard Bolisay argues that presuming love teams are dead is simply not true. “Sa pag-define ko ng love team, there’s always a studio or a company backing them up,” he tells me via Zoom, calling ABS-CBN’s closure a turning point in this recent slowdown of love teams. “How can they develop [love teams] without a big platform?”

Bolisay asserts the entertainment industry cannot be divorced from socio-political context, and the success or failure of love teams is highly dependent on what is currently changing in society. One such change is the emergence of social media and streaming, which subsequently alter audiences’ viewing habits. In a 2019 paper on the JaDine fandom in the Twitter age, Bolisay wrote that love teams have existed since the silent film era of the 1920s — what’s new is such love teams becoming heavily internet-mediated.

Gone are the days of measuring success solely through movie ticket sales or mall show attendance. As Bolisay wrote in his paper, “Aside from connecting fans with celebrities and granting them a sense of intimacy, social media also serves as a rostrum on which fans, in a seemingly elevated position, are enabled to show their strengths in numbers.” It has become standard practice to assign hashtags for each episode of a love team’s teleserye, and fans take it upon themselves to get the hashtag trending on Twitter. Very often, they succeed.

This, of course, is exacerbated by the pandemic, with fans having no choice but to congregate online. In fact, social media may have a hand in brewing the next big love team. DonBelle, which pairs up Donny Pangilinan and Belle Mariano, garnered a massive online following even before “He’s Into Her,” their first series as a love team, wrapped filming. Multiple DonBelle projects were already green-lit by the time the series hit the screens last May; one being their first feature film “Love is Color Blind,” which had the biggest premiere in the digital events platform KTX.ph.

The two were first seen in the 2020 film “James & Pat & Dave,” although they weren’t the main onscreen couple. Still, Mariano already noticed fan excitement then, and the pair’s popularity has since skyrocketed after the official launch of their love team. Some supporters even sponsored DonBelle billboards all over the world, including New York’s Time Square and Seoul’s Gangnam district.

Bolisay mentions that the downtrend of love teams in the last two years is partly due to studios not getting the right formula: “It’s not the concept of the love team that’s the problem. It’s finding the right mix of people and projects and timing.” That said, it seems ABS-CBN struck gold with DonBelle — “He’s Into Her,” which started as a Wattpad story, was well-loved before it got adapted for the screen. Both actors had fandoms of their own, and many fans were already curious about their pairing since their secondary roles in “James & Pat & Dave.” This organic audience interest is what also propelled JaDine to fame after starring together in a barely four-minute music video years ago; both love teams went on to star in their own blockbusters within a few months. 

Along with DonBelle in this resurgence of love teams are Boy’s Love (BL) pairings, which are primarily platformed by the internet as well. The web series “Gameboys,” starring EliKoy’s Elijah Canlas and Kokoy de Santos, found great success as the first Filipino BL drama to be produced by a professional media outlet. Since premiering in May 2020, it went on to have a Netflix release, a GMA release, a second season, a spinoff, a feature film, an Emmy Kids nomination, and a slew of passionate EliKoy fans.

The web series “Gameboys,” starring EliKoy’s Elijah Canlas and Kokoy de Santos, found great success as the first Filipino BL drama to be produced by a professional media outlet. Photo courtesy of MEDIA DOT EXCHANGE

Bolisay sees endurance as a characterizing trait of love teams — in the traditional sense, EliKoy, who has not worked on projects outside the “Gameboys” universe, might not be a love team just yet. Still, he acknowledges that the pair signals an attempt to change this traditional notion of what a love team is. “For the longest time, the idea of a love team is very heteronormative. It always projects the idea of a heterosexual man and a heterosexual woman, kumbaga ‘yun yung ideal love,” he explains.

The pair also comply with common love team tropes: the fact that they have a love team name is already remarkable, and they give out this fantasy that the romance can happen in real life. (I recall a magazine photoshoot where the pair lightheartedly call each other “baby” even when they’re not in character.)

Historically, the success of love teams is partly swayed by the possibility of real-life romance; a will-they-won’t-they that makes fans all the more loyal to the progression of a pair’s relationship. Of course this is not always the case, and we are increasingly seeing pairings like Ruru Madrid and Shaira Diaz, who are in a love team while dating other people. But the impulse to hope is not easy to shake off. After all, part of being a love team fan is feeling “kilig” even if it means suspending disbelief.

Perhaps this should come as no surprise. In an article for Gulf News, Irish Belleza asserted that romance and love are at the very core of Philippine society, writing, “For Filipinos, love teams give a glimpse of young love, true love, great beginnings and happy endings.” This is in line with Victor Karandashev’s findings that Filipino culture shapes us to be loving, idealistic people.

Besides, the very concept of love teams is unique to Philippine entertainment, and the feeling of “kilig” is so distinct to Filipino culture that it is untranslatable. When CNN Philippines Life contributor Apa Agbayani asked love team fans what fuels their ardent support, their answer was simply “love — mysterious, inexplicable but entirely palpable.” He wrote, “It’s a pure emotional connection, an aspiration for the love they see onscreen, whether it’s the comedic chemistry of a JoshLia or AlDub, or the realistic kilig of a KathNiel, a LizQuen, or a JaDine.”

Producers regularly tap into this penchant for romance, constantly finding and curating the next big love team. When done right, these pairings become huge commercial successes — per Bolisay’s paper, “They are merchandise offered in the most attractive packages promising the most delightful of rewards.” A successful love team must be omnipresent in the mainstream, meaning they are a brand easily recognized at first glance.

This is also why being in a love team can transform unknowns into a higher caliber of celebrity: love teams have familiar patterns, and Filipino audiences are generally welcoming to two young, beautiful people who always end up together by the time credits roll. With the backing of major studios, many reality stars find staying power in the local scene through their love team: JaDine’s Reid, MayWard’s Maymay Entrata and Edward Barber, and BaiLona’s Bailey May and Ylona Garcia all hail from “Pinoy Big Brother.” Even when they find success as individual entertainers — like Garcia, who recently joined the music collective 88rising — it appears the love team is a significant stepping stone that helps celebrities transition from reality television to a lasting career in showbiz.

With the backing of major studios, many reality stars find staying power in the local scene through their love team.

Bolisay believes that at present, the love team retains its power as an effective vehicle of success for many young stars. After all, love teams are an important cultural touchstone that continues to persist even after a century of existence. “The impact of love teams on local culture is undeniable due to their place in the collective consciousness: the audience’s familiarity with the tropes and characterizations has helped establish a genre in itself,” Bolisay wrote in his paper. “Show business is a machinery that entails constant improvement and fulfillment, with its workers merely working around the formula and replacing the bodies involved.” As such, while love teams inevitably fade away, the love team will carry on.

We see this with studios testing out different tandems and seeing what sticks. Kathryn Bernardo and Enrique Gil were initially paired together in the 2011 film “Way Back Home,” and Gil would go on to star with Julia Montes and Julia Barretto before finding a winning formula with Liza Soberano. Even Donny Pangilinan was initially paired with Kisses Delavin for almost two years. According to Bolisay, as long as love teams are able to mobilize audiences for financial success, major production studios will continue to manufacture them for profit.

It’s safe to say that the love team is not going anywhere; it’s simply changing. Bolisay urges us to situate love teams in their political time. “The changes are happening because the form is also changing — we’re no longer going to the cinema, we’re consuming things online, on our phones,” he says. “It would be very limiting if you constrict the idea of the love team based only on the traditional sense, kung ano siya before. If you take that into consideration, baka magkaroon ng renewed appreciation for it.”