Of all the random little motifs floating through film and TV, none guarantees a specific kind of heartbreak quite like the story of a man who, against the warnings of friends and pretty much all common sense, gets involved with a woman who makes a living by selling herself to some degree. (At first I thought all these stories were just coincidences, but it seems to be a legit little sub-subgenre of dramatic storytelling. I mean, it's not like I sat on the floor in front of my DVD shelves, listening to The Heart of Saturday Night and waiting for a pattern to appear. I was watching "Sports Night" and the whole thing just kind of fell into place.) The characters and specific situations may vary, but things always wind up turning sour, and eventually lead to pain, loss, and/or bloodshed. Given those built-in dramatic elements, it's easy to see why writers keep re-using the same tale in different permutations. And it works for a variety of reasons. Using the male character as a combination of coldness and vulnerability — he's willing to pay for sex, but also dumb enough to romanticize it — wouldn't work if it was a female character; for starters, she wouldn't be fool enough to make anything more out of it, and she wouldn't likely even go after it in the first place. What's more, the story is a reversal of the stereotypical roles usually found in film/TV: Instead of the callow man breaking the woman's heart, this is a vulnerable man getting gutted by an often equally vulnerable woman. It's unexpected, and it breaks with the messiah/martyr complex bred into every man that inevitably makes its way into fictional male characters. (TV being littered with men who go to great lengths doing stupid things for women they deem need saving; off the top of my head, Jack Bristow blowing Stephen Haladki's head off springs to mind.)But what seals the deal is that the viewer knew things would never work out. From the first frame, no matter how great or different or unique this version of the man-loves-whore story seemed to be, it was bound to fail. Some might argue that romantic pap like Pretty Woman would contradict me, since everything ends well for that particular man and his prostitute. But that's because that story's a lie (if for no other reason that most women in L.A. don't look like Julia Roberts, least of all the streetwalkers). That movie won over audiences because it turned what should have been a tragedy — man hires hooker for a week, she gets raped by George Costanza, fade out — into a cheesy film that dilutes the legitimate power of romance in other works. Pain, as the man once said, is where the best stories hang their hat; that unavoidable moment of the relationship's dissolution that always hurts but somehow never kills, but instead makes things oddly okay. That's what I'm talking about, and that's what these scenes have. "Sports Night" — "Draft Day, Part II: The Fall of Ryan O'Brian" In the second season of "Sports Night," Jeremy (Joshua Malina) and Natalie (Sabrina Lloyd), the resident cute couple, have broken up, and Jeremy meets a girl named Jenny (Paula Marshall) when he's out drinking away his blues. Jenny turns out to be a porn star, and Jeremy being the decent guy he is, and Jenny being apparently one of the idealistic adult film actresses, they start seeing each other socially. It's awkward from the start, and barely gets off the ground before Jeremy begins to unwittingly sabotage things by condescending to Jenny because of her profession or else outright mocking her. Jenny visits Jeremy at the office, after he's already lied to his coworkers about what Jenny does for a living; he says she's a choreoanimator, some nonsense profession. Jenny meets Natalie and gives a sad, sad, sad little monologue about why she wound up in her chosen profession. Sad. Jeremy and Jenny exchange a few more words, but really, this one's been over for weeks. As is always the case with these stories, he couldn't get past her day job. "Battlestar Galactica" — "Black Market" The second season of "Battlestar Galactica" put all its characters through major emotional changes, particularly Lee "Apollo" Adama (Jamie Bamber), who gets his heart broken by Starbuck and decides to briefly shack up with a prostitute named Shevon (Claudette Mink). (Bonus martyr points: Shevon has a kid.) The episode ostensibly revolves around Apollo's investigation of the black market thriving within the fleet, headed up by awesome character actor Bill Duke, but it's really about his sad, doomed relationship with the hooker. The cold open throws the viewer into the middle of the action, and at first you're wondering if Apollo hasn't just moved on and found some nice healthy relationship. It's morning in Shevon's quarters, and Apollo gives her daughter a teddy bear. Things get a little weird when Lee says, "Look, I'm not sure when I'll be able to make it back." But then Shevon delivers the killer: "I know. Oh. Um … I'm gonna have to ask for an extra hundred since you spent the night." And all the desperation and guilt and self-loathing and horrible mix of emotions that led Apollo to Shevon's rented bed shoots across Apollo's face, and it's heartbreaking. The kid gets pretty predictably kidnapped, and when Apollo finally rescues her and attempts to barter Shevon's freedom from Duke, Shevon does what you can tell for Apollo is the unexpected: She tells him to get out. Apparently she isn't okay with Apollo projecting his past relationship failures onto Shevon — which way to be a holier-than-thou working girl — and makes him leave. But as bad as this is, it's just the merciful closure that's been coming since Lee had to fork over extra cash for actually sleeping with Shevon. Never a good idea to fall in love with a public commodity. "The West Wing" — "The State Dinner" Aaron Sorkin loses a few marks for originality by recycling most of his man-loves-hooker story arc from "Sports Night," but he did that with pretty much every major character. In the first season of "The West Wing," Sam (Rob Lowe) liked Laurie (Lisa Edelstein) enough to sleep with her, after which he found out she was a high-priced call girl; being a pretty prominent political figure, Sam decided that the best career move would be to continue seeing her surreptitiously, since D.C. is full of tolerant people who are happy to let White House advisers get away with that kind of thing. He gets all puppyish and insists that she do her best to get through law school and quit her night job, and she agrees that she needs the change. But it all comes skidding to a messy halt when she shows up at a state dinner on the arm of a rich Democratic fund-raiser, who introduces "Britney" to Sam and his coworkers. Sam's face falls in a wrenching and predictable way, and it only gets worse (of course) when he talks to Laurie later. She tells him: "You know, I'm sorry, Sam. But this isn't exactly your business. I'm not here because of you. I'm just here because I'm here. I would be here even if you were here or not. You're just some guy who happens to know me." Man. Twist the blade a little, too. Sam then offers her $10,000 not go home with her date, at which point she walks away offended (way to be picky about who pays your tab, lady). Sam and Laurie aren't done with each other yet — Sam, like any good Sorkinian male character, is a huge glutton for emotional punishment — but the state dinner catastrof**k is the first nail in the coffin. Moulin Rouge Even in Baz Luhrmann's world, love can't overcome the world's obstacles: Money, class, tuberculosis. In Moulin Rouge, Christian (Ewan McGregor) enters a relationship with Satine (Nicole Kidman), knowing full well she's a pricey hooker, because he's romantic enough to think that it's worth the risk of 19th-century venerial diseases to sleep with a girl in a sparkly hat. They have an inevitably tortured relationship, made even harder when Satine promises to love Christian forever even as she's leaving to go sleep with the Duke (Richard Roxburgh) to secure financial backing for a play. The best number of the entire musical is the darkest one, "El Tango de Roxanne," a reworking of the Police song into a mournful, screaming elegy for Christian and Satine's polluted and dying relationship. The rousing finale doesn't hold a candle to the haunting tango at the center of the film, in part because it's only prolonging Satine's unavoidable and messy death by consumption. But the finale is all smiles, and only regains its credibility when the curtain closes and the doom that was promised in "Roxanne" finally comes calling. Paris, Texas Wim Wenders' 1984 masterpiece Paris, Texas follows Travis (Harry Dean Stanton) as he tries to reconnect with the young son, Hunter (Hunter Carson), he left several years earlier. Travis, an amnesiac, is taken in by his brother, Walt (Dean Stockwell), who's been caring for Hunter since Travis' abrupt departure. Travis and Hunter set out together to find Jane (Nastassja Kinski), Travis wife, and Travis eventually finds her working at a weird little sex parlor. The film is deliberately paced, and has been building to this reunion the whole time: Jane in a small room, with Travis watching her through a two-way mirror, talking to her on the phone. She doesn't know it's Travis talking to her. They have a long conversation there in the peep-show room, and another one the next day. Their exchanges are heartbreaking because it becomes clear just how much they loved each other, and how much pain they managed to inflict for no real reason. Travis' old jealousy flares up briefly — he badgers Jane, asking if she goes home with any of her clients — but eventually dies out as he finally starts to bury the past. When I was putting this piece together, this scene, this example, seemed to fit in with the rest. But I realize now that this is the one that transcends the others, and almost redeems them. Jane didn't start to sell herself until Travis left, and it's with his return that things start to maybe change. It's not clear where things will go, but it doesn't need to be. This is the one where they just might able to save each other after all.