It’s getting so I can’t watch Castle anymore. Even Bones interests me only because of the secondary characters. And if In Plain Sight weren’t ending in eight short episodes, I’d have to give up my ‘shipper card completely.
It’s the “Moonlighting Curse,” in full effect, that’s done it. It’s screwing up good shows that are too cowardly to become great.
Hang out in forums devoted to TV shows that feature attractive leads with Unresolved Sexual/Romantic Tension (UST/URT) between them, and you’ll see the term bandied about a lot. Such couples, it is argued, must never get together, because to do so would render the show boring and unwatchable. Proponents point to the mid-80’s series Moonlighting, a genre-busting show that, for its first two seasons, was the best thing on television but which, they argued, went to hell when lead characters Maddie (Cybill Shepherd) and David (Bruce Willis) slept together, as proof of the necessity of keeping couples apart.
What preceded and followed the Maddie-and-David hookup was some of the most excruciating television imaginable. The screwball detectives–smart, sarcastic, and always sparring–suddenly became like something out of a 1960’s soap opera: A pregnancy (because a professional woman like Maddie’s never heard of birth control), a case of mistake identify that lands David in solitary in prison without anyone knowing he’s there, an unnecessary and awkward love triangle (whose third point, Mark Harmon, is totally wasted in the part), and a musical episode in which we meet the expected baby in the womb and are told that Maddie and David’s relationship is so toxic that everyone, baby included, should be grateful at the miscarriage that follows.
I kid you not. Excruciating doesn’t even begin to cover it.
Since then, conventional wisdom has it, romantic leads on television cannot be allowed to seal the deal or more shows will descend into such horrors. And every cliché imaginable is trotted out in order to avoid what would otherwise be a normal and healthy (in most cases) occurrence.
Today, we see this in action: Kate Beckett and Richard Castle of Castle have done the kiss-so-the-bad-guys-think-you’re-just-some-horny-couple-who-just-happen-to-be-hanging-out-in-a-shipyard-at-night, the trapped-in-a-freezer-and-dying-love-declaration-that-goes-unheard thing, and the girl-about-to-bite-the-bullet-and-man-up-at the precise-moment-boy-hooks-back-up-with-his-ex scene. Bones and Booth have spent so much time, over half a decade, in similar near-misses, love triangles, and brain tumors (which means Booth may only think he loves Bones) that even, when the moment happens, the audience only finds out about it after the fact, and the investigators are actually assigned a psychologist to help them deal with their relationship issues. Marshals Mary and Marshall of In Plain Sight have each been shot multiple times–prompting declarations (conscious and unconscious) of love to everyone but the object of that love, Mary beds random men at the worst possible moments, and the two have shared what has to be the worst “cheat” kiss (Mary grabs Marshall and plants what he mistakes to be a wet one on him, only to have her push him away and explain that she was only trying to smear lipstick on his face as part of a ruse to make the-bad-guys-think-[they’re]-just-some-horny-couple-who-just-happen-to-be-hanging-out-in-a-[stable]-at-night) of all time.
And don’t get me started on The X-Files’ Mulder and Scully and the bee-sting-derailed or Scully-is-actually-from-another-time kisses… Although, to be fair, their particular brand of UST was as much a product of an out-of-touch creator and an ungrateful diva-of-an-actor as anything—I (and more than a few others, I imagine) took immense pleasure in watching Gillian Anderson punch David Duchovny in the face after that second kiss for precisely that reason.
In other words, in an attempt to avoid the Moonlighting curse, many shows have indulged in plot devices that are almost as bad as anything seen on Moonlighting. More to the point, these devices run the gamut from unbelievably ill-timed coincidences (that aren’t) to outright betrayal of everything we know about these characters and human nature. Castle is a romantic to the point of addiction, married three times, and despite his playboy image, apparently no worse than a serial monogamist—but he can’t pull the trigger on telling Beckett that he loves her. Bones, a woman whose speaking of the truth borders on Asperger’s and whose attitudes towards sex (almost exclusively in a friends-with-benefits context) are likely the least apologetic and most clearly stated ever on American television, cannot seem to tell her partner that she’d like to do him. And Mulder and Scully, forced by a world of shadowy and dangerous conspiracy, to rely on each other to the exclusion of everything and everyone else (while being perennially unattached and shacked up in seedy motels), seem incapable of even a simple discussion of the subject in the first six years of their run.
To quote Seinfeld, “Who are these people?!?”
This is not to say that all shows avoid the hookup, or that they are torn apart by it. The leads of Burn Notice, for example, are—after a few years of hemming and hawing—in a relationship that appears, to all intents and purposes, to actually work. And Michael and Fiona still have all the chemistry they ever did, all within their established characterization.
It was this that prompted me to ask Matt Nix, creator and writer of Burn Notice, about this at last year’s Comic-Con. How did Burn Notice succeed where others have failed?
“To give a really sincere and overly wonky answer, I think the relationships on shows where that’s a problem live in a kind of teenage fantasy of what love is or what relationships are. That sense of longing…like someday, I’ll get the girl. Someday, he’ll kiss me or whatever. It doesn’t last past that first get-together. It’s all about the longing. And the longing is great. But you can’t ask the question, ‘Will they kiss?’ and then answer it, and expect to have anything to do after that. Michael and Fiona are consciously in a different phase of their relationship.
“And as a writer, it’s like, what do you draw on in your own past? So I know that, for me, I draw on my own marriage, because you know, a marriage is work, and there’s an ebb and flow to it. And sometimes you feel closer and sometimes you feel further away. Sometimes you’re fighting and sometimes you’re really happy with each other. So I guess with Michael and Fiona, it’s asking different questions. Like how can they make this work? Is there anyone else for them? Can they separate, can they be together? are more present questions on the show, than ‘will they be together’ ever was. It’s playing a different phase of the relationship and another dramatic question. That’s the really wonky answer.”
Nix got it exactly right. So how are others gett
ing it so very wrong?
Perhaps the biggest reason other shows get it wrong is because the drive to avoid the curse is based in a complete lack of understanding of the contexts both of Moonlighting and these more recent shows.
Anyone who remembers television in the 1980s will likely tell you that it was terrible. A decade bracketed by B. J. and the Bear and Baywatch, the 1980s was a horrible time for television and television writing. Sure, there was Hill Street Blues and China Beach, but even the best shows of that time really haven’t stood up very well in passing years. And let’s lay the blame in its proper place: the fault for the mediocrity of that decade lies squarely on the writing. It is partly the quality of its writing which made Moonlighting such a hit. It benefitted greatly by comparison to the other shows on offer at the time.
But it’s not just that Moonlighting was a well-written show. It’s that the writers were thinking so far outside the box, many of us tuned in each week to see just what they (the writers) would do next. Centered on the traditional Hepburn-and-Tracy wisecracking couple, the show was anything but ordinary. David and Maddie regularly broke the fourth wall and occasionally into musical numbers. They appear in an Orson Welles-prefaced film-noir episode, as well as one based on the Taming of the Shrew. And the episode which ends with the characters running around the back-lot, and shows us the crew packing up at the end of the season–the writers were pushing the boundaries in ways we could never have imagined on television at the time. It was smart, funny, and above all, courageous in its conception and execution.
But what happened to Moonlighting was not simply a matter of the two characters getting together. It was that, once it began to go in that direction, the writers appear to have lost the beat and their nerve. The screwball nature of the show was replaced by heavy and contrived melodrama. Rather than quick-witted repartee and great pop culture references, we were suddenly forced into dark rooms with either a brooding and indecisive David or a weeping and insecure Maddie. By the time we got to their actual hookup, the show had already changed. Because, as Nix points out, it had invested so much in the question of “Will they?” that even the writers must have felt that there could be nothing for David and Maddie to do beyond that wished-for consummation.
In other words, as good as the writers of Moonlighting were, they weren’t–at the time, at least–good enough. When push came to shove, the writers themselves, rebels in many ways, fell back on the most traditional kinds of frustrated-romantic storylines. What took the show down in the end was not even that the writers allowed the characters to get together. Had David and Maddie stayed together, they might have worked through a few initial problems and ended up in a different place, but one compatible with the basic premise of the show and in keeping with the chemistry of its stars: Maddie and David might have been the 1980s equivalent of Nick and Nora—solving crimes, trading barbs, and sharing a happy bed every night. But that transformation never happened. In fact, the writers allowed the two to get together only to tear them apart again—sucking the chemistry, the charm, and the fun out of the show.
Flash forward to the last few years. We are in the middle of what seems a golden age of television writing. Wedged between the terrors of reality television are some of the best shows ever: from Breaking Bad to The Big Bang Theory to Sherlock, the writing is skilled, engaging, and smart. When comparing Friends of a decade ago to its descendent How I Met Your Mother, the difference is quality is pretty amazing.
More to the point, the writing is courageous. It takes real chances. Imagine pitching a show rife with drinking, smoking, and blatant sexism in our politically correct age. One wonders how the creators got the go-ahead, let alone how the writers got their heads around it. Yet Mad Men isn’t just successful—it’s truly great. A series about the six wives of Henry VIII? Not just sexy and compelling, The Tudors is–from this Renaissance scholar’s point of view–an accurate framing of the tensions and intrigues of a 16th century court.
And yet, when it comes to television shows focusing on two people who work together, have a fun and interesting partnership, and who are mutually attracted to each other, for the most part, these same writers completely lose their nerve. Instead of the innovation we see going on all over the place, shows like Castle and Bones and In Plain Sight force-feed us a diet of, as Nix put it, high school-era romantic conflicts and dilemmas, and nothing more sophisticated than, “Will they or won’t they?”
In Plain Sight is about to begin its fifth and final season, and rumor has it that Marshall’s days of pining for Mary may finally pay off. As much as I look forward to that, I am all too aware that the only reason this is happening is because the show is coming to an end. Had it not been cancelled, I’m sure this season would have been nothing more than continuing near-misses and plot contrivances so painful viewers would need Novocain.
And yet, there is simply no good reason for any of this. With the caliber of writers currently working in television, the idea that there is no one capable of producing a series in which two people solve crimes, fall in love, move in, argue about where to spend Thanksgiving, and all the other things that we, as human beings, not only experience but pursue almost above all else, is patently ridiculous. Are all Hollywood writers single and have never learned that that first (real) kiss is only the beginning of the best part of what it is to be in love, and in a relationship? That a life together–especially one punctuated by gun fights, serial killers’ riddles, and the like—is the real adventure? Can it really be that hard to make an actual relationship both genuine and compelling?
David and Maddie were never given the chance. But there’s still hope for Beckett and Castle, Bones and Booth, and Mary and Marshall. If their writers can take that leap, we will follow along. And perhaps an entire television genre can finally free itself from its thirty-year curse.