I’ve had a draft of this post in my folder for a couple of years now. Occasionally, I take it out and look at it, and then close it, convinced I’m nuts to think of tackling the topic. But it keeps popping up, either from frustrated fans, or, occasionally, in a smug post by a critic on how the “Moonlighting Curse” doesn’t exist.
Which, strictly speaking, it doesn’t. There’s no supernatural jinx that says any show which attempts to get a lead couple together romantically must fail. And yet, sooner or later, the term is applied to about any show that has a potential romantic pairing.
Google let me down when I tried to find the source of the phrase, but the gist is that the show Moonlighting, which aired between 1985-1989 and starred Cybill Shepherd and Bruce Willis, failed due to the decision to get the leads together romantically in mid-season three. A key to the show’s popularity was the UST (unresolved sexual tension) between Dave and Maddie, so the conclusion was that resolving that tension led directly to the show’s ratings slide.
The problem is that no one, from fans, to critics, to the writers and producers, thought the show’s decline had anything to do with that decision. Rather, in season four, Shepherd was pregnant with twins and Willis was shooting Die Hard, and if you want a sure-fire way to kill your show, separate your leads for weeks at a time and then make the story about minor characters.
This is the point where people currently invested in a couple on a show shout in frustration, ‘See? There’s no curse!’
They’re right. But…
Getting a TV couple together romantically and then leaving them together is hard. It’s very hard, and there’s a reason why the idea is equated with a curse, whether Moonlighting is a factor or not.
I’m not remotely an expert on TV. I’m just someone who’s fascinated by the choices writers make (why this and not that?) and how those story choices work in terms of the audience. And one of the things I see is that while the choice to have Maddie and David sleep together wasn’t what was fatal to Moonlighting, there are other shows that have struggled with ratings after doing the same thing. When people refer to the curse, it’s not as if Moonlighting is the only show that’s ever had their fingers crossed when they put their couple together.
In fact, a partial list of shows that pop up in discussions about the MC includes: Arrow, Big Bang Theory, Bones, Caroline in the City, Castle, Chuck, Ed, Frasier, Friends, Fringe, House, Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, Moonlighting, Nashville, New Girl, Parks and Recreation, Scrubs, Sleepy Hollow, The Nanny, The Office, Wings, and Who’s the Boss.
This is where it gets complicated: some of those shows were referenced because the poster thought the show had been a victim of the curse, some because they thought it had beaten it, and some because fans thought that their show was being ruined out of a fear of the curse.
Given that, I keep coming back to three things:
First, I don’t think just because a show has a ‘will they/won’t they’ couple it means the MC is always a factor. I don’t see how it’s valid to compare the effects of delaying one couple’s happily ever after on an ensemble sitcom with a relationship involving a self-destructive character on a drama.
Second, I think the biggest factor in whether a show survives getting its leads together has to do with how much of the audience is watching solely for that reason. Commercial fiction is about a problem that someone must solve. Pick any story, and the protagonist will be trying to get out of a mess, find a treasure, catch a killer, prevent a death, or recover from tragedy. Often, the problem is presented as an unspoken question for the audience: will she catch the bad guys? Will he solve the mystery?
When the problem is solved and the question answered, the story is over, which means if the audience sees the story question as, “will these two people ever become a couple?” then they may lose interest when they feel that’s been answered – no matter what the show does next. And the real kicker for the writers? All viewers won’t necessarily see the story the same. The difference between ‘will they become a couple?’ and ‘will they have a happily ever after?’ is subtle, but important.
I know Bones fans who, while they’re still watching the show, will tell you that it’s less must-see TV for them now because they primarily enjoy the “chase” in a romantic story. They’re not slamming the show, they can’t point to anything that could have been done differently, they just like the before-the-commitment part of the story the best, and they’re self-aware enough to know that.
If the majority of the viewers are watching just to see the couple get together, it’s going to be difficult to pay that off and keep that audience. But if they’re also watching for other reasons, it’s more possible to pull off – but you’re still going to lose those who were only watching for the chase.
This, by the way, is why it’s invalid to point to shows like Friday Night Lights or Madame Secretary when criticizing a show struggling with how to write a committed relationship. It’s a wholly different story premise when the couple is together from the start.
Third, if you take away the tension of ‘will they or won’t they?’ what do you replace it with? Shippers often want to see their couple living happily ever after, but stories aren’t about happy people sailing through life without anything interesting happening to them (where we’ll define ‘interesting’ the way the ancient Chinese supposedly did.) They’re about people solving problems. It doesn’t have to be a huge problem with apocalyptic consequences, but it has to have enough weight to keep the audience interested. It has to matter.
I’ve not watched all the shows I listed above (all of which pop up in discussions of the curse), and there wouldn’t be room to discuss them all, anyway. But a few of those I’ve seen, I had thoughts about:
The Big Bang Theory: It’s an ensemble show and while one of the stories for a number of years was ‘will Leonard and Penny get together?’ I don’t believe that was ever the driving story question for the majority of the audience. Rather, I think it was ‘how does a group of geeks successfully navigate life?’ and with Leonard and Penny now a couple, they’ve successfully shifted the romance question to the other characters.
Bones: (You knew this would be in here, right?) Hart Hanson tried to avoid the ‘they’re together, so the story’s over’ problem by spreading out Booth and Brennan becoming a couple over a half season or more, as well as by having the actual moment they took that step happen off-screen. That approach had mixed success: I thought their gradual coming together worked well for the characters, and wasn’t bothered with what we didn’t see – but some fans felt cheated.
The show’s ratings are not what they were prior to Booth and Brennan taking that step, but is that due to their getting together, Fox’s incessant schedule changes, or the cultural shifts in how people watch TV that’s resulted in declines for most shows? I doubt there’s a way to know, but Bones has now gone for as many seasons with them as a couple as it did during their courtship, so I think it’s in the ‘Win’ column where the curse is concerned.
Fringe: Although the show did replace the sexual tension with something bad that came between Olivia and Peter (Fauxlivia!), for most of the audience, the story was never solely about ‘will they get together?’ (We were rooting for them, but the main question was more ‘who the heck are the Observers?’) Still, they got their happy ending, and it’s unlikely the show’s ratings struggles had anything to do with the romance.
House: Although I remember seeing posts in support of ‘Huddy,’ to me, the point of the show was less about his relationship with Cuddy and more about the mess that was Gregory House. The fact that there were Huddy shippers, though, illustrates another no-win scenario for the writers: Things won’t end well when you’re writing a tragedy and a chunk of your audience is looking for the happily ever after.
Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman: For me, this is the show which comes closest to being a classic case of the Moonlighting Curse. It was wholly about their relationship, there were so many delays that the ep where they finally got married was titled, ‘Swear to God, This Time We’re Not Kidding,’ and after they got married, nothing interesting seemed to happen. I recall being frustrated because how could I be bored, when the very thing I’d wanted had happened?
Sleepy Hollow: While I wouldn’t have minded seeing Ichabod and Abbie as a couple, I enjoyed the platonic love between them, too. But there were fans who were heartbroken when Nicole Beharie decided the question by leaving the show.
This one is similar to House, actually. I don’t know what would have happened if Beharie hadn’t left, but it illustrates the problem fans face when they’re not sure if a couple is destined to be together and a delay is part of the overall story arc, or if they’re hoping for something that’s never going to be. (Some fandoms get lucky and have a showrunner who explicitly states what the end goal is. *cough* Hart Hanson *cough*)
A number of shows have proven there’s no curse, and fans aren’t always wrong to complain about delays (which can also kill a show) but getting a couple together and keeping them that way is difficult, particularly when different genres, with different audience engagement, are being compared. Acknowledging that seems only fair.