The Lois and Clark Curse (with apologies to Moonlighting)

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.

026-moonlighting-theredlist

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.

wtb

Who’s the Boss aired from 1984-1992 and starred Tony Danza and Judith Light. Their characters declared their love for each other at the beginning of the last season.

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.

12ba25402774013184b40644b708c802

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.

fringe13a

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

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

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?

sleepyhollow25

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.

Advertisements

8 thoughts on “The Lois and Clark Curse (with apologies to Moonlighting)

  1. Excellent piece. Basically, the enemy is boredom. I do think that ensemble procedurals and sitcoms have a chance of overcoming the curse because they’re not JUST about that relationship.

    I’m going to be controversial here: I would give Bones a half win. The show did decline in the ratings after B&B got together, BUT shows simply go down in ratings as they age. So it’s really hard to discern whether Bones went down in ratings because they got together or because people were destined to tire of it by Season 7 anyway. But the half win is more in terms of creativity. I award it a half victory in that, if I had to recommend the series to someone and they had limited time, I would tell them to watch Seasons 1 – 6 plus the wedding episode. Die hards should watch the whole damned thing, obviously. Even though I think there have been some absolutely fantastic episodes and arcs since S6, it still is not the same as that wonderful unresolved sexual tension of the first 6 seasons. The Chase, as you call it, or what I might term the Jane Austen Formula is simply the better story line. Nothing on Bones has matched it since post Season 6. In terms of married couples being together on TV, B&B are decent. But the challenges of their relationship since they got together are less compelling than before they were a couple. Most of the dramatic moments post S6 stem from one or both of them having their life in danger. They took a risk in Season 10 by having Booth’s gambling addiction becoming a problem but that is not a theme they could repeat again. So despite enjoying watching B&B on my screen, they don’t match the greatness of the marriage of Eric and Tami Taylor on Friday Night Lights. However, in terms of a procedural, I can’t think of a better show than Bones that got a couple together that stayed together. A half win is the best we can expect.

    Parks and Recreation certainly was still wonderful after Leslie and Ben got together. But they never were the center of the show. In fact, the main relationship on Parks and Recreation was a platonic one between Leslie Knope and Ron Swanson. (Leslie was a good government liberal while Ron was an anti-government Libertarian. That was the tension of the show that carried it through 7 seasons.) While smaller in scope, the will they/won’t they aspect of Brooklyn Nine Nine never was the reason one would watch it. It was simply one story line. They’re together now, but the show remains a fun ride. (Michael Schur created both shows).

    I will give a recent example of a show that failed with its will they/won’t they story, complicated by an actor’s exit. That was Nashville. The tension that existed from the pilot onward was Rayna and Deacon. They seemed destined to be together but it could never happen. Except it did. Last season they finally got together and got married. The show has been problematic since its first season, but it really took a nose dive once those two were wed. My view is it was a structural problem. They were a Romeo and Juliet story that suddenly was turned into a conventional romance. That made no sense. I ended up stopping watching the show due to …. boredom. There’s a lot of anger on Twitter about TV shows, but anger is not what kills shows. It’s indifference. While Rayna and Deacon still had relationship challenges, it just seemed to hollow out their characters and turn them ordinary. And then – Connie Britton left the show and they killed off her character. People who are angry about it on Twitter might still watch. But those who have lost interest were already gone. So it seems that shows that are not comedic or procedural in nature will have the worst time getting a couple together. Because they are some variation of a melodrama, more plot needs to happen. That means breaking up the couple. Or killing someone off. I don’t think that problem can ever be solved. It’s probably best for soap operas to have a focus on one character or maybe a friendship or purpose. Having a will they/won’t they saga will only lead to disaster in this genre.

    • Well…with your comment about Bones being only a half win, you’re touching on the thousand words or so that I cut out of the post where I considered how you measure success for such shows. As far as I can tell, there’s never yet been a ‘will they/won’t they’ show that became more of a hit for a sustained period of time after they resolved the UST, and most of them, after seeing a brief ratings spike when the couple gets together, seem to begin to sink.

      Given that, it’s even more understandable why shows drag their feet about the whole idea, and certainly actually going forward with it, but it’s why I think Bones gets a lot of credit for going as many seasons after the fact as they did before.

      As to the show being better in S1-6…you are absolutely entitled to feel that way. I’m uncomfortable with you making it a pronouncement of fact, though, because it’s not true for me.

      While I watch and enjoy the early eps, I’ve realized lately that if I have a free hour and decide to re-watch something, it’s generally S8 forward (with occasional forays into S6.) I also have no interest in fanfic set before they became a couple – even when it’s very well done.

      It’s not just Bones – in book series I read, I tend to prefer the later ones because I like the dynamics between characters who know each other well; character growth within the context of established relationships interests me more than new relationships. (I accept that I’m an anomaly in this respect.)

      While their relationship had some very interesting (and obviously critical) moments in S1-6, IMO, much of Brennan’s most significant character growth has been in the last half of the show, and – still very much just my view – we didn’t see a lot of growth for Booth at all until S5 (more so S6), so it’s possible I’m just more interested in the characters rather than their romance, though I wouldn’t have said that about myself.

      I’m still holding my line that it’s invalid to compare a couple on a show where the story was never about them becoming a couple (i.e., Eric and Tami) with a UST couple. It may feel like once the latter couple is married, it should be an apples to apples comparison, and I just don’t think it is. The natures of the shows are too different, particularly in respect to the character arcs and how those stories (and the relationship itself) is woven into the overall story – not to mention the effects of the history (of the relationships) on the viewer.

      If we’d never seen Bones at all, if there had never been 12 seasons’ history, and a pilot came out about two very different people (one a pragmatic, realistic scientist, one by-the-gut cop) solving crimes and raising kids together…what kind of stories would you tell about their marriage, given it’s still a procedural?

      (Am I the only one intrigued by that as a mental exercise? LOL.) Since we’re starting new with the characters, some of the stories would be filling in background on the characters, but within the framework of an ensemble procedural, I suspect there would still be complaints, with such a show being compared unfavorably to a family drama like FNL.

      But maybe I’m wholly wrong on all that. 😉

      Agree about the rest of your comments, at least in terms of what I’ve heard about Parks and Recreation, and what I’ve been seeing about Nashville.

      • I totally agree with you that “married from the beginning” is a different type of show. I just find those shows to have more interesting married couple dynamics. Another case in point are the married couples on ABC family comedies. Especially Speechless. Their back and forth on big and small issues is a big reason to watch. I just found a lot of the B&B “stuff” as a married couple to not be super interesting. Mildly amusing? For sure. But most of the time, the drama comes from external threats which doesn’t interest me as much. For example, there was an episode about what school to send Christine to. I just wasn’t moved by it. It didn’t spark. Those are a lot of the B&B plotlines now. Little marriage spats that don’t cause me to lean into my TV screen. Even if you could say: well, this tells us X about this character. That may be so, but it didn’t have an emotional impact on me, the way this did: https://twitter.com/BONESonFOX/status/837067440588611584

        If I can go down a wormhole, I just consider romance to be a fantasy genre. I think Rachel Bloom and Mindy Kaling have both referred to romance this way. It’s not real. And it has a formula. It’s a nice escape from the mundane. Bones was a romantic comedy for 6 seasons. With the fantasy aspect of it embedded in it. B&B married is something else. Not quite reality (like the sex life still being super active after 2 kids and 2 stressful jobs. Come ON!), but not the fantasy we were treated to before. What sustains Bones for me is more the ensemble dynamics, like you mentioned. And sometimes the quirky cases, guest stars, etc. have been fun. But maybe the problem is the show was one sub genre, and now it had to change. Of course, the main genre is procedural. That is why the change isn’t all that jarring. We still can count on that A story to carry us through the episode.

        That is interesting that you prefer these couples after marriage. I definitely gravitate toward “falling in love” stories unless the story is about something bigger with the love story only being a subplot. That could be comedy or drama. And of course, I enjoy married couple dynamics. Billions on Showtime has two very interesting married couples that aren’t easy to peg. Maybe I will have to think on if there is any show where a couple gets married and I’m still into it after.

      • I agree romance is fantasy, though I don’t know that it’s more so than other genres (mysteries, for example, feel just as fantastical to me.) In fact, I think a lot of pop fiction (either in book or TV form) is, in the sense of portraying something that’s not operating the way the regular world do. (“Gritty” dramas would be one exception, there are surely others.)

        Maybe that’s why I do see the difference in the show (before they became a couple/after) that you do – I still see the fantasy aspects of their marriage.

  2. Really good observations! So much has changed in television watching that it’s hard to quantify how Bones viewing has been affected in the latter seasons. Going back to one of the original will they or won’t they shows, Scarecrow and Mrs. King was a wonderful example of a confluence of factors for the 80s. It really was a predecessor for shows like Bones and Castle. The first few seasons are completely delightful (despite the ridiculous plot lines for the baddies, but hey, it was the 80s)! If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth watching from the beginning and doing so in the order suggested by the wonderful blog Just Walk With Me https://justwalkwithme.com/category/season-one/season-one-quick-links/. This show suffered in the last season particularly from the lead care actress and coproducer, Kate Jackson, getting breast cancer and basically not being able to tell anyone why she wasn’t able to be as involved with her show. In those days, cancer was viewed as a death sentence by those in the industry and it’s most likely that the show would’ve been immediately canceled. If you need a warm and fuzzy show with humor that definitely highlights how far we have and haven’t come, take a look at Scarecrow and Mrs. King!

    • I loved Scarecrow and Mrs King! I’ve never gone back and re-watched it, though. I’m adding it to my list of things to watch after Bones ends. Thanks for the rec!

      (And yeah, I agree that it’s a predecessor of Bones and Castle – as was Hart to Hart, though that wasn’t a will they/won’t they.)

  3. I actually watched Moonlighting when I was in high school and I think getting Maddie and Dave together did kill the show. From what I remember the focus was on whether they would sleep together, not whether they would start a relationship. So when they did get together there was nothing more to keep our interest. So the curse isn’t getting two characters together, it’s giving them nothing to build on once they are together.

    I think that is where other shows differ, esp Bones, where they make the relationship the focal part and then the sex just becomes the icing on the cake, instead of the cake itself!

    • I agree. The chief problem was never about sex. The chief problem was whether they would be able to build a life together. The relationship conflicts and discussions they had in the first 6 seasons regularly focused on their different views of commitment/ marriage/family. Neither character denied their attraction to the other. Both openly acknowledged their assessment of the other’s looks and person (e.g. “Using you as the standard.” And “You are the standard.”) on more than one occasion. But tvhey did both deny at different times that a relationship between them had long term potential.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s