Once upon a time, in an era known as the 80s, a fresh-faced actor named Bruce Willis played a private detective alongside Cybill Shepherd on the TV show, Moonlighting. Lasting for five seasons, it would go on to create one of the most cited and worst followed excuses on television: the Moonlighting curse. Two decades have passed since its cancellation, yet the show has managed to find a second life in the interviews of actors and showrunners alike, who continually namedrop it as a viable reason for ignoring the chemistry between their leading men and ladies. The argument stands that making your stars a couple is a show killer, because that’s why Moonlighting got the ax. Never mind all of the backstage drama that was taking place on that set—clearly it got canceled because they bowed down to fans’ desire to see the crime-fighting partners together.
Moral of the Story: if you want your show to last, avoid declarations of love. Include lots of break-ups. Stall, stall, and more stall (see The Big Bang Theory, Scrubs, etc.)
Unfortunately, some shows seem to have taken this advice to heart. In an attempt to circumvent Moonlighting’s fate, happy, stable relationships have become the bane to TV’s existence. Their replacement—unresolved romantic tension—has transformed into a crutch for maintaining viewer interest. Courtships intended to captivate get dragged on past reason, actually hurting their shows by preventing them from moving past “will they or won’t they” tropes. If you’ve watched an episode of Castle lately, you know what I mean. The once delightful mystery drama about a dashing novelist and his NYPD cop muse waited until season seven to have them tie the knot. Considering it was clear from the pilot they were soul mates, that’s too much time, and after the canceled wedding day fiasco that was the show’s season six finale, season seven was really too late. The show’s final shreds of realism were already gone.
Unrequited love stories aren’t the problem. Neither are bumpy road sagas (look at how Ben and Leslie learned to balance feelings and career ambitions on Parks and Recreations, or how Axel struggled with destiny dictating his love life on the New Zealand import, Almighty Johnsons). It’s the stories that don’t recognize the need for characters to take the next step in their relationships, or ignore the need out of fear of change, that cause a show to fall apart. And while these complaints aren’t new and have been voiced before, television is finally responding with a slowly increasing willingness to experiment with their love timetables. Superstitions over the Moonlighting curse have far from disappeared but—thanks to a few pregnancy twist compromises—are beginning to lose their potency.
BOUT 1: Moonlighting vs New Girl
The kiss between flatmates Nick and Jess’ on FOX’s New Girl would’ve been pretty great on its own merits, but what made it particularly exciting was when the kiss took place—right in the middle of the show’s 2013 second season. The anticipation going into that post-kiss episode was electric. No one knew which direction the show would take: backtrack after a few awkward episodes and pretend like nothing happened, or bravely address the scene’s fallout directly. They chose the latter, and in doing so managed to ride the momentum of that moment into their best run of episodes yet. By straying from the beaten timeline of season two being too soon to pair leads in a long-term relationship, New Girl appeared to be opening the way for television to question its reluctance towards couples getting together earlier in a show’s run.
Until they didn’t. The revolution was short-lived. While I wouldn’t bash the third season to the degree some critics and fans did, the writing for Nick and Jess’ relationship fell apart and as a consequence they broke up. Does this happen? Yes. Yet what was so frustrating was that it seemed like the couple should have worked, and that it was the situations they were being placed in, rather than the characters themselves, that were forcing a separation. Show creator, Liz Meriwether, as quoted in Rick Porter’s article for Zap2It, has admitted she’s, “… found it’s been easier for me to just write them as single people, single idiots out in the world, trying to get laid and looking for love. It’s just been more fun.” And the show, foregoing some changes to the overall apartment dynamics, has continued to be funny post-breakup. Still, it’s season four now, and that disappointment remains.
This TV season, however, my hopes have been revived thanks to a few shows whose willingness to take chances in love (and stick with them) have immensely paid off. Where New Girl dropped the ball, FOX’s The Mindy Project picked it up, by bringing its opposites attract Danny and Mindy together in one incredible homage to romantic comedies. Similar to New Girl, the duo shared a passionate kiss halfway through season two, leading Mindy to break-up with her then boyfriend, Cliff, for a more serious relationship with her co-worker.
Sadly, in true TV fashion, they break-up too. As a viewer begrudgingly prepared for such setbacks, the sad resignation begins… until Danny and Mindy meet on top of the Empire State Building. With this scene, the show’s writers essentially back themselves into a beautiful corner of having to see the pairing through. Anything less would come across as false, and given how wonderfully season three has played out so far, they have had no problem adjusting to the new arrangement. Mindy and Danny are a real couple. This means any drama they face is on the scale of what normally crops up in a relationship between two relatively normal, working people. Normalcy is exactly what makes their togetherness so profoundly rare. Their love is not taking place in some extreme context. They squabble, they bicker, they meet the in-laws (a wonderfully cast Rhea Perlman (Cheers)) and most importantly they are there for each other. This is proven when Mindy gets a fellowship at Stanford, on the complete opposite coast from New York. On most other shows, this would mean the end. Here, though, such value is placed on the relationship that Danny helps her get accepted. It was an impressive feat but one which recently met a snag with a surprise twist: Mindy found out she was pregnant. Sure, am I excited to find out what a Castellano-Lahiri baby looks like? You betcha. However, after such a pleasant arc of relying on the everyday complications of life for storylines, this development feels a little bit like typical TV drama slipping in.
Meanwhile, Jane the Virgin has continued to prove itself a sharp new hit, with a premiere season that’s brought the CW its first award show recognition (and rightfully so—Gina Rodriguez is spectacular). Constantly celebrating and playing off of its telenovela origins, the fun comes from Jane’s recognition of the absurdities in the situations she finds herself in. While generally this translates to a lot of crazy drama and men wearing lilac shirts, amidst that drama is a budding romance of immense maturity that is equally remarkable considering all the crazy drama that had to transpire for it to arise. Jane (the virgin) became pregnant during a mixed-up medical procedure where she was artificially inseminated with the child of the guy she hit it off with years ago but hadn’t heard from since they kissed. The show’s narrator keeps track of all the surreal details better, but essentially while Jane begins the show as Michael’s fiancée, things start to change when she realizes that the spark she once found with Rafael, her now baby daddy, are still there. Thus when things become frayed between her and Michael, who is at least initially hesitant about her having another’s man’s child, she breaks up with him and in episode six, she and Rafael kiss. The set-up might be extreme, but their exploration after of whether they can make it as a family, having gone through the usual milestones in such an atypical chronological order, has been fascinating to watch, especially given the sincerity and investment both have displayed in the effort.
Admittedly, getting to “happily ever” before viewer frustration sets in is not a completely comprehensive trend (yet). There are still a number of romantic holdouts, such as the Deacons and Raynas of the small screen. It also should be acknowledged that the willingness both Jane and Mindy have shown to stick with the relationships they’ve created and, with unprecedented confidence, allow them to grow hasn’t come completely free of strings. To fill the dramatic void left by the end of the star-crossed phase both have turned to the same new source for drama: the baby. We’ve finally got ourselves some healthy relationships on television, without the wait time of a Bones and Brennan. It just turns out that with every healthy TV couple, a healthy child is never far behind. If they incorporate Zooey Deschanel’s real life pregnancy into the show, New Girl might have a cute new cast member in its future, too.
Even if pregnancy seems a little bit like a safety net right now, it doesn’t change how exciting it’s been for these TV shows to stray from the formula. I don’t care what Moonlighting does or doesn’t indicate. Uniting a happy couple should never be be viewed as a “risky development” again.