CliqueClack TV

Why are writers so afraid of the Moonlighting Effect?

Should showrunners and writers really be afraid pulling the trigger on certain relationships? Or should they be to blame for their inability to write the 'what happens next?'

A long time ago, in a television-watching galaxy far, far away, there was a TV show called Moonlighting. The heroes of this show, David and Maddie, had such great, antagonist chemistry and fans of the show longed for the day when the two would embrace their feelings instead of repressing them. Except, once they did, something bad happened … and television writers have been using that as the cautionary tale ever since.

Why did I walk you through (quite poorly, I’m sure) the history of Moonlighting you ask (In fact, your question might have been, “I’m a television cliquester who is reading a blog about television … you think I don’t know about Moonlighting?”)? Because, frankly, I’m tired of this excuse. I think we should expect more out of the shows that we’re fans of. If writers truly believe that certain characters don’t belong together, that is one thing.  But if they are dragging things out for other reasons, then that’s where we have a problem.

Jeff Jensen over at Entertainment Weekly wrote a great piece a couple weeks back on the whole “shipper” phenomenon. In it several writers and showrunners, including BonesHart Hanson, Castle’s Andrew Marlowe and several others, were interviewed trying to explain the “other side” of the dynamic. They raise good points, things that I’m not indifferent to. Relationships do have a natural life cycle; they ebb and flow, and there’s generally a “magic hour” in which all things come together and everyone, as they say, lives happily ever after.  In the instance of my first personal “ship,” timing was an appropriate obstacle.

This shouldn’t be surprising to anyone that knows me, but it was Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing, and the participants were one Joshua “Lemon” Lyman and Donna Moss. It took these characters seven seasons before the timing was right, something that irritated me a great deal when the show was airing. But they both had a good deal of growing to do before they could enter into a romantic relationship as equals (her professionally and he, naturally, personally).  I had to endure Amy Gardner – though endure is never the right word to describe my feelings towards Mary-Louise Parker – and Donna’s myriad Republican boyfriends — but in the end, I was a happy camper.

In Jensen’s piece, Lost showrunner Carlton Cuse was quoted as saying, “The conventional wisdom is that once you consummate sexual tension, you zap a show of its magic.” I’ll take it a step farther, and point directly to concept that it is the chemistry between the two involved parties that changes. And — this is where this particular post might take a turn you’re not expecting – this is a reasonable fear to have.

If that’s the case, though, is the problem really in the writing? In fact: is the original success of the chemistry in the writing either? Last I checked, it is actors that have chemistry, and not script pages. How many shows have succeeded, or failed, on how well the two leads played on screen together? Would Bones have worked as well as it did if David Boreanaz and Emily Deschenel didn’t have great chemistry to start with? Would Castle?  X-Files? Moonlighting?

But conventional wisdom is hard to argue against. We’ve talked about Moonlighting, but other widely accepted examples exist out there, like X-Files – I’ve been told the whole relationship fell apart after “the baby.” But conventional wisdom is just that: conventional, tired, outdated and … well … shortsighted.

Why is it so hard to transition from the courting-stage to the together-stage? The best written relationship on television in my recent memory was Friday Night Light’s Eric and Tammy Taylor – it was successful both because the writing was top notch and because the actors played off of each other so well. I’m not sure that I could buy into the idea that if, for some crazy reason, the show had a season or two where the characters were just finding each other and were living in the “will they/won’t they” zone, that writing their eventual relationship would turn out differently?

Earlier, when I quoted Cuse, I cheated; I didn’t share the back half of the quote, where he basically made the same argument I’ve been making for years: “I’d love to see some bold showrunner go against that conventional wisdom and produce something great.” We’ve seen utter brilliance out of television writers in the past several years. From The Wire to Veronica Mars to Homeland to Lost, we are truly in the renaissance of dramatic television. Are we to believe that, as we have writers that have been able to produce works of art like these, that others can’t find a way to make a believable, enjoyable way to put certain characters together without eight seasons of manufactured obstacles, complications and pitfalls (I’m looking at you, Mr. Hanson).

I think that there’s a difference in expecting that couples be put together nearly instantaneously, as Hanson jested in the EW article. But if you look at Grey’s Anatomy and the relationship between Derek Sheppard and Meredith Grey, there’s a different model at play — one that worked. The characters found themselves together early on, and then faced a realistically rocky road as they navigated their collective baggage. I’ve never found their relationship, even in its darkest hour, to feel overwrought or disingenuous – at least any more or less than I found the show in general – I’m not going to deny that the season of the last writer’s strike was not Grey’s best. If these two crazy kids – and Shonda Rhimes – can make it work, why can’t more shows pull it off too?

Photo Credit: FOX

12 Responses to “Why are writers so afraid of the Moonlighting Effect?”

March 7, 2012 at 9:26 PM

The other problem with the Moonlighting effect surrounds putting characters together but removing the elements of their personality that made them interesting. Maddie and Dave didn’t just ‘get together,’ they became the uber, sickeningly sweet couple they would’ve tripped in earlier seasons.

The same thing happened with ‘Lois and Clark,’ where Lois dropped her sarcastic personality when the two started seriously dating.

So, some good things happened from the Moonlighting effect. It taught shows not to rush the relationship. I’m fine with Castle as is, because it isn’t a holding pattern. Each week, the characters grow together and learn more about each other.

March 7, 2012 at 9:28 PM

I’ve actually quite enjoyed the path that Castle has taken thus far. Here we are in the fourth season, and the characters have actually discussed their relationship. That little twist is something that is completely realistic, yet very rarely seen on screen.

March 7, 2012 at 9:34 PM

I have created a screen shot of your agreeing with me with no additional comment, and am saving it for the archives. :P

March 7, 2012 at 9:58 PM

* sigh * You always have to ruin the moment.

I’d like to point out that my first response stated that I liked how they’re handling the Castle relationship. And, you agreed with that. So, technically, I’m just agreeing with myself ;)

March 7, 2012 at 11:09 PM

I don’t think you can put ALL the blame on the writers. I think a lot of time it’s the suits that are more afraid of the dreaded Moonlighting curse than the writers.

That said, Hart Hanson is so full of crap. I don’t know a Bones fan alive who actually thinks they should have gotten together after season one. The problem is that he pushed the will they/won’t they thing to where it no longer felt like organic storytelling. By all rights, based on the story and character development up until that point, they should have gotten together at the end of season five. While I am enjoying the show still and I’m glad that B&B are finally together, and I think they’ve done a fairly good job of keeping the magic alive, there is something slightly less satisfying about it than it would be if it had happened as a natural development in the story of Booth and Bones’ characters. As it was, the hurried about face and off screen consummation of the relationship at the end of season six makes it kind of obvious that it wasn’t organic storytelling at work. I fully believe that had the fans last year not been on the verge of revolt (and some did indeed just stop watching, never to return) and had the TV writers and even other showrunners (thank you Andrew Marlowe) not begun to openly mock Hanson’s ridiculously contrived romantic dithering, that he’d still be attempting to string the fans along and coming up with even more obstacles between Booth and Bones.

March 8, 2012 at 6:21 PM

Funny you should say that, I wrote similar things at the end of Season 5:

March 8, 2012 at 5:32 AM

The relationship between John and Aeryn in Farscape was beautifully written. They moved from flirting to a relationship quickly, but still continued to evolve as individuals. The actors had amazing chemistry and the writing was excellent.

The problem with Moonlighting had nothing to do with the characters hooking up and everything to do with behind the scenes animosity and an unfortunately timed pregnancy.

March 10, 2012 at 8:14 PM

pickwick is correct that a lot of the Moonlighting problem was the real behind the scenes animosity and I think there were a number of shows that had to be rescheduled–don’t know if that was the pregnancy or character attitude–I know it hurt the viewer habits–VCR’s and DVRs were not as prevelent as they are now. It is possible that some behind the scenes animosity may have been part of the “Lois and Clark” show also. I am glad that Teri Hatcher got a good shot on “Desperate Housewives”–I also don’t feel terribly bad that Dean Cain is mostly making direct to DVD movies, with a sometimes role on ABC Family, etc. As for Bones, I am really not all that happy that B&B were forced together. On the other hand, I think the joining of Angela and DR. Jack Hodgins was very well done. The only problem I have there, is in an earlier season, we learned that Dr. Hodgins is a rich guy with some power over the institute, but that seems to have disappeared.

March 11, 2012 at 6:05 PM

Along with John and Aeryn on Farscape, I’d like to add as examples of couples that got together and remained good Michael and Fiona on Burn Notice, Dax and Worf on ST:DS-9, and my all-time favorites Sheridan and Delenn on Babylon Five.

Sci fi shows seem to be able to put couples together and still keep the show good while dramas either drag it out too long (Bones, Castle) or put the couple together only to have them split up again in great drama (Owen and Cristina on Grey’s Anatomy). I think one of the reasons sci fi shows can do it successfully is because the couple’s relationship does not become the hook of the show. There is material in a couple learning to be together, just not enough to carry a show, so it helps if the show is focused on saving the universe or even just downtown Miama. I remember on ER when Abby and Luka finally got together, they had maybe two or three scenes each episode. That was enough to keep fans happy. (Until Goran Visnjiv left and Abby’s drinking because a focus, that is.)

I am already enjoying The Finder much more than I do Bones and a big reason is because the couple is already together, albeit in a FWB way.

But I have to disagree with you on two shows. John Wells promised at the end of season 4 that Josh/Donna shippers would be happy and then kept them apart treading water for the rest of the series by focusing on other storylines (we got more of the Santos marriage in the last season than all of J/D put together), putting them together at the last minute. I don’t know any J/D shippers who weren’t really pissed off, especially since we got to see CJ married and with a child in the future but not Josh and Donna.

The other one is Castle, which is taking an unrealistic time to get two unattached people who know they love each other together. I’m willing to give Marlowe till the end of this season for some forward movement; after that, he shouldn’t be putting down Hart Hanson any more.

March 11, 2012 at 6:13 PM

Why is it so hard to transition from the courting-stage to the together-stage?

I’ve always thought that it was because it requires a different style of how the couple is written (e.g. compare Hart To Hart to any ‘will they/won’t they?’ couple) and writers are either unable to do it, in which case they will either delay till the last season to put them together or if they have got togeter, revert to the old writing and break up the couple and try again, or are afraid to do it.

March 11, 2012 at 9:50 PM

I don’t remember that quote from John Wells, and you could count me in as one of those Josh/Donna shippers who was pissed at the time, though as much from the characters being separated in general, and not necessarily “not-together-yet.” I suffered through Amy with the rest of the shippers.

But in retrospect, they weren’t ready yet, and needed significant change to get there. Donna experienced that change when she left the White House. I will concede that they should have let Donna “come back” to the show much earlier in the 7th season, but that was likely more about the across the board cost cutting measures the show experienced in its last year.

We’ll have to agree to disagree about Castle, too. I’ve got no problem with the pace of their relationship to date. Plus, after listening to the cast and EP Andrew Marlowe at Paleyfest this week, that confidence was renewed.

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