Nostalgia

What Really Happened To 'Moonlighting'?

I had a brief talk today on Twitter with two of my very favorite TV writers, Alan Sepinwall of the Star-Ledger and Maureen Ryan of the Chicago Tribune, which started because Mo was talking about tonight's season premiere of Bones, a show that has done a will-they-or-won't-they dance between Bones (Emily Deschanel) and Booth (David Boreanaz) for several seasons. Essentially, she was saying she was giving up on the show out of frustration.

(To get in on these gabs, of course, as well as to hear random observations that don't make it to the blog, follow us.) (She wound up writing more about it, by the way, here.)

She went on to point out that too many TV writers make use of what they think of as either the the Moonlighting rule (some also think it's the Cheers rule), which says that if you put two characters together, the show instantly dies. As she put it, "Do I think all couples with tension should get together? No. But it's lazy or fear-based thinking to constantly avoid putting [the] couple together." And we agreed — me, and Maureen, and Alan — it's a dumb rule that isn't even real, and it should be retired immediately.

The myth and the facts, after the jump...

Two things. Leave Cheers out of this entirely. They put Sam and Diane together at the end of the first season, and the show lasted ten more years. So let's just ... put that aside as obviously terrible evidence of this phenomenon, if it exists.

That leaves Moonlighting, where David Addison (Bruce Willis) and Maddie Hayes (Cybill Shepherd) coupled up near the end of the third season. The show limped through a fourth and a fifth season, but creatively, there was very little that was worth watching thereafter. That made it popular to take the position that they killed the show by putting them together, which some shows seem to interpret as evidence that your sexual tension storyline must be dragged out FOREVER with no resolution.

Here's the problem: As The A.V. Club recently noted, there are plenty of shows that have survived sending their characters into relationships — not the least of which is The Office, as we were talking about just today.

Furthermore, it is abundantly clear that what happened with Moonlighting didn't happen because they were together. It happened because for most of that fourth season, they weren't together. Literally, not together. Not fighting, sleeping together, or anything else. They were in different cities — she fled to Chicago, and he hung around and went to prison and some other stupid stuff, and in the end, they were separated in an episode that aired on September 9, 1987 and weren't reunited until an episode that aired on February 2, 1988.

There were a couple of reasons for this: Shepherd was having twins and Willis was making Die Hard, but no matter what the reasons, that will kill your show. Eight of the fourteen episodes they made that season, the two leads were not doing scenes together. Chemistry can work if you're romantically together or if you're fighting, but not if you're not interacting in any way.

As if that weren't enough, by the time they brought the leads back together, they had married Maddie to a stranger — perhaps the most un-Maddie thing to do in the history of stupid character dodges — meaning that there was no opportunity at any time for them to relate to each other normally while (1) a couple, and (2) in the same city. You cannot possibly tell what would have happened if they had played scenes together as a couple, because during its death spiral, that never happened.

Seriously: They slept together. They then spent eight episodes apart. There were five more episodes that season in which she was married to someone else, and that was the ball game, creatively. If you're looking for the string of episodes where they were a couple and it was boring and their couplehood caused people to lose interest, you will not find them, because they don't exist.

So the next time you hear anyone — about Bones or about any other show — tell you that you can't put a couple together because the show instantly becomes boring, by all means, don't let them bring up Moonlighting. Because it just doesn't work.

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