Will Fall TV Finally Make the ‘Partners With Benefits’ Formula Work?

When ABC's 'Castle' returns next Monday, it won't just be murder the characters will be investigating, but whether or not we can finally lay the 'Moonlighting' Curse to bed for good

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When ABC’s Castle returns to the small screen next week for the show’s fifth season, the show will still be about wisecracking mystery novelist Richard Castle, played with no small amount of tongue-in-cheek charm by Nathan Fillion, teaming up with hard-nosed police detective Kate Beckett to solve bizarrely themed murders on a weekly basis. For many fans, however, the biggest threat to Castle and Beckett this year won’t be when the pair finds themselves face-to-face with some irrational killer who can’t be stopped by a quip or well-timed observation from a supporting player. Rather, by allowing Castle and Beckett’s Will-They-Won’t-They flirting to finally reach some level of consummation in the finale of the previous season, the show will now have to deal with something even more ridiculous than subcultural psychopaths: The dreaded Moonlighting Curse.

I say “ridiculous” because the Moonlighting Curse is one of those strange pop cultural things that doesn’t necessarily stand up to investigation all that well, but nonetheless has a large swathe of people in its thrall. It gets its name from the slow collapse of the 1980s comedy drama Moonlighting — the show that made Bruce Willis into a star and gave Curtis Armstrong something to do after Revenge of the Nerds — which, according to the curse, started when Willis’ David Addison and Cybill Shepherd’s Maddie Hayes finally made the leap from sparring partners to sexual partners. That one simple change to the series’ dynamic, says the curse, was enough to send it spiraling towards cancellation. As a result of Moonlighting‘s fate, conventional wisdom has claimed that any attempt to allow your two lead characters to actually get together romantically is just asking for trouble. After all, if it could happen to Bruno, it could happen to anyone.

Bruce Willis as David and Cybill Shepherd as Maddie on Moonlighting

ABC / Getty Images

Castle‘s creator and executive producer Andrew Marlowe isn’t one of the true believers when it comes to the long shadow cast by Moonlighting, however. “I’m not someone who believes in The Curse of Moonlighting,” he told reporters earlier this year. “Moonlighting fell apart because [the producers] couldn’t meet their delivery dates.” Indeed, none other than Moonlighting creator Glenn Gordon Caron has often admitted that timeliness became an issue as the show went on. “The show was really difficult to do,” he told the Chicago Tribune back in 2005. “A lot of discord centered around that — working 14-15 hours a day, and the way I worked, pages came very late.” So late, in fact, that yes, episodes regularly missed deadlines, and it wasn’t uncommon for episodes of Moonlighting to be replaced by re-runs at the last minute. With audiences never quite sure whether or not they’d be getting a new episode or a re-run until they tuned in, it’s hardly surprising that fans started drifting away. Factor in Shepherd and Willis both reportedly losing interest in the series for various reasons (her newborn children, born during the show’s fourth season, and his increasingly successful movie career, respectively), and the show’s cancellation seems more the fault of multiple events and less of viewer backlash against David and Maddie ending up in bed together.

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If all of that is true, you might be thinking, then why does the Moonlighting Curse even exist in people’s minds and the Internet at all? You actually have Moonlighting itself to thank for that one, in a roundabout way. In the series’ final episode, 1989’s “Lunar Eclipse,” Maddie and David end up talking to a fictional ABC producer responsible for canceling the show who explains that “romance is a fragile thing,” firmly placing the blame for the show’s death on the (by that time, amazingly soap operatic and convoluted) affair between the two. Add to that, the reality that — creatively — the show really did stumble after Maddie and David hooked up. For various reasons, some outside their control (Shepherd’s pregnancy reducing her workload, for example, or Willis and Shepherd’s rumored dislike for each other), Moonlighting seemed to have a problem with the idea of actually letting the two characters be a couple, leading to a last-minute reversal of the entire idea at the end of the next season as Maddie ended up marrying another man that she had literally met the night before. Romance may be a fragile thing, but so is the audience’s patience.

Bearing all of this in mind, then, it’s as if Castle – and any other show that wants to try and pair off its leading characters — has a fairly simple “How To” guide to follow… or, at least, signposts warning them away from the things to avoid. Commit to the Relationship, one would say, lights flashing around it, while another would read simply Meet Your Deadlines. Pretty basic, common sense stuff, right? After all, it’s not as if Moonlighting was the only time in television history where the idea of “Will They? Won’t They?” relationships threatened to overtake a popular series. Who amongst us doesn’t recall the moment when we realized that we really didn’t care about Ross and Rachel in Friends anymore — we were far more invested in the Monica and Chandler storyline and wondered if it meant that Phoebe and Joey would have to hook up as well? Sitcoms may be the natural home for this kind of thing, really; think about the number of seasons of How I Met Your Mother lost to whether or not Ted and Robin were fated to be together or if JD and Elliot in Scrubs were meant to be. Each of these series failed to commit to the pairings when they initially happened, and the characters and shows suffered as a result.

There are also plenty of examples of shows that have managed to pair characters successfully. NBC’s Chuck brought the title character together with Sarah by presenting it almost as an inevitability from day one — now there is being committed to a plan — much in the same way as the Jim and Pam pairing in The Office felt like a force of nature. These characters, we were taught, belong together because they don’t make nearly as much sense apart. (This idea — that audiences prefer the characters together than not — is what saved the Niles and Daphne relationship in Frasier despite the almost obscenely long lead-up to the relationship actually happening, I suspect.) Here then is another lesson: If you portray your desired pairing as being the clear best of all available options, then your audience will end up wanting it to happen as much as your characters do.

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And yet, I find myself wanting to advise caution even if these simple steps are followed, if only because today’s television audience isn’t the same beast as the one that watched Willis and Shepherd flirt, fight and metatextualize their way through five seasons of television way back when. For one thing, contemporary television creators have the new math of Shipper + Internet = Potential Disaster to deal with. For those unfamiliar with the term “shipper,” let’s go to the dictionary definition: “A fan devoted to a particular couple/pairing in a fandom. Usually fanatical.” While shippers are, in many respects, nothing new — a glance at certain sections of 1970s fandom for Star Trek reveals that many were very fascinated with the relationship between Kirk and Spock, for example — they have in recent years gained not only their own identifying term, but also a particularly upfront role in certain fandoms (Exhibit A, Exhibit B) that gives them cultural credibility where they had previously been more easily ignored. Add in the megaphone that is social media, and the likely potential for deafening backlash for any change to a relationship status quo becomes a worrying prospect. On the one hand, that plays into the first of the signposts above — Stay committed to your relationship plans even when Twitter is calling for your head. The sheer volume of a particularly vocal section of your fanbase so attached to one very specific idea of what “works,” however, can’t help but breed a certain conservative nature in those telling the stories. Why would you change anything if you know it’s going to get you shouted at?

The most obvious answer to that question is that changing nothing is going to get you shouted at even more. With the obvious exceptions of the Law & Order franchise and to a lesser extent, the CSIs and NCISs of the world, television series have moved away from a static format where everything status is returned to quo at the end of each episode in order to more easily facilitate syndication re-runs out of order. Nowaways, it’s all about story arcs and things happening that have, if not permanent impact, then after-effects that last for some period of time before simply fading into the background of a show’s mythology. The audience wants to see stories that “count,” and that tends to translate into something that forces the characters to have to go through some kind of evolution or epiphany to demonstrate the importance of what’s happening. Not only that, but the acceptance of, and demand for, story arc structure places a renewed emphasis on the importance of closure on threads, arcs and plots, and that means that the idea of your two lead characters not addressing their mutual attraction ends up being far more unsatisfying than whatever potential outcome could come from ‘fessing up to each other. If those responsible for shows would be damned if they do, they’d almost certainly be far more damned if they don’t.

If Castle‘s creators lose faith in the wisdom of their leads getting together, they only have to look to Fox for inspiration. That network’s own Will-They-Won’t-They murder series, Bones, finally took the plunge itself at the end of the 2010-2011 season, allowing the spectacularly named Temperance Brennan and Seeley Booth to not only consummate their relationship, but have a kid together as a result without massively derailing the show. (Admittedly, the real-life pregnancy of Emily Deschanel, who plays Brennan, may have played more than a small role in the decision making there.) The trick for Bones — and for Castle, too — is in admitting one truth that very often gets ignored in fiction for the purposes of happy endings: Those sparky, bantering relationships don’t suddenly change dynamics just because you sleep together; they just get more complicated. If Castle manages to repeat Bones‘ success with moving its two leads into a committed relationship without dulling either character’s edge, then perhaps we can finally conclude that the Curse of Moonlighting has gone the way of the Curse of the Bambino.

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