(First of a 3-part Series on Television Romance)
Almost every other essay I write starts to skid into how romance on television landed where it currently rests: 'Shipping, OTP's, fears of a "Moonlighting Curse," and all.
It's time I just created a separate piece to which I can, in the future, simply link.
Behold my bailiwick, y'all. Especially the "romance" part, since I did my Master's thesis on the history of the modern romance novel (traced 'em back to preliterate cultures, thank you very much!) and joined the Romance Writers of America in 1984 (no, that's not a typo) and the majority of my published work has been romance novels or heroine-centric adventure with strong romantic subplots.
I am not, repeat, not involved in the television industry in any way… except the way that scares 'em. For I am a fan. Yes, short-for-fanatic. I've been so since H. R. Pufnstuf and The Banana Splits. My first Barbie doll was a Julia Doll (complete with nurse's outfit, ala Diahann Carroll). I've remained so, through Emergency and Charlie's Angels and Remington Steele to the present. And as a college lit instructor (Master's thesis, remember?) I analyze what I watch.
Especially the treatment of romantic pairings on primetime television.
TV Romance: The Early Years
Let's focus our definition of "romance," here. Not Cinemax (aka Skinemax). Not The Bachelor and other reality shows of its ilk. Not the status of backstage real-life pairings like Jesse Spencer and Jennifer Morrison (Chase and Cameron on House MD). Nope, let's concentrate on romance as found on primetime, scripted television series.
Romance may be the sharpest double-edged sword to hit a television series since, well… "in color."
I can guess what you're thinking. You're thinking: C'mon, Vaughn. Weren't there romances on television before color?
And I'm gonna blow your mind and answer, No. Not really. Barely before the 80's.
Not how we look at television romance, anyway.
Oh, sure. There were some great TV pairings in black and white. Ricky and Lucy Ricardo. Rob and Laura Petrie. Gomez and Morticia Addams ("'Tish! That's French!") But they were all happily married, as required—no television character could even consider divorce, back then. Even the couples who fought (Fred and Ethel Mertz of I Love Lucy, Ralph and Alice Kramden of The Honeymooners) had solid marriages. Just… loud solid marriages.
Even with unmarried characters, it wasn't the same as it is now. There weren't a lot of people tuning in to Leave it to Beaver or Father Knows Best to parse Wally or Betty's dating lives (what a cross-over that could have been!) My Three Sons had some nice romantic subplots with widowed dad Steve and the oldest of the four sons (it's complicated), but they didn't hold a lot of suspense. For romantic conflict, viewers still needed the daytime soap operas which, as serials, hardly ever provided happy endings… just, happy rest stops.
Move into color, in the 1960s and 1970s, and primetime televised romance still lacked the melodrama of today's story arcs. The first significant single working woman on television, Ann Marie in That Girl, had a steady boyfriend-then-fiancé, Donald Hollinger. Follow-up working girl, Mary Richards in The Mary Tyler Moore show, had no steady love interest at all. When the Cartwright boys fell in love, on Bonanza, the love story generally wrapped in one episode—often with death, hence The Cartwright Curse.
You just don't hear stories of fans saying, "I'm really bummed this was such a Ginger-centric episode; when are we going to get more Gilligan/Mary Ann time!?" (Hee—now I'm rocking portmanteau names for the warring 'ships—Team GilligAnn versus Team Gingigan, pronounced "Jinjigan"). While enthusiastic fans of Star Trek helped create what's now called participatory media, there was no canonical romance among the main cast (Sarek and Amanda count as secondary if not tertiary characters, technically if not emotionally).
So what happened to change things, you ask? (Go ahead. Ask it).
Nighttime soap operas happened, my friend—Dallas (1978), Knots Landing (1979), and Dynasty (1981). Like daytime soap operas, they rarely achieved any romantic closure, because happiness, by nature of a soap opera, must remain fleeting. Then, hard on their heels and borrowing heavily, came the world-changing Hill Street Blues (1981) and Cheers (1982).
Hill Street Blues introduced the idea of interwoven or "knitted" plotlines for a primetime television series, increasing characters and story arcs. Because each episode followed a single day, the characters and their relationships grew and morphed over time, requiring "next on" teasers at the end of each episode. And Cheers is one of the first shows to draw "elements of romance and soap opera into the sitcom format"--most blatantly in the on-again/off-again, will-they/won't-they, love/hate relationship between bar owner Sam Malone (Ted Danson) and over-educated waitress Diane Chambers (Shelley Long).
And everything went to hell.
The Moonlighting Myth*
Unfortunately, like Remington Steele and Scarecrow & Mrs. King before it, Moonlighting's ratings, then its existence, died a pretty miserable death not long after "will they or won't they?" became, "Yes. Yes, they did."
My gut recognized a fallacious causal analogy long before I knew the words "fallacious causal analogy." Remington Steele and Laura Holt didn't hook up until their show had pretty much called it quits (drained largely by the emotional gymnastics maintaining the characters' continued abstinence). Scarecrow secretly married Mrs. King one season from the last, but the subsequent drop in ratings more likely came from star Kate Jackson's health problems, which kept Mrs. King-Scarecrow from appearing in most of the final-season. And Moonlighting?
Dave and Maddie "did it" in the 2nd-to-the-last episode of season 3, "I am Curious… Maddie." Viewers raved.
Cut to September 1987 and the highly anticipated start of Season 4—in which the characters weren't even in the same place! Dave and Maddie don't reunite until February '88—by which point Maddie had married some guy she met on a train.
Not because it made sense from a storytelling standpoint, mind you. This was all blatant plot manipulation caused by external forces.
See, not long after Dave and Maddie's most excellent consummation, the actors refused to work together. Cybill Shepherd got pregnant. With twins. Suddenly what used to be a campy show about a mismatched couple solving mysteries became a show about a confused pregnant woman who runs off to live with her parents, leaving the man who loves her pining and trying to solve mysteries and resulting in far too many episodes featuring their goofy sidekicks, Agnes Dipesto and Herbert Viola.
Really. Agnes, the secretary, and Herbert, the accountant. Hand to God.
How can anyone with two brain cells to rub together not see that all this, and the resulting lack of audience confidence, and the March 1988 Writers Guild strike is what brought down Moonlighting? How can anyone blame the sex?!
My theory? It's to maintain an illusion of control. Show runners can't avoid actor egos or writer's strikes. But they can decide when and if characters in a ratings-popular relationship consummate that romance. So to pretend the monsters aren't there, someone created the Moonlighting Curse.
This "Curse"—fear of which has destroyed more onscreen romance through external plot manipulation than anything else in television history—is a MYTH!
(Go to PART 2, Here)