It was a cultural reset. This is a phrase casually thrown around on the Internet nowadays amongst Gen Z, and some Millennials, when discussing a piece of art that has assisted in critically defining an era of media. A prime example of this is when Twilight by Stephenie Meyer first started flying off the shelves around 2007. This young adult novel opened hundreds of doors for what would become a years-long bout of new supernatural romances, whether they included brooding teenage vampires or some other blooding-sucking hybrid to appeal to hungry young audiences. Twilight was, truly, a cultural reset for its time.
The 1980s is, by far, one of those decisive decades that paved the way for modern culture. The clothing, the film style, the change in societal standards—nothing on Earth was capable of remaining prone to these colorful, exciting years. A tone was set, one that would echo across time well into our current twenty-first century.
Much like Twilight was to the 2000s, a little dramedy called Moonlighting would become a different kind of reboot for its period, running from ‘85 to ‘89.
One day, years ago, after watching an infuriating episode of my favorite television show at the time, I typed the words slow burn into my search engine, fuming at the fact that I was being led on by some Hollywood writers posted up in thousand-square-foot offices. This was a term I had learned from Tumblr, where fandom culture was running so amok at the time that peak television was being awarded to an angel and his grumpy hunting companion1. However, I was pleasantly surprised when one of the first search results I received painted a vivid picture of something called The Moonlighting Curse. I, of course, became intrigued since the image attached was of John McClane2 and Shawn Spencer’s mom3 from Psych, both playing characters from some show I had never heard of. I clicked the article head and began reading.
Urban dictionary defines this curse as:
“When the will-they-won’t-they couple on a TV show finally gets together… and it ruins the show. (Derived from the 1980’s TV show Moonlighting, whose ratings declined to the point of cancellation after the main characters finally resolved their sexual tension)”
To catch those of us up to speed who have not watched all five seasons of this industry-defining program, the basic storyline goes like this: a former model (Shepherd) is strapped for cash after her accountant does her dirty. She reluctantly partners up with a private detective (Willis) after she’s left as an owner of his failing agency. The two decide to make the business work, named Blue Moon Investigations, and it launches into full-blown dramedy goodness from there. This show is heralded for helping perfect the genre, as well as spearheading the now-iconic dynamic of sexual tension between two leading characters.
Moonlighting was popular for its time and had wildly successful first seasons. Audiences raved over the budding relationship between Willis’ and Shepherd’s characters, named David and Maddie respectively. The anticipation surrounding the eventual consummation of the two scaled to new heights with every episode that passed, especially as it continued to not happen. Although, yes, television had dabbled in storylines like this previously, with couples being built to climactic moments in order to deliver that sweet, sweet satisfaction, there was something fresh and delightful about Maddie and David. Because of the up-and-coming feel to the genre and the care and attention put into the leads’ story with each other, it seemed like Moonlighting was something new and different. Like nothing viewers had seen before.
“It’s like the writers saw it as a possibility to explore something that had yet to be explored,” my mother told me when I asked her about it.
Since I, a stereotypical child of the 90s, did not grow up with this show as my go-to after school obsession, it felt only right to call up my mom, Amie, who watched Moonlighting when it aired.
“I don’t know what their initial intention was, but David and Maddie’s relationship is what the show became about.” Amie, like myself, is a fond viewer and dedicated fan of various television shows. If there’s one thing of note that she passed on to me, it’s her obsessive personality. “Because of that, it changed when they got together. It felt like the whole point was leading up to them—like the sexual tension was the whole point.”
Hearing this reiterated from a close personal source forced me to ask again: why?
Writing a television program takes time, effort, storyboarding, drafting, crafting, brainstorming—the list goes on and on. The simplest decisions about characters or plots have to be approved by what seems like dozens of people before it can actually, officially be decided. Plus, to top it off, there’s never a guarantee of longevity in the industry. When a pilot is greenlit and a story is going to be told, there’s no promise of it continuing past just one season. “It sometimes seems like the writers aren’t thinking long term,” my mom had chimed in with when we slid into this part of our conversation. “Maybe they never planned on getting these characters together, but because of outside pressure—whether that be the network or the fans—they felt they had to. Especially once enough time had passed.”
This brings up an interesting point. How blurry is the line between expectations and projections? When did the writers’ own hopes and desires for the show start losing traction when compared with that of the audience?
It seems pretty clear that the team behind Moonlighting was always set on establishing David and Maddie as a couple. What wasn’t as cut and dry, it seemed, was how and when.
“It’s like the show didn’t know how to write them so the tension remained. They assumed that it just always would,” Amie said when I mentioned this. “They knew how to write them separate. Not together.”
Outside factors come into play, inevitably, when a show’s ratings begin to decline. It’s hard to pinpoint a catalyst or trigger-point that gets people to turn off their television sets. Sometimes it can be certain actors leaving the program, new characters being introduced, obviously underdeveloped plot lines, or maybe even social commentary surrounding the show. A clear indication can’t always be found. So why is it that we’re so quick to blame the demise of a show on a romantic subplot, despite the push for it?
Too often in visual media we bear witness to the uncertain energy that comes from the writer’s room once they finally decide to give eager fans exactly what has been asked for. Almost as if, by default, they know too much was built up and are afraid of giving too little. It’s not until we, as viewers, are in too deep that the writers realize they’re drowning with us.
As we’ve already stated, getting a television show off the ground takes quite a bit of effort and planning. If this is the case, and the audience is aware of how tumultuous this process is, then why are we subjugated over and over again to the shortcomings of poor character-handling?
Countless examples exist of slow burn couples receiving incredible treatment for seasons upon seasons. In some cases, that’s all we receive as those ships are never given full realization. Yet this treatment only lasts for so long: once that first kiss, first love scene, or first real discussion of feelings is written into canon, all ability to figure out what comes next appears to fly out the window. Almost like every group of writers put into this situation just collectively shrug their shoulders and say, “Now what?”
Fandom culture has thrived and grown so much due to online communities, which is something showrunners are aware of nowadays. There’s always the question of what kind of viewership they might gain by greenlighting a specific kind of television program, but the part they might not be willing to admit is how they themselves crave such a fanbase. Yes, fandom culture can be toxic, harrowing, and unnecessary in certain ways, but the reason shows achieve a sense of durability is because of the audience who chooses to love it. We all remember how the sci-fi adventure series Firefly5 managed to get an enormous cult following after it had already been cancelled, all because of the early days of the Internet and word-of-mouth discussions. There is not a single showrunner or network who would claim to not want this for their product.
And yet, a distaste for dedicated viewers still cultivates in writer’s rooms. Because fans of shows will analyze, pick apart, and dissect every second of their favorite program, they can say with certainty that they know the characters and their motivations. So, when a decision is made for a character or plot line that seems a bit off-kilter, those audiences will have something to say about it, unapologetically. Once that opinion is posted online for all other audience members to see, the snowball effect takes it from there.
During Moonlighting’s time, however, this phenomenon wasn’t quite as potent. There wasn’t a world wide web for folks to log onto after watching the newest episode where they could air out their frustrations and musings. The only tool at their disposal was their remote control and a decision of whether or not to use it to turn on the television.
The decline in the show’s ratings was attributed to the sealing of Maddie and David’s fate, when they finally gave in to their sexual chemistry. The writers provided the audience, and the meta of their own show, exactly what was wanted and expected, then twisted that relieved desire on its head by theorizing that the viewers were no longer interested. Exactly how true is that?
When fans want something, they will stick around. Most viewers who have formed attachments (unhealthy or healthy) to pieces of media will most likely agree with this sentiment: even if the show’s quality has declined, even if the writing isn’t as good as it once was, we stay until we get the satisfying conclusion we want. That doesn’t necessarily mean when two actors kiss, fornicate, or something else to that extreme. Audience members want to feel validated for having spent considerable amounts of time consuming something. If we have to wait for it, we wait. If we have to feel shame for it, we feel it.
This notion that fans become apathetic towards a television show once the sexual tension is absolved creates a conception that audiences want to sit through seasons upon seasons of the tired “will-they-won’t-they” trope. Yes, we want to be on the edge of our seats, waiting for the next shoe to drop, but not so we can finally click off and never come back. We will always want to come back, as long as the content we originally clocked-in for continues being produced well.
Let’s return to what my mom said before: “It’s like the show didn’t know how to write them so the tension remained. They assumed that it just always would. They knew how to write them separate. Not together.”
The first step in erasing this curse that mars a potential ship is examining the ultimate end-goal. Are the writers dedicated to this pair seeing the light of the day? Is this a ploy to gain an audience but not something they are willing to put thought and stock into? How are they going to continue writing the characters once the tension is resolved? Will the tension ever be resolved? What is the plan?
Writing a television show is no small feat. Developing characters, understanding them and their dynamics with others, is a daunting task. One that not too many people are willing to take on, lest they disappoint viewers. Moonlighting had all the building blocks for a defining shift in television; they were just knocked down before they could tower high.
The show will remain a bright point in history for various reasons. The careers of its stars, the influence on programs that followed, the roadmap it laid out for character dynamics, and much more. There’s always going to be that question of how differently it might have gone had a different direction been taken. One where an end of the tunnel was set, not blindly searched for. Audiences, and the production, would have been better off that way.
A slow burn shouldn’t leave a scar. David/Maddie are one ship, out of many, that wasn’t managed with caution, that touched the skin for too long. A flame that wasn’t stoked as long as it could have been. Where there’s a simmer, a heat, meant to help remember and yearn, being snuffed out too fast.
Looking forward, let’s see what kind of other marks can be left behind.
1 – The CW’s Supernatural (2005-2020)
2 – Lead character, played by Willis, from the Die Hard franchise
3 – Madeleine Spencer, played by Cybill Shepherd
4 – Slow Burn AO3 Meme courtesy of awwmemes.com
5 – FOX’s Firefly (2002)
Gaudioso, Amie. (2021, October 21) Interview with the author.
Tropes, T. V. (2014, January 12). Moonlighting curse. Urban Dictionary. Retrieved October 21, 2021, from https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=moonlighting+curse.
Wikimedia Foundation. (2021, October 12). Moonlighting (TV series). Wikipedia. Retrieved October 21, 2021, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moonlighting_(TV_series).