Fear of ‘Moonlighting’: The Consequences of Refusing to Commit
What is “moonlighting”? Also known as “Shipping Bed Death”, it’s the phenom by which the audience loses interest in a story after the main couple finally gets together. The anticipation of characters becoming an item is believed to be more interesting to viewers than the actual conclusion of the romantic arc; the conflict that permeates a “will they/won’t they” relationship naturally disappears once the couple finally decides they will.
Exacerbating the problem is the fact that many writers don’t know how to successfully write a happy, healthy relationship; believing that internal conflict is the only way to maintain audience investment, the characters undergo just as much drama while together as they did apart.
Here’s the thing about the moonlighting curse: it’s not a real thing.
Audiences who become invested in a story primarily because of the potential for a relationship between two characters (also called “shippers”) have a rough go of it: in many cases, either tantalizing hints of a romance will be dropped but never capitalized on throughout the entire run of a TV show in order to maintain a level of anticipation, only to receive the satisfaction of the “happily ever after” at the very end — and sometimes not even that; or the couple will get together earlier on but be thrown apart continuously by manufactured drama, until the characters themselves are unrecognizable or the relationship is no longer worth investing in.
Creators who are unwilling to forgo the tension of a will they/won’t they relationship for the satisfaction of finally allowing two characters to get together run the risk of stagnating their plot (because there are only so many places characters can go if you refuse to move them forward), losing the interest of your audience (who become impatient if a slowburn ship is dragged out too long), and/or ruining a relationship that is the foundation of the show (because if romantic tension isn’t resolved by committing to a relationship, it tends to dissipate unsatisfactorily).
Many, many couples have fallen victim to the idea that happy couples make for bad TV, or that constant drama is needed to keep a relationship interesting. Mindy and Danny (The Mindy Project), Ross and Rachel (Friends), Arizona and Callie (Grey’s Anatomy), Blair and Chuck (Gossip Girl) and Damon and Elena (The Vampire Diaries) are all examples of relationships that happened relatively early and ultimately ended up being the endgame, but with so much drama in the middle that rooting for them in the end became impossible.
On Teen Wolf, Stiles and Lydia share their first kiss in the third season but then, when the writers were unwilling to commit to the relationship so soon, were kept apart until the show’s final season. Although technically dating in Season 6, their screen time was extremely limited due to Dylan O’Brien’s other filming obligations, there was no emotional payoff, and the series ends on an extremely underwhelming note for the couple.
Bones and Booth on Bones suffered through six seasons of a will they-won’t they relationship before finally getting together; although the couple were married for a number of seasons, the manner of them getting together was underwhelming, by skipping out on the resolution to the tension entirely and jumping ahead to when they were already domestic.
Likewise, Mulder and Scully of The X-Files have an extremely drawn out slowburn of a relationship (with the showrunner even going so far as to claim that there would never be a romance between them), finally becoming romantic in Season 7. However, unlike with Bones and Booth, Mulder and Scully’s happily ever after didn’t last forever; the couple split up offscreen sometime between the old series and the beginning of the new one, and the end of Season 11 (which is likely also the end of the series) doesn’t provide a satisfactory resolution to their relationship.
Starbuck and Apollo on Battlestar Galactica were soulmates who had a deep and admitted love for each other — including “one night that lasted forever”; their relationship was passionate in both its love and anger, and they were more vulnerable with each other than they could be with anyone else. A relationship of such a strong nature unsurprisingly attracted a large number of viewers, but it was never capitalized on and fizzled to an unsatisfying end.
The one that sits closest to my heart and stings the most is Bellamy and Clarke on The 100. The 100 has been my favourite show for a handful of years now, Bellamy and Clarke have been among my favourite characters, and the relationship between them has been, without a doubt, one of the best things about the series.
Originally at odds, Bellamy and Clarke bonded over the fact that they became the de facto leaders of the Hundred — a group of under-aged criminals sent to Earth to see if it was survivable in the series premiere. Throughout the series, Bellamy and Clarke become extremely close, with a number of undeniably romantic cues teeing them up to become a couple at some point in the future.
And then Season 5 happened, using a six year time jump as an excuse to put Bellamy in a relationship with another woman and shattering everything about Bellamy and Clarke’s relationship that had made it special. It remains yet to be seen whether Bellamy and Clarke will ever get back to the same place they were in emotionally in the Season 4 finale, never mind progressing any further romantically. Even if they do become romantic in some distant future, it’s unclear whether all the waiting will have been worth it; many fans have become exhausted with the constant dragging out of the relationship and feel that their special bond has already been damaged beyond repair.
The perceived inability of a show to maintain a long-lasting relationship speaks more to the skill of the writer than it does to the disinterest of the viewers. Many shows have proven that they cannot only succeed but thrive when committing to their central couple before it’s too late in the game; fans of these pairings don’t simply disappear overnight after the couple becomes “canon” but instead continue to support them, watch for them, and take joy in their obvious love.
If you’re a character on a Mike Schur comedy, your odds of getting a happy ending are pretty high; Jim and Pam (The Office), Leslie and Ben (Parks and Recreation), and Jake and Amy (Brooklyn Nine-Nine) all had relationships that progressed naturally to dating and eventually to marriage, with minimal squabbles or manufactured drama along the way.
Barry and Iris of The Flash are the “Gold Standard” (according to Barry Allen himself) of the CW’s DCVerse. Best friends since childhood, the two harbour mutual romantic feelings for each other over the show’s first two seasons before getting together at the end of the second season. Barry and Iris face all the problems a superhero faces together, and even got married in the show’s fourth season. Their relationship has been the foundation of the show every season, something that is only enhanced by their marriage.
On Fringe, Peter and Olivia were the perfect example of a flawlessly written slowburn relationship. From colleagues to best friends and beyond, the romantic nature of their relationship is established in no uncertain terms at the end of Season 2. Pulled apart by circumstance in Seasons 3 and 4, they always manage to find their way back to each other; their love for each other is what saves them. After a long journey of fracturing and healing and reconnecting, they finally get their happy ending in the fifth season.
And it can be hard to find love in a post-apocalyptic wasteland like the one on The Walking Dead, but somehow Glenn and Maggie managed. They had a classic relationship that started in the second season and provided many of the show’s few happy moments; they were tender, humorous, and heartwarming. The two even get married, before Glenn meets his unfortunate end in the show’s seventh season. Even then, Glenn’s last words ensure that his love for Maggie — and her love for him — will continue on long after: “I’ll find you.”
Why did these couples succeed? Simple: the central conflict of the show was never about whether they would get together and so when they did, the show didn’t fall apart. A good writer will recognize that while there is obvious tension between two characters who are attracted to each other, that tension doesn’t just vanish when they get together, it just manifests differently.
There are ways to insert tension into a relationship without it resulting in a breakup or infidelity or some other heinous act that makes it difficult or impossible to root for the couple anymore. Or instead of using internal conflict, make the conflict external, and have the couple face it together. On Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Jake and Amy’s first fight is over a mattress — which was only a metaphor for each person’s uncertainty over their partner’s commitment to the relationship. On The Flash, Barry and Iris even go to couples counselling to solve their communication issues.
These are just a few examples of something that has become more common in recent years: the idea that love sells, just as well as anticipation does. People turn to TV for stories of hope and comfort, and would rather see themselves reflected in a relationship that is long-lasting and realistic than one with so many twists and turns that you lose sight of which way is up.
Here’s a message to all TV writers: yes, romantic tension is great — even essential — and can suck viewers into your story, but it has an expiry date. Your most passionate viewers will be borne from the potential of a relationship, but they are also the ones you risk turning against you should you waste that potential.
It’s not progressive or “edgy” to refuse to label a relationship as romantic or to avoid following the “obvious” storyline; the very reason people root for a romance is because the path towards it is well-lit and well-laid. And the rare chemistry between two actors which often leads to people shipping their characters isn’t something that should be squandered, it should be capitalized on.
As a writer, your first and only priority should be to the characters you’ve created and the relationships you’ve nurtured, not the conflict that drives them apart or the shock of an unexpected ending. Anything else is not only a disservice to the integrity of your show but to the fans, whose viewership and investment are what keeps it on the air.