Debunking The Moonlighting Curse

If you have ever read an article about Bones, Castle, Friends or How I Met Your Mother, chances are you have heard of something called the Moonlighting curse. At least once a year I read a blurb in the Entertainment Weekly that quotes some producer saying he doesn’t want to get his “Dave” and “Maddie” together because he doesn’t want to be Moonlighting.

Network executives fear that what happened once Dave and Maddie finally made the leap in March 1987, in an episode called “I am Curious….Maddie,” will happen to their series. That episode, by the way, was its highest rated episode. I remember being thrilled with this 4 part story arc that ended with what we had been waiting for 2 years. “Be My Baby” played and so did our favorite characters.

After that episode, Moonlighting never drew that kind of audience again and two years later the show went off in a ratings whimper. So doesn’t that mean that the executives were correct? Getting your two main characters together is the kiss of death ratings wise and creatively? Of course that isn’t what it means; otherwise, I wouldn’t have anything to write about.

Before I get into defending the decision, let’s just take a look at how much television has changed since 1987. Moonlighting only waited 2 years or 38 episodes until the great Glenn Gordon Caron, executive producer, decided to get the couple together. Heck, I bet Bones and Booth didn’t even hug in the first 38 episodes of Bones. Now, writers put it off and off and off until the realtionship is totally fake and we, the viewers, are over caring about the couples. I just love the naivety of the time that they thought, “Hmm, its been 38 Episodes we better get them together.” I think one of the reasons I love Battlestar Galactica and The Wire, is they move the characters and the story. A true writer isn’t intimidated by the characters changing and growing; they are inspired by it. Executives and business men want stability and no changes; writers and artists want risks and growth.

The part of the story that is left out of every article written about the so-called Moonlighting curse is that Cybill Sheperd was bed ridden during her pregnancy with twins. Bruce Willis went off to make Die Hard and injured his leg in a skiing accident. In fact, when they filmed their famous sex scene, Cybill was pregnant so they filmed the scene standing up. The set designer built a sheet on the wall to make it appear as though they were laying in bed. After filming this episode, they had to let Cybill leave the series for a bit. Even the great writers of the world could not continue that show without either actor available to film. So, the front half of Season 4 is full of episodes that Bruce and Cybill are not in together. They filmed all of Cybill’s scenes during the summer hiatus before she was bed ridden and then worked those scenes in.

Separating the stars from each other never creates appointment television. This idea didn’t work in Three’s Company when they had Suzanne Summers phone in her scenes to Jack and Janet and it didn’t work in Moonlighting. We don’t want to watch our characters call each other. This meant that in March, they had sex and the audience had to wait till the next February until the characters were together again. Today, waiting that long isn’t without precedence. So, the writers made a huge mistake. They tried to do the show with David not having a partner. I believe if they would have brought in someone to take Cybill’s place for a half season story arc, Moonlighting would have been fine. Even more so, whether Dave and Maddie did it or not, the show would not have kept the ratings high missing half of the duo. So, the true curse has nothing to do with the characters getting together and everything to do with making creative choices and using your cast well.

I believe that once Cybill returned from maternity leave and Bruce returned from Yippee Ki-Aying, the show went back to what it was. I would match Season 4 and 5 episodes: Track Of My Tears, Maddie Hayes Got Married, A Womb With A View, Shirts & Skins and Lunar Eclipse with any of the episodes of its apex. The show didn’t know how to react to not having its stars. You can’t blame the writers for that. ABC should have closed down production until they could both be back.I know that idea is funnier than a David Addison one liner because no network cares if quality stays up, just money. And in defense of season 4, I think “Cool Hand Dave Part 2,” is one of the most creative hours of television ever. Had they filled those first 9 episodes of Season 4 with creativity like that, Moonlighting would have kept the ratings. Part of it is adapting and part of it is network pressure. It would be interesting to know what really went on behind closed doors. I would love for this to be my next book.
Let’s take a look at what happens when you don’t consummate your characters when the time is correct. I would bet that everyone who loves Friends, remembers when Phoebe says, that Ross is Rachel’s Lobster in the season 2 episode The One With The Prom Video. But who really remembers how they got together in the final episode? I mean they already had a kid and now we are supposed to care? It just isn’t true to the characters. By the end of Friends, Ross had become such a shell of what his character started out as that you couldn’t possibly think he should have ended up with Rachel. I actually bought Rachel and Joey more.

That is something I never would have thought after watching that Season 2 episode where Jennifer Aniston crosses the room to kiss David Schwimmer. The audience screamed and everyone at home swelled. By Season 10, you were more interested in other characters. In fact, I would say Monica and Chandler are the true couple to care about in Friends and they broke all the rules of what producers are doing. They got together behind our backs and the show only improved after they coupled it up. We watched them date, marry and have kids just like we do with our real friends. The idea that a character like David Addison would pursue someone for years and years and never succeed takes away his cool factor and turns him into . . . well someone like Ross.

So, the next time you read an article that tells you that the producers are trying to avoid the Moonlighting Curse, remember that means they are trying to stop their lead actress from getting pregnant, their lead actor from landing the best action movie role ever, and their writers from using life circumstances to enhance their show. Two characters should get together when the story dictates, not when ratings do and that is exactly what Glenn Gordon Caron did.

Listen to Scott Interview Glenn Gordon Caron.

SCOTT RYAN IS THE AUTHOR OF THIRTYSOMETHING AT THIRTY:AN ORAL HISTORY, THE MANAGING EDITOR OF THE BLUE ROSE MAGAZINE. FOR MORE INFORMATION CLICK HERE.