Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Moonlighting Curse (It's Just Sloppy Writing)

On Saturday, I linked to an article where Jeff Davis from Teen Wolf was interviewed about the most popular couple on his show: Derek and Stiles. It was a bit funny that they were interviewing him about this, because Derek and Stiles aren’t actually a couple. They aren’t even friends. What they are is two characters who usually can’t stand each other but have fantastic chemistry. And so, the fans want them to get it on.

Nothing in there is particularly interesting, or unusual, except for Davis’ reason why he won’t put the two characters together anytime soon. He’s afraid of the Moonlighting curse.

If you’re not aware, the Moonlighting curse refers to the late 1980s show Moonlighting, where Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd were wisecracking PIs who fell in love. Eventually, the show decided to let their characters get together, and the show was shortly thereafter cancelled because people stopped caring. They had what they came for, and now they were done.

Except, I don’t think it’s nearly as simple as that.

The Moonlighting curse is a myth, and it covers up something that’s a lot harder to easily diagnose, but just as deadly to a show. It’s really just bad writing.

There are two mistakes that go into a show that ends up “cursed”. First, they wrote a show where the principle romantic tension was the only thing keeping the storyline going. And, second, they were not able to be creative enough to find another source of tension once the romance was resolved.

Those are both stupid things to do.

In terms of writing errors, letting yourself fall to the Moonlighting curse means that you’re not thinking ahead of your character’s actions. You have not planned for the series and where it will eventually go. It’s like Prison Break. The first season of that show is amazing, and really one of the best things I’ve seen on television. But then they broke out of prison in season two, and it went downhill from there. The central tension of the show was gone, and so was any reason to keep watching it. They didn’t think ahead.

This is the type of thing that serial dramas worry about. It’s what killed Twin Peaks and threatens Revenge, and its inverse is what doomed Heroes and The Killing (just because you don’t have a secondary conflict in place doesn’t mean you should drag out the current one as long as possible).

But, like I said, it’s all just sloppy writing in the end. What’s worth looking at is the shows that have managed to have their cake and eat it too.

Here, I’m talking about shows like Leverage and Bones. Or Supernatural, if we’re looking at stories in general.

In Leverage, there are two different will-they-won’t-they storylines, and both had been resolved before we even started this most recent season. In fact, both have been pretty much resolved for a while now. How did they do that?

The first romance is Nate and Sophie, the former investigator and the con he kept chasing. They have a spark the first time you see them, but Nate is still too caught up in his own grief and the dissolution of his marriage to give it a fair shot. Eventually, though, he does, and they get together.

So what keeps it from getting boring? Well, Nate and Sophie are both complex mildly insane people. Their relationship is interesting because they are interesting. When Nate falls into a blackhole of drinking despair, Sophie doesn’t leave him, she pulls, prods and eventually shouts him out of it. When Sophie gets insecure about the layers of con artist around her that make it hard for her to see herself, Nate reminds her that she is not only amazing, but that he can see the real her and always has. They stay interesting because their relationship doesn’t negate all of the conflicts in their lives, it just means they deal with them together.

The second relationship is pretty similar. Parker and Hardison make a strange pair, if only because he’s an upstanding young hacker and she’s a mostly feral thief with only a tenuous grasp on reality. Watching Hardison pine for Parker was hard, but it made sense because at that point in the story she couldn’t even conceive of returning romantic feelings. Seeing Parker start to return Hardison’s feelings without having any way of rationalizing them to herself was equally hard. You really felt for her and her confusion at the world.

So seeing them finally get their stuff together was good. It was really good. It meant that Parker was starting to heal and that Hardison was growing up and respecting her boundaries. But being in a relationship didn’t make them boring. Not even close. Parker still doesn’t understand people, Hardison still doesn’t know how to explain them to her, and they both have a lot of growing to do.

That’s how you make it work.

Bones had it a little harder, actually, because that show actually was built a bit around the chemistry of the two leads, and the question of their eventual romance.

But here’s the thing. It stopped being a question sometime in the fourth season. It was an inevitability. And the writers could see that. So what they did (and this was brilliant) was create external forces that could create tension when the romance was consummated. So the show stayed interesting (actually got more interesting, really), and the couple was allowed to get together and even have a kid.

Finally, there’s Supernatural. Like I said, this one’s not a romance (I mean, it’s a love story about family, but there’s really very little romance in it). It makes the list because the conflict on the show was structured in such a way that the show never started feeling stale. Trust me, that is incredibly hard to pull off.

In the first season of Supernatural, the boys are hunting a demon that killed their mother and Sam’s girlfriend Jessica. At the end of season one, they find it, but it kills their dad and escapes. So in season two, they’re still hunting the same thing, but they have a lot more motivation and more information about it to go on. At the end of season two, they kill it.

And the question was, now what? If they’ve killed the thing that started the show, shouldn’t it be over now?

No. Not if you’re a good writer. And the people at Supernatural are excellent writers.

You see, to kill the demon at the end of season two, Dean had to make a deal with another demon. That deal became the overarching plot for season three. Then at the end of season three, Dean died. Show wasn’t over because he came back to life at the beginning of season four, only now with a holy mission and an angel on his shoulder. This caused Sam to go a bit nuts and accidentally start the apocalypse, which meant that season five was spent trying to kill the devil.

You see what I’m getting at?

Now, aside from the mindfuck at the end of season five, where you realize that literally everything they have ever done on the show was leading them to this point (and seriously, I needed aspirin after that one), the writing really kept everything going. Every resolution was actually just a key to bigger problems. Kill the devil? Well, now you have to deal with the restructuring of hell and all the monsters that he was keeping suppressed. Kill the mother of all monsters? Whoops, you accidentally opened a portal to monsterland and let out the Leviathan.

I think you get my point.

What I’m saying through all of this is that the only limitations you have as a writer are the ones you put on yourself and your story. If you say that your story can keep going, even if the main character dies, then congratulations, you’ve just enabled yourself to write MI-5 or Doctor Who. If you say that romance doesn’t have to kill the tension, then you’re writing Castle. There is always a way through. This isn’t the Kobayashi Maru. There’s always a way out.

And maybe if people understood this, we wouldn’t be stuck with so many shows that seem to buckle under their own weight. Gilmore Girls went into a swan dive after season five largely because everyone thought it would. The writers weren’t prepared for how Luke and Lorelai getting together would change the dynamic, so they couldn’t make the show interesting now that they had. There was still plenty of stuff to write about in those last seasons, but it was hard to watch the writers killing the couple because they didn’t know how to write it.

It’s what we thought had happened on How I Met Your Mother. Barney and Robin finally got together, but their romance only lasted a few episodes until the show killed it. Why? So that they could have a more fulfilling and sustained relationship later on. One that (SPOILERS) we know ends in marriage.

What it comes down to is planning. If you haven’t planned out a story, you shouldn’t be writing it. It really is that simple. If you don’t know what to do after two characters do the nasty, or when they break out of prison, or when they beat the bad guy, then you need to get cracking before they do. And if you’ve written a story so thin and transparent that it folds once the two leads kiss?

Let’s just say I don’t have much sympathy for you.

I like to pretend that Prison Break was tragically cancelled after its first season. You should watch that season. Tragic.


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  3. Wow, I agree on the title and the premise of the article in general, but OMG- did you have to insult Prison Break like that? xD I actually got hooked by s2 of that series, without haven't even seen the first.. but I can agree that s3 & s4 just what waayy off the tracks! I still need to see the new s5 from the other year.. hope no one else has died!! (& there are rumors of an ~s6)

    Of the other shows mentioned, I only really watch Supernatural, & I cannot believe it's still on, lol. I think the biggest "will they / won't they" factor of that series, is "will the Winchester boys ever find happiness?!" & now with Castiel having a literal "curse" attached to said impossible "true contentment".. argh. Just chill with the "internal drama" already! Keep it ~external, please, because that is really the best way to make it work.