Perhaps you’ve heard of the Moonlighting Curse. The idea that once a couple gets together on a tv show it ruins either the relationship or the show entirely.
It began, of course, with Moonlighting which starred Cybill Shepherd and Bruce Willis. Their bickering and sexual tension carried the show for 3 seasons. And then they got together, ratings plummeted and an incredibly popular show died a quick and painful death (supposedly – there’s actually another fascinating take on the show’s demise but this isn’t that post). This isn’t about the truth, it’s about the perception.
Writers love having a couple that clearly belongs together, that snipes and flirts with witty banter. Audiences love it. But because of the Moonlighting Curse, the writers come up with excuse after excuse to keep the couple apart.
The problem isn’t really that the couple gets together. The problem is that the writers don’t understand what they’re working with and how to manage it.
The problem is conflict.
When a show is built on the conflict between the characters the story is never really about the bad guy of the week. So, you have to do one of two things – let their coming together be the last episode or maneuver the conflict out from between the characters. Because if the couple gets together and all you have left is the bad guy of the week, you don’t have much.
Or play it in reverse. Don’t build the show on the conflict between the characters. Make the story conflict (the conflict that’s bigger and more interesting than a bad guy of the week) something external to the relationship. Something that both creates conflict between the characters (but not the big conflict – the bad guy of the week sort of conflict that comes and goes) and that also sometimes pushes them closer together. This is how Once Upon a Time breaks the Moonlighting Curse.
Snow and Charming start out separated. Sort of. In the first season there’s a ton of conflict keeping them apart but the flashbacks get the viewer rooting for them. Not because their names are Snow White and Prince Charming (in other words because we’re supposed to) but because for all the trolls and comas and wives and murder and fighting curses they’re better together than they are apart.
Later seasons leverage their strength as a couple working together. And also pull them apart again and again and the conflict is to find their way back to each other. Or the conflict is a curse or a villain or losing their memories again! (seriously.) When they’re together they are even stronger and the story thrives.
But wait, you say, that’s a totally different dynamic.
Yes, yes it is. My point is that it works. It’s more than possible to have a couple come together and work well depending on where you anchor the conflict of the story.
And you can still have a bantering couple that comes together and the show stays interesting… like Hook and Emma. Totally opposed in the beginning. Fighting against each other. All bickering and tension that’s almost flirting. Then fighting with each other. Then fighting for each other. The relationship moved and the show still worked – because the conflict between them was an accent, not the story itself.
And that’s the point. Not that couples can’t get together. Or that you shouldn’t center a show around a bantering couple. But that you should know where you’re centering your conflict so you can deliver the best story possible.