Couple not together even though they clearly want to be? Lots of drama. Couple together? No more drama.
That, right there, is the gist of the oft-referenced Moonlighting curse. Moonlighting, a CBS dramedy from the late 80s, centered on a detective agency whose central duo (Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd) bickered like a screwball comedy couple mostly because they desperately wanted to have sex with each other. It was immensely popular, both critically and with viewers, despite attempting such bizarre, fourth-wall breaking moments that would put modern day oddball comedy Community to shame.
Then near the end of the show’s third season, the guy and gal finally had an epic make-out session, and viewers apparently found the sight so distasteful they abandoned the show and the ratings fell off the side of a cliff. As a result, any show which dares put a will-they-won’t-they couple together is thought to be placed on a surefire path toward tedious storytelling and dwindling ratings, thus the dreaded Moonlighting curse.
But is it really as simple as that? The creator of Moonlighting says the curse is total b.s. Several recent shows have actually thrived after putting a couple together.
So, let’s take a selected look at the history of the Moonlighting curse, listed from oldest to newest, starting with a show that actually predates Moonlighting:
Couple: Sam (Ted Danson) & Diane (Shelley Long), a dim-witted bartender and the erudite waitress with whom he constantly bickered
When Did They First Get Together?: The season one finale, “Showdown, Pt. 2,” in which Diane and Sam trade insults during an argument in his office before ending with one of the all-time classic exchanges in sitcom history:
- Sam: Are you as turned on as I am?
- Diane: More! [The two kiss passionately].
What Happened After They Got Together?: They stayed a couple for the entire second season before breaking up and spending the ensuing three seasons in an on-again/off-again holding pattern.
Did the Ratings Dip?: Nope. Quite the opposite. Viewership more than doubled, and by the time Shelley Long left after the fifth season Cheers was the third-most watched show on television. To be fair, not all of that can be attributed simply to the appeal of Sam & Diane.
Couple: David (Bruce Willis) & Maddie (Cybill Shepherd), partners in a private detective agency
When Did They First Get Together?: “I Am Curious…Maddie,” the penultimate episode of the third season.
What Happened After They Got Together?: They spent almost the entire fourth season separated from one another and worrying about their relationship. This was a by-product of the two actors having incompatible filming availability, Willis due to the first Die Hard and Shepherd due to pregnancy. David and Maddie resumed their will-they-won’t-they dance during the fifth and last season, only coming together again for an attempted marriage in the series finale in which they also confronted an ABC executive for canceling the show.
Did the Ratings Dip?: Yes; ratings dipped slightly in the fourth season before plummeting during the fifth season. Show creator/head writer Glenn Gordon Caron has argued ratings mostly fell because of the central characters rarely appearing together in the fourth season. Not surprisingly, he also thinks the network’s decision to fire him after the fourth season was a huge mistake. Plus, the 1988 writers strike that delayed the premiere of the fifth season sure didn’t help.
Cursed?: Yes and no. Caron’s arguments make sense, and point to the complex set of variables that influences a show’s ratings beyond mere romantic tension. However, numbers are numbers, and the ratings definitely went down post-first kiss.
Couple: Joe (Tim Daly) & Helen (Crystal Bernard), a fastidious pilot and the spunky lunch counter owner he’s known since childhood
When Did They First Get Together?: “Friends or Lovers” (S2, EP 8), in which Joe and Helen are tired of being alone and try to go out on a date together.
What Happened After They Got Together?: Second season finale break up, fifth season finale reunion, engaged during the sixth season, a married couple during the 7th and 8th seasons.
Did the Ratings Dip?: Yes; after they were put together for good at the beginning of the sixth season, the ratings dipped for each of the next three seasons, dropping the show out of the Nielsen top 30 by the end of its run.
Cursed?: Yes and no. The ratings definitely went down, but Wings is legendary for having been a timeslot hit, i.e., the thing people watched instead of changing the channel or turning off the TV after watching Cheers. The sixth season was their first season without Cheers as a lead-in since it finally ended its 11-season run in 1993. That’s what killed Wings – not Joe and Helen getting together. Plus, fan favorite Thomas Haden Church left the show at the beginning of the seventh season thus contributing to the ratings plunge.
4) Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman
Couple: Lois Lane (Teri Hatcher) & Clark Kent (Dean Cain)
When Did They First Get Together?: “The Phoenix” (S2, EP13), in which Lois and Clark try to have their first date
What Happened After They Got Together?: Clark proposed at the end of the second season, only to have Lois respond, “Who’s asking? Clark Kent or Superman?” as her way of admitting she had figured out his big secret. Their wedding was repeatedly delayed throughout the third season, so often that as an apology to fans they titled the fourth season episode featuring the actual wedding “Swear to God, This Time We’re Not Kidding.”
Did the Ratings Dip?: Yes and no; ratings hit all-time highs during the third season before tanking during the last season.
Cursed?: No. The ratings actually set show-record highs after the pair was finally coupled. So, it wasn’t so much the end of the will-they-won’t they tension that doomed the show, but instead the constant teasing and far too delayed follow through on the wedding.
5) Caroline in the City
Couple: Caroline (Lea Thompson) & Richard (Malcolm Gets), a Manhattan cartoonist and her employee, both of whom had various other alternate love interests to get past before ending up together
When Did They First Get Together?: “Caroline and the Secret Bullfighter, Pts. 1 and 2,” the third season finale in which Richard’s scheming wife Julia stepped aside since Richard actually loved Caroline.
What Happened After They Got Together?: They broke up after arguing over whether or not to have children, and she moved on to a different love interest. The series ended with Caroline’s wedding to her new spouse being interrupted by Richard, leaving on a never-resolved cliffhanger as to what would happen next.
Did the Ratings Dip?: Yes; the show only lasted for one season after the two were put together, dropping from the 47th most watched show to 91st.
Cursed?: Yes. It didn’t help that Thompson and Gets always felt more like a Will & Grace straight gal/gay buddy relationship than anything romantic.
Couple: Ross (David Schwimmer) & Rachel (Jennifer Aniston) – do you really not know who they are?
When Did They First Get Together?: “The One Where Ross Finds Out” (S2, EP 7), in which upon hearing a voicemail a drunken Rachel left for him Ross responds, “You’re over me? When were you…under me?” They got together for good six episodes later in “The One With the Prom Video.”
What Happened After They Got Together?: They kept breaking up and getting back together, most notably the first time when Ross and Rachel seriously disagreed over what it means when a couple decides to go on a break (hint: it doesn’t mean have sex with someone else that very night). The will-they-won’t-they with the two was so ever-present that they both married (Vegas wedding) and had a kid together (one night stand) before actually reuniting as a romantic couple in the series finale.
Did the Ratings Dip?: Awww, and might I add, hell no. Friends was among the 5 most watched shows on TV for all 10 of its seasons except the first, when it was #9. Plus, Monica and Chandler eventually supplanted Ross and Rachel as the show’s central couple.
Cursed?: No. The two actually made for an interesting and funny couple when they were together, and many of their post-break-up fights were among the finest of their type in sitcom history. However, the constant teasing of the sexual tension did officially achieve annoying status by the end.
Couple: Niles (David Hyde Pierce) & Daphne (Jane Leeves)
When Did They First Get Together?: “Something Blue, Something Borrowed” (S7, EP 24), in which Daphne leaves her fiance at the altar to run (technically drive) away with Niles.
What Happened After They Got Together?: They married each other a season later and managed to make it through a couple of truly regrettable storylines (Niles’ cancer scare, Daphne’s bout with over-eating to hide Jane Leeves’ real-life pregnancy).
Did the Ratings Dip?: Yes; the season (seventh) in which the will-they-won’t-they was foregrounded the most (Daphne engaged, Niles has a serious girlfriend, Daphne finds out about Niles’ crush on her) made Frasier among the 6 most watched shows on primetime television that season. When Daphne and Niles were put together for season 8, they lost nearly 5 million viewers, and 11 spots on the Nielsen season ratings chart. Each subsequent season continued this downward slide.
Cursed?: Yes; they went straight from their most-watched season to their second least watched season in their history to that point. Niles and Daphne were simply sometimes too difficult to believe as an actual couple. However, the actual quality of the show arguably remained relatively strong except for its incredibly regrettable 10th season. The show’s longevity likely also factored into the audience erosion.
Couple: Ed (Tom Cavanagh), a bowling alley owner/pro-bono lawyer & Carol (Julie Bowen), Ed’s high school crush who grew up to be an English teacher at their old school.
When Did They First Get Together?: “The Decision” (S3, EP 22), in which Ed’s girlfriend Frankie (Sabrina Lloyd) and Carol give Ed an ultimatum, and in the episode’s final moments he chooses Carol over Frankie.
What Happened After They Got Together?: They remained a happy couple throughout the fourth season, marrying each other in the series finale.
Did the Ratings Dip?: Yes; the fourth and final season, the first focused on Carol and Ed as a couple, was easily the least viewed season of the show. It dropped from #49 on the Nielsen ratings chart to #76, a loss of nearly 2 million viewers.
Cursed?: Yes. Things between Ed and Carol were simply a little too happy for the show’s own good.
Couple: J.D. (Zach Braff) & Elliot (Sarah Chalke), both medical doctors who met while beginning their residencies at the same hospital
When Did They First Get Together?: “My Bed Banter & Beyond” (S1, EP 15), in which the first month of their doomed relationship is framed in constant flashbacks to the first day which they spent constantly having sex.
What Happened After They Got Together?: They kept breaking up and getting back together, Elliot almost marrying another guy and J.D. having a kid with a different girl. They were finally on-again for good in the 8th season before appearing in a recurring manner as a married couple in the final, quasi-spin-off season set at medical school.
Did the Ratings Dip?: Yes and no; the ratings dipped considerably for every season of the show past its third, but this is generally more attributable to Zach Braff fatigue (damn you, Garden State!) and the show’s whimsical nature having a limited window of appeal.
Cursed?: No; the two were put together so late in the show’s run most people had already stopped watching anyway, after having seen the two torpedo each other’s competing romantic relationships one too many times along the way.
10) The Office
Couple: Jim (John Krasinski) & Pam (Jenna Fischer), office mates who fell in love
When Did They First Get Together?: “Casino Night” (S2, EP 22), in which Jim makes his first move on Pam before getting together for good exactly one season later in “The Job” (S3, EP25).
What Happened After They Got Together?: They stayed together for good, marrying each other and having two kids by the end of the series, only experiencing marital difficulties in the final season.
Did the Ratings Dip?: Yes and no; the ratings dipped, albeit just barely, during the fourth season, the first to feature Jim and Pam together as a permanent couple. By the fifth season, the ratings rebounded to a series high with an average of 9 million viewers per episode. Around the time Pam & Jim got married in the sixth season is when the weekly ratings started to significantly decline, dropping down to an average of 7.7 million viewers by the end of the seventh season, also Steve Carrell’s final season on the show. After putting them together, the show attempted to fill the Pam & Jim void by establishing various other romantic triangles, and shifting the focus toward Michael Scott (Carell) as the central character. Once he was gone their average viewership declined by nearly 3 million viewers across their final two season.
Cursed?: Yes and no; the Pam/Jim pairing hurt the show in the ratings, but what really killed it was Steve Carell leaving.
Couple: Chuck (Zachary Levi) & Sarah (Yvonne Strahovski), a geeky spy and his partner
When Did They First Get Together?: “Chuck Versus the Honeymooners” (S3, EP 14), in which Chuck and Sarah decide to be a couple and spies at the same time.
What Happened After They Got Together?: They stayed together until the final couple of episodes regrettably gave Sarah an amnesia that robbed her of her memories of their relationship, a problem Chuck failed to solve in the series finale.
Did the Ratings Dip?: You betcha. The show dropped 19 and 37 spots on the Nielsen ratings chart in the fourth and fifth seasons respectively, the number of viewers dropping from 5.99 to 4.25 million. The drop in viewership during the final season is likely more due to the move from a Monday night to Friday night timeslot.
Cursed?: Yes. Creatively, there was an initial boost from seeing the two juggle a relationship with their careers as spies, like a Mr. and Mrs. Smith. However, without the driving force of their relationship, the writers were forced to expand the show’s universe with an increasingly overly complicated series mythology (so many supporting characters became spies too, so many bad guys with horribly convoluted plans/motivations, ever increasing drama for Chuck and his estranged parents).
12) Big Bang Theory
Couple: Leonard (Johnny Galecki) & Penny (Kaley Cuoco), a geek and his gorgeous across-the-hall neighbor
When Did They First Get Together?: “The Electric Can Opener Fluctuation” (S3, EP 1), in which after spending the summer apart Penny passionately kisses Leonard the second she sees him.
What Happened After They Got Together?: Near the end of the third season, that devious devil Will Wheaton manipulated Penny into breaking up with Leonard for not loving him as much as he loves her. Penny and Leonard awkwardly reunited in “The Recombination Hypothesis” (S5, EP13), existing in an ill-defined “friends with benefits?” relationship until having competition for Leonard from another woman made Penny appreciate him more. She finally said “I love you,” and there is an unanswered marriage proposal forever hanging over their heads.
Did the Ratings Dip?: Not even close; it has surged to become among the most watched shows on primetime television.
Cursed?: No. Although initially the center of the show, Leonard and Penny are now but a relatively minor component thanks to the addition of the Amy/Sheldon and Bernadette/Howard pairings thus meaning Leonard’s quest to get Penny is no longer the central thrust of the show.
Couple: Shawn (James Roday) & Juliet (Maggie Lawson), a fake psychic and one of the junior detectives he’s been flirting with while lying about that whole “psychic” thing over the years.
When Did They First Get Together?: “One, Maybe Two, Ways Out” (S5, EP 9), in which Juliet overhears Shawn admitting his feelings for her, and initiates a kiss with him even though she has a boyfriend at the time, who is out of the picture a week later.
What Happened After They Got Together?: A season and a half of relative domestic bliss, following expected beats (keep the relationship secret, an almost-proposal, adorable decision to move in together). Then Juliet discovered Shawn’s big “I’m not really a psychic” secret, and thus began the “let me explain”/”I can never trust you ever again” arguments and related break-up. By the end of season 7, Shawn had won back her friendship but not necessarily her trust, with their relationship status not 100% clear (definitely friends, maybe more, we’re not sure).
Did the Ratings Dip?: Not really. The show has averaged roughly 3 million U.S. viewers per episode since the fifth season, with the only real consistent dip occurring after the characters broke up. Putting the characters together had less of a correlative relationship to the ratings than pulling them apart did.
Cursed?: No. Beyond ratings, finally having Juliet discover Shawn’s secret allowed the show to address the dark underbelly of its own premise, i.e., he is actively deceiving otherwise well-meaning people about whom he has a great deal of affection. It’s not nearly as adorable as the show had otherwise pretended.
14) Parks & Recreation
Couple(s): Ben (Adam Scott) & Leslie (Amy Poehler)/Andy (Chris Pratt) & April (Aubrey Plaza), each couple having a prolonged will-they-won’t-they tension before being paired together.
When Did They First Get Together?: “Road Trip” (S3, EP 14), in which Ben and Leslie hook up, and “Media Blitz” (S3, EP 5), in which April forgives Andy for kissing Ann.
What Happened After They Got Together?: Andy and April were married within four episodes, in a surprise wedding ceremony, and after having been kept apart both by government bureaucracy and job opportunities in different cities Ben and Leslie finally got together for good and married.
Did the Ratings Dip?: Yes; viewership has dipped the past two seasons, down from 5.1 million viewers to 4.06 million. However, where the show seemed to really lose its viewers was during the course of its third season, with many either never coming back or simply switching to viewing methods not captured by Nielsen.
Cursed?: Maybe. Technically, this should qualify since the ratings slide began when the couples were put together, but the quality of the show has been so consistent, its fourth season in particular, that I refuse as a fan to say it has suffered any kind of silly curse.
Couple: Dr. House (Hugh Laurie) & Dr. Cuddy (Lisa Edelstein), a misanthropic-but-brilliant doctor and his ever-patient boss
When Did They First Get Together?: “Help Me” (S6, EP 22), in which House is moments away from a Vicodin relapse when Cuddy interrupts him and admits her love for him
What Happened After They Got Together?: Dude took their inevitable break-up so poorly he literally drove his car through her living room, briefly inspiring fans to campaign to replace the phrase “jumping the shark” with “driving car through ex-girlfriend’s living room.” Doesn’t have the same ring to it, though.
Did the Ratings Dip?: Yes and no; the show’s ratings actually began their steady decline during the will-they-won’t-they ramp-up of season six, but at least leveled off for most of the period of season seven when House and Cuddy were a couple. It was when Cuddy broke up with House in a poorly written, dream-sequence-heavy episode halfway through the season that the ratings decline began again. The “car through living room” debacle of the finale finally pushed House beyond redemption. The next season was the least viewed in the show’s history.
Couple: Booth (David Boreanaz) & Temperance “Bones” Brennan (Emily Deschanel), an FBI agent and a forensic anthropologist who totally complete each other, he all emotions, her all science and logic.
When Did They First Get Together?: Under-mistletoe kissing aside, “The Hole in the Heart” (S6, EP22), in which they engage in implied grief sex after Brennan stays with Booth in his apartment after a colleague of their’s has been murdered.
What Happened After They Got Together?: Due to Emily Deschanel’s real-life pregnancy, instead of getting Brennan and Booth doing standard early relationship stuff fans instead got the two immediately moving in together and expecting a child. In a particularly inventive way of partially breaking the two up without actually doing so, the most recent season ended with Booth canceling their engagement because he was blackmailed by a bad guy to do so with part of the blackmail being he can’t tell Brennan what’s really going on. D-R-A-M-A!
Did the Ratings Dip?: Yes; it hit record highs in viewership in its sixth season, but lost over 2 million viewers and nearly 20 spots on the Nielsen ratings chart in the seventh season with only a slight rebound from the most recent (eighth) season. However, to be fair, that seventh season didn’t premiere until November, and even though it was only a half season with 13 episodes Fox still aired it in three different timeslots. Its recent rebound occurred during a normal, full order of episodes which aired in the same timeslot all season. Plus, the unnecessarily brutal way in which they have, often with implausible character motivation and little advanced warning, broken up other romantic couples on the show as of late hasn’t helped.
Cursed?: Kind of; fans can argue the quality of the show hasn’t suffered at all, but the numbers don’t lie – ratings did go down and haven’t returned to where they had been. The shortened season might have just as much to do with that along with the move from Thursday to Monday nights.
Couple: Castle (Nathan Fillion) & Det. Beckett (Stana Katic), a crime novelist and a detective he works with as a civilian consultant
When Did They First Get Together?: After a particularly emotional case, Beckett shows up at Castle’s loft to give him a big old kiss, presumably because her interior “How much longer can we drag out this sexual tension?” timer went off. Plus, Castle had been extra supportive that week, “Always” (S4, EP23).
What Happened After They Got Together?: They have lots of sex, manage to keep the relationship a secret from everyone else for a while, and have some out-of-nowhere season finale developments that result in Castle proposing marriage at the same time Beckett is contemplating moving to Washington, D.C. for her dream job.
Did the Ratings Dip?: Nope; they actually went up, if ever so slightly (average of 12.18 million viewers rose to 12.26), but enough to be the most-watched season in Castle‘s history, placing it in the Nielsen’s Top 20 for its first time.
Cursed?: Not yet. The ratings have gone up, and the show has arguably benefited creatively from the pairing, resulting in a welcome amount of humor, particularly with Beckett having to confront Castle’s womanizing past.
18) New Girl (Updated 5/23/14)
Couple: Nick (Jake Johnson) & Jess (Zooey Deschanel), two 30-year-old loft roommates who can’t stop arguing
When Did They First Get Together?: “Cooler” (S2, EP 15) has their infamous first kiss, but they didn’t actually get together for good until “Virgins” (S2, EP 23).
What Happened After They Got Together?: They struggled with being a couple while still living in a loft with 2-3 other people, Jess consistently fighting her urge to “fix” Nick and Nick fighting his insecurities over not being worthy of Jess. By the 20th episode of the third season, their incompatibility forced a mutual break-up even though they were both adamant about still loving each other.
Did the Ratings Dip?: And how. The third season premiere was watched by over 5 million people, but by the time the season reached its finale they could only muster just over 2 million viewers. Yes, it’s normal for the season finale to have fewer viewers than the premiere, but the type of drop New Girl saw is very, very not good. In fact, the episode immediately after Jess and Nick’s break-up is, to this point, the least-watched in New Girl’s history.
Cursed?: Yes. Eventually, New Girl simply didn’t know what to do with Jess and Nick, ultimately breaking them up rather abruptly. As for the ratings, Fox President Kevin Reilly is quick to point out just how big of a boost their shows, New Girl included, receive from time-delayed viewing (i.e., DVR, Hulu). So, it’s hard to know just how severe New Girl‘s audience erosion truly is, but it’s obviously not good.
WHAT THIS TELLS US ABOUT THE CURSE
Somewhere a statistics professor in my college past is screaming at me right now about correlation not necessarily being causation. After all, at best all I’ve really done above is try to see if there was a correlative relationship between the moment a will-they-won’t-they couple got together and the show’s decline in ratings. Yes, the actual story directions a show takes undoubtedly impacts its ratings, but there are multiple other variables to consider, such as the loss of a strong lead-in (like Wings losing Cheers) or being shuffled around the schedule (like Chuck, Bones) or even the effect of a writer’s strike (like Moonlighting).
Plus, the Moonlighting curse is traditionally more specific to a two-hander like Bones or Castle where although there are multiple other characters around the clear focus is on a central male and female pair. I focused more on ensemble sitcoms since New Girl was the inspiration for this list. I also only included shows I have actually seen as opposed to those I haven’t meaning that, sadly, I have seen every Caroline in the City episode but not a single Gilmore Girls or Grey’s Anatomy episode.
Ultimately, the Moonlighting Curse is rarely ever a slam-dunk, even in the actual case of Moonlighting itself. Creatively, some shows heavily benefit from putting a couple together, and ratings-wise there are usually many other variables to consider. However, in most cases, the curse’s influence can’t be completely dismissed. It’s just harder to definitely say certain shows were killed by the Moonlighting curse than you might expect. You can’t even really say it about Moonlighting.
- Will New Girl Suffer From the Moonlighting Curse? (seattlepi.com)
- From CASTLE to BONES: Is the Moonlighting Curse Still Relevant Today? (thetvaddict.com)