The accused: Moonlighting, “I Am Curious…Maddie”
The crime: Destroying the series with the consummation of the unresolved sexual tension and setting a precedent for countless other series to either do the same or avoid resolution for far too long
Television’s failures are supposed to be obvious. From the overhyped non-starters that flop from the very beginning (hello, FlashForward, Lone Star) to the much-discussed clumsy conclusions of series we were convinced had it all planned out (nice to see you again, Battlestar Galactica), the medium’s big busts are right there in front of us. Whether because of low Nielsen ratings, terrible critical and fan response or something else entirely, the reaction to one episode often defines a series’ long-term legacy. But while we are often left wondering what it all means for the medium and for the industry when a series like Lone Star stumbles out of the gate or a series like Battlestar Galactica presents a controversial ending, those discourses tend to focus on disastrous beginnings and ill-conceived endings. But what about those mishaps that are not so obvious, the catastrophes that happen somewhere in the middle? How much impact, both positive and negative, can one bad episode have on an entire series? How do long-running series continue onward in the aftermath of an episodic failure? Is it possible that individual, episodic failures of television’s most respected series tell us more than the failings of a much-hyped about pilot or series finale? And how do we really define “failure” anyway?
These are just a few of the questions that I hope to answer with TV Surveillance’s new bi-weekly feature, #TVFail. In each entry, I will be taking a look at an individual episode of television that is considered a disappointment in some way. Maybe it was panned by critics and audiences, maybe it was lowly rated or maybe it was initially neither but has retroactively lost its more positive reputation. No matter the reason, this is a place where I will talk about the quiet failures of some of television’s best series. Here, I will talk about how and why these individual episodes came to represent “failure” and also discuss whether or not those definitions still apply today. The hope is that this feature will weave textual analysis and contextual and intertextual discourse together to create a compelling space for the discussion of televisual failure.
Welcome back to #TVFail, folks. After some experimentation with the format last time, I wanted to take things back to the origins of the kind of television that spurred me to start this feature to begin with: fiercely controversial episodes.
One of the things that drive me nuts about television is the unresolved sexual tension will-they-or-won’t-they romantic relationship. I understand why writers use UST relationships as their main hook: they’re easily consumable and surprisingly addictive. I like to think I’m something of a serious amateur critic, but I find myself getting sucked in to the romantic entanglements of fictional characters, even ones that I don’t really care about otherwise. There’s just something so palpable about the build-up to a relationship like that. We love oddball romantic comedy-like relationships in this country and our television series reflect that.
There are certain series that do UST relationships right by refusing to jerk the audience around too much and deciding that the couple can work as a story once they are together, even temporarily. Fringe is a good example: Although Peter and Olivia haven’t had much “happy” time together the series pulled the trigger on their mutual attraction in the middle of season two. But for the most part, series rely on the old adage that putting UST couples together will kill a series’ energy, narrative momentum and presumably, audience interest. That leads to 10 years of Ross and Rachel, six-plus years of Bones and Booth and so on. In the industry, letting couples be happy is like signing an early death certificate. Not only do I hate that thought-process in theory, I especially hate how it actually plays out on television.
Today, I’m here to discuss the series and the episode(s) that catalyzed this terribly misguided trend to begin with: Moonlighting and its “consummation” arc. A few simple Google searches will bring you to a number of articles, blog posts and other pieces that discuss how or how not to do UST relationships based on Moonlighting’s perceived downfall in the aftermath of “I Am Curious…Maddie,” the episode in which Maddie and David have sex for the first time. Some suggest that series, like Moonlighting, built entirely around an UST relationship are doomed to fail. Others disagree with that line of thinking and believe that any good series can write around and through the resolution in the UST relationship.
Personally, I’m in the latter camp, but with this post, I really want to try to get in the heads of those who feel otherwise. Considering it aired most of its episodes before I was born, my only true familiarity with Moonlighting is its supposed failure in the aftermath of this season three arc. I’ve always wondered what made this particular relationship so impactful that the actual resolution of it destroyed the series and became the namesake of such a dominating force of “common sense” within the television industry. Before doing the viewing for this post, I had never seen a full episode of Moonlighting. However, if the problems with the arc and the series in its aftermath are so obvious, even a new viewer should be able to see them, right?
Just for posterity’s sake, I’ll let you know what I watched. I knew this “arc” existed between episodes 11 and 14 of season three, including the culmination in “I Am Curious…Maddie.” But to get further context of how the series worked both prior and following David and Maddie’s sexual encounter, I watched episodes 10 and 15 (the season finale) as well. This clearly doesn’t make me any sort of expert on Moonlighting, but I do think it allows me a certain educated opinion about the series’ third season and especially the development of David and Maddie’s relationship within the second half of that season.
I have to say that I was initially very surprised at how the arc kicked off with “Blonde on Blonde.” Because the two of them didn’t overly discuss their tension-filled relationship in episode 10, “Poltergeist III – Dipesto Nothing,” it did feel a bit staggering to have Bruce Willis’ David realize that he was ready to tell Maddie how he felt in the very next episode. There are obviously two-and-a-half seasons worth of meditation that he’s presumably done, but I didn’t quite expect the series or the character to be so overt in his feelings, even though I knew the resolution was coming in just a few episodes.
In general, I did enjoy how the series started to build to that much-discussed moment. “Blonde on Blonde” is a really fun episode, perhaps almost entirely because 1987 Bruce Willis still had a lot of spring in his sarcastic leading man step. I like Cybill Shepherd just fine, but Willis seems like the primary spark of the series, at least in these episodes. But anyway, the first half of this four-parter was very well structured. In “Blonde,” David realizes that he needs to tell Maddie how he feels and spends an entire night chasing around the wrong woman just to do so. It is all a bit outrageous and absurd, but it goes a long way in depicting how much he cares about Maddie. But in the end, David arrives at Maddie’s house to find that she’s now accompanied by an old friend Sam (played by everyone’s favorite television star, Mark Harmon!). Bummer.
The next episode, “Sam and David,” rightfully explores David’s poor reaction to Maddie’s new relationship. Throwing another presumably better man in between the two of them is an obvious approach to take, but it works because Willis and Harmon have such different energies and dispositions that I easily comprehended why Maddie would want to spend time with the mature, calm Sam instead of the messy David (or at least lie to herself in that regard). This is particularly true in light of the fact that Maddie is growing ever-confused about her relationship with David and how she feels about him. The series clearly wanted to delay David and Maddie’s romance a bit longer and this felt like as good a way as any to actually do that. Plus, Bruce Willis playing a drunkard is good for a number of easy laughs.
Yet after those first two episodes, the whole arc starts to fall apart a bit. By the time we get to “Maddie’s Turn to Cry,” I felt like I could see the series’ writers pushing resolution away more for very little reason. I do see the value in giving Maddie more time in the spotlight considering the first two episodes are David-heavy, but there is something about Maddie’s constant waffling and over-analyzing that quickly drove me to want to bang my head against the wall. She has the right to be conflicted, but there’s an apparent sense that she’s jerking both Sam and David around without giving either one of them an answer or time to talk. Of course, it doesn’t help matters that David is an immature dolt who refuses to outwardly say what he’s feeling. These are all classic tell-tale signs of the unresolved sexual tension relationship.
In these instances, Moonlighting’s greatest strength becomes its greatest weakness, I think. The extremely fast-paced, quippy dialogue works wonders when David and Maddie are arguing or bantering about the case or basically anything not related to their personal feelings for one another. But when emotions get high and the tension is turned up, that brand of dialogue assists in the feeling that the characters are completely and utterly avoiding having a real discussion. In “Maddie’s Turn,” it seemed like Maddie was giving one long, rapid speech after another about her feelings…without really saying anything of substance. She (and David) drone on and on about how they feel, but don’t really talk in specifics whatsoever. I’d like to assume that my frustrated reaction is a purposeful one that the writers wanted the audience to feel as to put us in the same state of mind as the lead characters, but that doesn’t make me any less frustrated.
(However, I will say that the last 10 minutes of “Maddie’s Turn to Cry” are tremendous. Once the episode moves away from the histrionics related to David and Maddie’s relationship and onto the case itself, the fun Moonlighting returns in full force. I’ll try to do it justice with my words, but there’s very little that tops a high-speed chase involving Cybill Shepherd standing in the back of a milk truck, throwing quarts of cottage cheese onto a car driven by a young Gary Cole. That is one of my favorite paragraphs to write of all-time. COTTAGE CHEESE.)
Things only get worse by the time we get to the final episode of the arc, “I Am Curious…Maddie.” The yelling, the arguing and the back and forths continue throughout the running time, making it feel like the series is never going to push the characters where the audience wants them to be. As Maddie and David continue to be at one another’s throats, they and the two supporting characters raise obvious concerns: What happens when this actually happens? Does it change everything? Aren’t these two polar opposites for a reason? Will people care anymore? It is readily apparent that Glenn Gordon Caron and his writing staff want the audience to consider these questions so they (in typical Moonlighting fashion, apparently) break the fourth wall and self-reflexively and overtly ask them.
I had two primary responses to the postmodern way that the series came at the resolution of this UST. On one hand, it makes sense to approach the audience with these legitimate concerns (especially considering something like 60 million people watched this episode)* and winkingly make sure that they’ll return even the main tension has been resolved in a way. But on the other, the consistent needling about the dangers of resolving unresolved sexual tension from all four lead characters made me think that Caron and his team didn’t really have their heart in putting the two of them together. I could be entirely wrong, but it was almost as if Caron knew that his series would never be the same and he was just preparing himself as much as he was preparing the audience. And if you approach something this monumental like that, of course it is not going to go well.
*The fact that 60 MILLION PEOPLE watched this episode tells us a lot about our culture’s obsession with unresolved sexual tension couples. In a perverse way, we’re kind of obsessed with seeing people do the deed, if you will. Moonlighting was clearly popular before this episode, but that figure is insanely high. We want to see the culmination of that tension.
Though I have my issues with these kinds of relationships, I still like to think I have some patience. I don’t need characters to get together immediately. But even in an arc that was clearly designed to put the two of them together, Moonlighting seems so disinterested in actually letting David and Maddie get there. In “I Am Curious,” the characters fight for 47-and-a-half minutes before finally succumbing to their hormones in the last 45 seconds. The writers seem completely resistant to resolution and much more interested in the denying of it. I don’t mind that process in theory, but the way it is executed here drove me up the wall in the last two episodes of the arc – and I had no interest in this relationship either way.
By the next episode, Maddie continues to serve as the writers’ proxy, as she chooses to ignore what happened and decides to craft this idiotic pact that we keep her and David apart. Or so she thinks. It’s basically just an excuse for the two of them to argue for yet another 45 minutes, only with a few trips to bed thrown in for disinterested measure. Again, I totally understand that the banter is the lifeblood of the series and without it, Moonlighting wouldn’t be Moonlighting, but it doesn’t fit with this kind of resolution, especially when it doesn’t appear that the writers are entirely invested in it to begin with.
Do my problems with these episodes make them failures? For the most part, probably. At best, “Maddie’s Turn to Cry,” “I Am Curious…Maddie” and the finale, “To Heiress Human” are very problematic. But do these admittedly problematic episodes make Moonlighting a failure as a series or the David-Maddie relationship moot? I don’t think so. All indications are that the first three seasons of the series are damn fine television and the driving element of that quality was their relationship. If David and Maddie would have sucked beforehand, 60 million people wouldn’t have tuned in to watch them have sex. Moreover, all sorts of external factors, from skiing accidents to pregnancies to strikes to the leads kind of hating each other, impacted all the episodes after this arc.
Most importantly, the problematic nature of these episodes doesn’t, in my mind, mean that Moonlighting should have never gone down this road. If you’re series is built around unresolved sexual tension, you eventually have to try to resolve that sexual tension in some way. I’d personally prefer that you do so in a somewhat timely and mostly intelligent manner, but any attempt at resolution is better than no attempt at all. Perhaps a few of these episodes were mishandled and perhaps Moonlighting’s inherent nature and strengths don’t lend themselves to a more serious (even slightly) exploration of romantic feelings. But that doesn’t mean the series shouldn’t have “gone there” and certainly doesn’t mean that other series that came after failed because Moonlighting did.* This series is an example of what can happen when the resolution of unresolved sexual tension can cause problems for a series. What it isn’t, however, is a rule-bearer.
*And again, the series didn’t fail because of these episodes. It might have played a role, but there were a dozen other factors at play that led to the demise of the series. One that lasted five seasons, mind you. It’s not like it was canceled immediately after David and Maddie hooked up in episode three of season one.
If anything, “I Am Curious Maddie” is a failure because of how people reacted to it, not because of the quality of the episode itself (which again, wasn’t spectacular, but had its moments). People have a right to think however they want, but in this regard, they’re wrong. The problems with these episodes are not reflective of an entire industry’s worth of problems. People shouldn’t hate these offerings for what they did to Moonlighting, they should hate them for what they did to the entire television landscape over the past 25 years. In that regard, this arc is perhaps one of the biggest failures we’ve seen in that time period.
But there’s no way to go back and even if we did, people would react the same way because they do it with today’s television. Lots of people said The Office quickly became terrible after Jim and Pam got together. Those people are severely misguided, but they represent our larger lust for the unresolved sexual tension, not resolved sexual tension. There’s a reason UST is a known acronym in television circles and RST is not.