On March 31st, 1987, sixty million television viewers in the United States sat down to watch the penultimate episode of Moonlighting’s third season, entitled ‘I Am Curious…Maddie’. Moonlighting had cracked the top ten most watched television series that year and everyone was on tenterhooks to see the series’ most famous element, the unresolved sexual tension between series leads Maddie (Cybill Shepherd) and David (Bruce Willis), come to a resolution as the two characters finally kissed and made love to the strains of The Ronette’s ‘Be My Baby’.
Popular wisdom has always had it that this was the moment that killed Moonlighting and the series was never the same again in terms of quality or watchability, although in truth there were underlying problems going on with the production of the series (if you read about the history of the show) that profoundly affected production which made it an unfortunate coincidence that ratings took a nosedive not long after the series hit its peak with this particular episode.
What Moonlighting had was one of the most popular tropes in all of television, and while it didn’t exactly invent it (Cheers and Remington Steele pre-date Moonlighting and used it before hand) Glenn Gordon Caron’s iconic slice of 80s television is probably the first and most famous example of a television series we think of when we think of a will they/won’t they story unfolding week after week on our television screens, and which is somewhat incorrectly held us as an example of why a series should never have the chemistry between its lead characters be consummated.
It’s one of the most profoundly popular storytelling clichés in popular culture, so much so that if you name a television series or ongoing work of fiction, chances are they have played with a variation of the theme; two characters who like each other, or maybe one who likes the other more, and the series playing out the potential for romance without ever going there, at least for a few seasons.
So many series have played the ‘will they or won’t they’ card and some of them have become super popular and famous because of the trope; Friends with Ross and Rachel; The X-Files with Mulder and Scully; Castle with the titular character and Kate Beckett; Bones with its own titular character and Seeley Booth (you’ll notice crime procedurals with male/female investigator dynamics positively love the trope).
At the height of The X-Files popularity in the 90’s, and when Mulder and Scully had still not become a romantic item, it was frequently the subject of Moonlighting that came up as a reason why Chris Carter’s iconic series should never pull on that rip cord. David and Maddie getting together and the start of a dip in ratings were seen as going hand in hand, but it was never quite that simple. The fact that future generations of will they/won’t they couples such as Castle and Beckett and Bones and Booth (all investigators in shows that owed an obvious debt to Glenn Gordon Caron’s series) got together and their series continued for several years after to still considerable respectable ratings would prove the Moonlighting theory wrong.
As the eighties turned to the nineties, there came an influx of shows that really started to play with the trope and mine it for commercial and popular gold; Lois and Clark took the Superman and Lois Lane dynamic and turned it into a zany fantasy romantic comedy with the central relationship being as much of a reason to watch as it was to see a weekly Superman series, while the same year saw the debut of The X-Files, and the emergence of fans of the show who were so devoted to the on-screen relationship between Mulder and Scully that they actually coined the term shippers to describe themselves, a term that remains to this day when it comes to talking about relationships in pop culture that fans are actively cheering on.
One year after the debut of The X-Files, itself a decade defining series, would come arguably the biggest television of the decade itself. Debuting on NBC, Friends would build its first season around one character, Ross (David Schwimmer), developing feelings for another, Rachel (Jennifer Aniston), and basically mine it for comedic and dramatic gold over the next ten seasons.
Not the first time a sitcom would come to utilise the trope, Cheers in the eighties had mined a similar combination of laughs and drama from Sam (Ted Danson) and Diane (Shelly Long) before the departure of the latter would lead to new character Rebecca (Kirstie Alley) and with it a continuation of the trope.
Friends would play the Ross/Rachel dynamic for romantic comedic gold for those first two seasons, culminating with the second season’s dramatic kiss (which in my mind always has U2’s ‘With or Without You’ playing over it in my head but which wasn’t the case at all), but the writing staff on the series would subvert expectations in season three and beyond by turning the will they/won’t they dynamic into an increasingly dramatic arc, with a ‘break’, infidelity, an actual break-up happening in one of the 90s very best bottle episodes, and subsequent dramas involving new relationships with other characters, a mistaken name call at a wedding and an unplanned pregnancy continually giving the relationship some dramatic heft.
For all the talk of a so-called Moonlighting effect, most series flourished by pulling on the cord of whatever will they/won’t they storyline they had going on and seeing what storytelling they could grab from playing around with it. The first season of Dawson’s Creek spent its entire thirteen episode run building up to Joey telling Dawson how she felt about him and, had it been cancelled right there and then, the series would have left the audience with a happy ending with the two characters coming together, but season two saw the series subvert expectations six episodes in and ending the relationship, and doubling down on Dawson being the worst and Joey capable of so much better. Even more brilliantly, the series realised that Katie Holmes had better chemistry with Joshua Jackson and decided to bring in a love triangle just to make things a little messier and dramatic.
That third season of Dawson’s Creek didn’t have the best of starts, with incoming showrunner Alex Gansa turning it into a sex obsessed version of itself by having noirish plotlines involving new character Eve (Brittany Daniel). Once Greg Berlanti (making his mark on television history and never looking back) took over the reins, he brought in the Joey and Pacey dynamic and with it a new set of will they/won’t they dramas with which to play with on the series to brilliant effect, effectively building the series to its fourth and best season with considerable aplomb.
Even going beyond the nineties and into the noughts and eventually the 2010s, many series, from comedies such as New Girl, to intense crime procedurals such as Law and Order: Special Victims Unit and even light hearted fare such as Castle and Bones, took those tropes and played with them to brilliant effect, ensnaring devoted audiences and leaving everyone on the edge of their seats when it seemed as if something might happen. The season four finale of Castle, ‘Always’, is a brilliant example of a series knowing it had reached a peak with a will they/won’t they storyline and deciding to resolve it to dramatic effect. It followed that up with a superlative fifth season that was the series at its absolute best.
Yet, the trope has a problem and like so many issues with previous generations of pop culture, it comes down to diversity. So many of these relationships were centred around characters who were mostly white and also heterosexual, and sometimes looking back on them one can view them as somewhat toxic; lest we forget that Clark Kent spends the first season of Lois and Clark effectively lying to Lois Lane about who he really is (although admittedly this is down more to the comic book source material which has actually subverted this trope and story in recent years) while Ross was the absolute worst to Rachel, especially when she started to care more about her career opportunities and he became jealous to the point of absurdity.
Looking at the history of the trope and its most high-profile examples, it’s hard to shake the feeling that they presented white heterosexuality more often than anything else. Even a series such as Dawson’s Creek which broke considerable ground when the character of Jack McPhee (Kerr Smith) came out as gay in the middle of season two had, only the season before, scenes that depicted supposedly comedic homophobia when Pacey would make fun of his brother’s homosexuality, a character who denied being gay but who subsequently was revealed in the series finale to have been gay the whole time and who was revealed in that final episode, which jumped the series forward a few years later, to be in a relationship with Jack.
(This may look like a tangent I’ve went on for that last paragraph, and it kind of is but I’m keeping it because, hell, it’s true.)
With diversity in terms of race, gender and sexuality at the forefront of our thoughts in a deservedly more consuming matter than it has been before (although for anyone that isn’t white or heterosexual, representation has been a constant, never ending fight), television shows have started to present relationships and romances between characters that aren’t merely white or heteronormative in a more forward and thoughtful manner.
The Berlanti-produced Arrowverse has played with will they/won’t they tropes between characters who aren’t heterosexual, with Legends of Tomorrow in particular having a ball with the flirtatious nature of the character of Sara Lance (Caity Lotz), eventually having her develop a will they/won’t they story with Ava Sharpe (Jes McCallan) which has since morphed into a tender, funny romance with genuine chemistry between the two.
One of the best portrayed will they/won’t they romances to be found in recent years came from one of the best female comedy writers around; Mindy Kaling. The Mindy Project began as a series that took a romantic comedy framework, and with it references to all sorts of famous romantic comedies, and played with them in witty fashion, backed by great writing from Kaling and gifted performances from herself and the comedic ensemble. While it still honed in on heteronormative tropes, Kaling being Indian meant that the story was being told from a point of view that wasn’t white, and being predominantly written from a female perspective (nearly every other show mentioned above came from male writers).
The will they/won’t they dynamic that played out between Mindy and Danny (Chris Messina) utilised every trope and cliché in a creative and brilliant manner, and with the series on the cusp of cancellation at the end of its third season, it managed to resolve the storyline in brilliant fashion. A last minute pick-up from Hulu meant the series had to deal with the ramifications of the two getting together, and it was here that Kaling had an ace in her sleeve, opting to portray what happens after ‘happily ever after’ and showing that not everything came easy to characters who simply got together at the supposed end of the story.
The more the series went on, the more the relationship between the two became somewhat toxic and poisonous and with Messina scaling back his involvement on the series, the writing could only go one way, which made its eventual final episode which had the two get back together somewhat of a cop-out and disappointment, but the journey there was entertaining and gently subversive.
It’s a trope that has never shown any signs of going away, and in the space of the last thirty to forty years of television, there is so many examples of it, they are almost too numerous to mention; reading back on this, I’ve come to the realisation that I haven’t mentioned either version of The Office, Gilmore Girls, Scrubs, Northern Exposure, House, Sex and the City or Chuck. Once again, all men and women and nearly all white people, but as television comes to terms with diversity, and as equality takes more of a forefront in our minds in how these things are made and how audiences are responding to them, the time is now ripe for the trope to be more reflective of the world around it.
Things have been getting better, but if one looks up the many lists of the all time great ‘will they/won’t they’ relationships on television, it almost looks as if the medium has only been telling stories about one type of relationship, or it’s only been that one heteronormative type that steals headlines, attention and the zeitgeist.
Let’s hope television continues to answer that call to do better.