If a 'Moonlighting Curse' Exists, It's the Viewers' Fault


In October, at the start of the third season of New Girl, Vulture‘s Amanda Dobbins wrote a piece titled with its basic premise: “New Girl‘s Nick and Jess Relationship Isn’t Working.” As you can likely tell, Dobbins’ argued that New Girl was an example of yet another television relationship that had will-they-won’t-they’d into a serious relationship territory, subsequently becoming boring. In short, it had become yet another classic victim of the i Curse.

But it’s not Nick and Jess that have been plagued by the Moonlighting Curse. It’s the people watching them.

First up, a quick definition: The Moonlighting Curse is based off of the idea that the show Moonlighting got bad after the show’s lead characters finally got together in season three. Extrapolated to other shows, to say a program has been afflicted with the Moonlighting Curse is to say that it has gotten bad because a long-awaited hookup has happened. According to critic Willa Paskin, who has written about both New Girl and Moonlighting, New Girl was the show she hoped would finally convince people that the Moonlighting Curse was fake. But since her piece on this issue went up last February, we’ve seen a rash of critics who are very much convinced that Nick and Jess together are incredibly boring.

Dobbins is not alone in her belief that Nick and Jess’ new serious relationship is the major reason the show is less interesting this season. (Other complaints have centered on the return of a usually funny Damon Wayans Jr. as Coach and Schmidt’s own relationship antics at the beginning of the season). After the excitement surrounding their first kiss – a hubbub that seemed like it would blow up my Twitter timeline – died down, the writers of the show tried to do something adult and see if these two kids could make it work. But many people don’t like watching them try to make it work. That doesn’t say much about these characters or how they’re written, but it says a lot about what we want from relationships, fictional and not.

In a post written by The Wire‘s Esther Zuckerman on (spoiler) this week’s long-awaited Mindy Project coupling of Mindy and Danny, a relationship that has similar parallels to Nick and Jess, Zuckerman wrote that Nick and Jess’ romance this season has been “oddly unexciting.” Zuckerman cited a previous article she wrote on the topic back in September, where she noted that Nick and Jess seemed off because the show’s writers weren’t committing to whether they should be together or not. “We want Nick and Jess to stay together, but we want the people that we fell in love with (while they were falling in love) not some bland couple that tries to forget their problems at a beach paradise,” Zuckerman wrote of the season premiere that had Nick and Jess briefly running away to Mexico.

In her new piece, Zuckerman repeats her criticism that the Nick/Jess relationship has made Nick and Jess individually boring:

The Nick and Jess romance isn’t the sole source of the show’s third season slump, but it’s also hard not to blame it a little bit. Jess has become a rote annoyed-girlfriend at times—she gets annoyed when Nick goes to a strip club—and Nick has questioned his manliness.

That’s a problem she’s worried about The Mindy Project falling into as well. The overall complaint seems to be that much of what makes these relationships fun is the tension imbued in them. Nick and Jess are super funny when they’re fighting; when they’re not and are all in looove, the comedy of the show suffers. After the excitement behind Mindy and Danny wears off, the concern will grow about their relationship viability as well. Not about whether they’re a viable couple, but whether they’re viable to watch. (Alternatively, Esther Breger at the New Republic thinks Mindy and Danny together “may even make the show better, by forcing it to stop relying on guest stars as a crutch.”)

Similar complaints have been made by other writers. In November, TV Guide‘s Natalie Abrams wrote that when Nick and Jess coupled up, “all the best parts of their personalities were dropped,” adding that when they argue now, it seems as if Jess is just “nagging” Nick.

Few seem to disagree with this premise, save for Kelsea Stahler at Bustle, who acknowledged that though television relationships with breakups and makeups are the norm, she likes that this relationship is different:

It doesn’t feel that way with Nick and Jess. It feels lovely and exploratory and right. It’s like they’re both experiencing their first great relationship and they’re wide-eyed and open to everything and we’re along for that ride.

The “problem” with characters like Nick and Jess isn’t that they’re not fighting, it’s that they’re not fighting in a way that’s sexy. Watching people fight to make it work is not as exciting as watching couples fight to figure out how to get together. Especially because often, the getting together part feels like a resolution. The getting together is the end of the movie; why should there be more plot that might ruin the magic of the beginning? The hard, boring stuff that makes relationships actually function is for slow dramas, not sitcoms.

Additionally, there’s something about watching a couple try to be a couple that (perhaps subconsciously) feels voyeuristic. When watching two characters try to become a couple, you’re on their individual sides to make it work. They haven’t quite gotten it together enough to actually be together, so you’re not left out of their relationship. Once they’re in it, you’re on the outside looking in, in the same way you would be if one of your friends got together with someone they’d been pining after for a long time. Now they have secrets and things that they share. You’re not a part of that any longer, at least not in the same way. For people for whom television is preferable to movies because they like to watch relationships develop over a long period of time (and even enjoy feeling as though they’re part of that specific universe), these characters really seem like friends. And when friends find that happy ending, things change.

The larger argument that writing funny and sexy plot lines for romantic relationships is inherently hard difficult like an insult to the many talented writers out there. While they might be harder to write than will-they-won’t-they plot lines, they’re not impossible. It’s worth considering, however, whether it’s not that the Moonlighting Curse isn’t something that happens with shows, but something that happens with people. It’s an audience’s reaction to the television representation of the reality of life. A lot of people get bored and annoyed with long term relationships in their own lives, whether they’re the relationship that they’re in or that their friends are in. Flux is usually going to have way more room for true excitement.

Image via Fox

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