Do marriages ruin TV shows?

[Note from the editor: Rob is now an author! Check out his new short story collection Love and Blood Lust, available now from Amazon.]

With filming of The Big Bang Theory’s eighth season now officially underway (and with Jim Parsons, Kaley Cuoco, and Johnny Galecki set to become as overpaid as the average Hollywood A-lister), it’s time to look at a recent important development for the show.

The series’ seventh season ended with Leonard (Galecki) and Penny (Cuoco) becoming engaged. As damning as this may sound, they’ve basically had a Ross/Rachel relationship for the past few seasons—you know, repeatedly breaking up and making up, and breaking up again, ad nauseam. But at long last, they’re set to make their relationship official.

While many fans of Big Bang Theory are excited, some are wary, especially because they can point to a long list of other TV shows that were cancelled not long after the decision to have two of their main cast walk down the aisle. To be honest, I’m just as concerned that Big Bang Theory may become the latest casualty on that list.

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Of course, the whole notion that a show’s romantic leads should never ever get together started with Moonlighting. Once that show’s protagonists, private detectives Maddie Hayes (Cybill Shepherd) and David Addison (Bruce Willis) hooked up, the wit and edge that the series was known for just died. It also didn’t help that we no longer got to see the two of them actually solving crimes, but were rather forced to endure a string of episodes that simply focused on the uncertainty of where their relationship was headed. It became the focus of the series, and we no longer got to see Maddie and David engaged in the profession which endeared them to audiences in the first place.

Do marriages ruin TV shows?

The fallout from Moonlighting’s cancellation may have doomed another ABC show to a premature end. Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman at first seemed to be doing things right. Its second season ended with Dean Cain’s Clark Kent proposing to Teri Hatcher’s Lois Lane, and the third year began with Lois surprising Clark by revealing that she knew he was Superman. This led to episodes where both characters did some of the usual romantic bantering and soul-searching, while continuing to fight bad guys. As a result, it became a truly special moment when they got engaged in the middle of the third season.

Alas, all this goodwill, which generated the highest ratings for the series, came crashing down when ABC broadcast an episode promoted as the one where Lois and Clark finally get married. But the episode ended with the audience discovering that Clark actually married a clone of Lois (allegedly, the network didn’t want them to get together for real—were they afraid of another Maddie/David on their hands?). To add insult to injury, the real Lois, who had been kidnapped by her former fiancée Lex Luthor (John Shea), got amnesia while trying to escape from him, and would stay in mental limbo for the next four episodes. I kid you not; at one point, Lois actually thinks she’s a character from a story she’s written.

Do marriages ruin TV shows?

During this time, Luthor, and later an unscrupulous therapist both attempted to keep Lois from Clark by trying to convince her that she belonged with each of them. In other words, fans were promised a wedding, but given Melrose Place instead. It didn’t matter that Lois and Clark eventually reunited and would marry for real in the following season (that episode was lousy too, but I digress)—the damage was done. Fans understandably tuned out, which led to the show’s cancellation a year later.

So while Lois and Clark’s producers like to say that the show lost viewers because the two leads got married, those of us who were there and lived through it know that it was because the fans were lied to, and lost interest as a result.

This kind of fan backlash is probably why so many shows like The X-Files, Frasier, Friends, Star Trek: The Next Generation, and for a more recent example, Criminal Minds take the safer route by keeping the sexual tension between its leads going for as long as possible. Criminal Minds fans love the semi-romantic interplay between Shemar Moore’s Derek and Kirsten Vangsness’s Penelope, while TNG’s fans enjoyed similar scenes between Picard and Crusher, although TNG would go a bit further into this in its final season.

Do marriages ruin TV shows?

Before “marriage” became a series-killing dirty word, there were plenty of shows that kept wedded bliss from lasting long to ensure a quick return to the status quo. One of the most notorious examples of this is Bonanza, where the four Cartwright men seemed destined to retain their bachelorhood. For the entirety of the show’s 14-year run, every time one of the Cartwright sons got serious with a woman, she would either be killed or abruptly die from a disease. Heck, at the beginning of the series, Cartwright patriarch Ben Cartwright (Lorne Greene) had already been married and widowed three times [!], with each of his sons the result of a different marriage.

More recent series weren’t immune from this cliché either. For instance, there’s a second season episode of Xena: Warrior Princess, “Return of Callisto”, in which Xena’s sidekick Gabrielle gets married, only to become a widow before the next commercial break. Xena herself would actually marry in a three-parter during the show’s sixth season, but while she didn’t become widowed, that union was basically invalidated because Xena had amnesia at the time, and her jerk hubby, the King of Scandinavia, disappeared from the proceedings as fast as he arrived (and like many of the characters from Xena’s final two seasons, he wasn’t very interesting in the first place). Needless to say, no one seemed to care that this guy was never seen or heard from again after Xena escaped with her memory restored.

Do marriages ruin TV shows?

In fairness, some shows work quite well with married characters. Besides the obvious family sitcoms with a married mother and father, there are also shows like the detective series Hart to Hart where its two leads, played by Robert Wagner and Stefanie Powers, were married from the beginning. As a result, the show entertained by giving us two detectives who just happened to be married, without having to worry about following through on any will-they-or-won’t-they subplots.

A more recent example is Sherlock, in which Martin Freeman’s Dr. Watson married Mary Morstan (played by Amanda Abbington, Freeman’s real-life partner) during the third season. Given the fact that the character comes from Arthur Conan Doyle’s Holmes canon, Mary works rather nicely alongside Watson and Benedict Cumberbatch’s Holmes without overshadowing them. I don’t know what’s in store for the show’s upcoming fourth season, but I hope that nothing is done that undermines this new dynamic. I must point out though, that the Sherlock Holmes short story “The Adventure of the Norwood Builder” stated that Mary died, although no explanation is given. If the series decides to kill off Mary, hopefully it will be done in a more dramatically satisfying way.

Do marriages ruin TV shows?

And then there are the shows that lie somewhere in the middle, where a romance doesn’t completely torpedo the series, but it doesn’t provide many memorable moments either. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, for instance, made it a point to hook up several of its main characters in its later seasons, such as Worf and Dax, as well as Kira and Odo, but even DS9’s fans (as overly rabid as they can sometimes be) aren’t necessarily quick to list, say, “You Are Cordially Invited” (the episode in which Worf and Dax get married) or “His Way” (where Kira and Odo confess their love) among DS9’s top ten episodes. It’s also interesting to note that both of these couples were no more by the end of the series.

Do marriages ruin TV shows?

As far as I’m concerned, when it comes to Worf’s romances, his finest moment was in the fourth season TNG episode “Reunion”, when he avenges the death of his lover K’Ehleyr (Suzie Plakson). She had been introduced two seasons earlier and quickly became a fan favorite, which is why, unlike Dax’s death, her murder was a truly shocking moment (though, perhaps this is because K’Ehleyr’s murder is never mentioned in the original trailers for the episode, whereas DS9’s “Tears of the Prophets” made it clear that one of the show’s regulars would meet a premature end). But the episode itself became a classic because Worf shows us what he’s truly made of when he avenges her murder, his career be damned. (Though, not that it mattered much, since Picard just gives him a slap on the wrist.)

In contrast, Worf on DS9 does essentially nothing to avenge Dax’s death. This is one of the reasons why DS9’s final season is also its worst, because it makes Worf as ineffectual as Harry Kim on Voyager, with the same bad luck in the romance department, no less. Yes, Farrell wanted off the show, but her death, along with K’Ehleyr’s, basically made Worf a punch line when it came to matters of love. And his romance with Deanna Troi, a bizarre storyline that ultimately went nowhere, was the only one that didn’t end in horrible tragedy.

So while it’s become a common thing to say that shows jump the shark as soon as two main characters hook up or get married, there are plenty of examples where a series bucks the trend. Will Big Bang Theory be one of them? I don’t see why not. After all, if Friends can last for a full decade in spite of all that Ross/Rachel nonsense, anything’s possible. All I ask is that after Penny and Leonard exchange vows, this development doesn’t take center stage on the show at the expense of everything else fans love about it. Here’s hoping Big Bang Theory can make the most of this new development and still keep its charm.

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  • chromesthesia

    I don’t know. Bones and Booth got together and I love their relationship and I do think they chemistry is still there, but I haven’t really watched Big Bang Theory a lot because the show is annoying me.

  • Hal_10000

    Babylon 5 is another series where the two leads got together and it didn’t damage the show at all. The dynamic changed a bit but the characters remained the same. To be honest, the get-together break-apart dynamic bothers me a LOT more than the married one. It was what made me stop watching Friends.

  • I don’t think the show will end if the two “leads” marry. BBT is all Sheldon all the time (much to my personal annoyance) now, so that plot may not spell doom for the show.

  • Anon

    Your references to ‘Friends’ are only concentrating on the Ross and Rachel relationship, I’d have thought Monica and Chandler, who actually got married and stayed married, would be a more valid comparison.

    • Toby Clark

      But unlike Penny and Leonard, Chandler and Monica were never on-again-off-again. They got together and stayed together, working through Chandler’s commitment issues.

  • Muthsarah

    If a show – any show – has a premise based on a will-they-won’t-they, or on one character being a dater (to allow for new wacky characters and situations to come up, even if they aren’t intended to be regular fixtures), and they decide to jettison that in favor of a big sweeps-friendly proposal episode, followed by another sweeps-friendly wedding episode, and then a sweeps-friendly baby episode, then they’re already conceding that their original premise has been exhausted, and that they’d rather just chase short-term attention grabbers. It’s not the wedding that kills the series, it’s the lack of whatever had made the show distinct until then. The wedding is the symptom of the end of the show, not the cause. It’s the laziness of the writers or the unimaginative demands of the networks that kill series.

    “And then there are the shows that lie somewhere in the middle, where a romance doesn’t completely torpedo the series, but it doesn’t provide many memorable moments either. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, for instance, made it a point to hook up several of its main characters in its later seasons, such as Worf and Dax, as well as Kira and Odo, but even DS9’s fans (as overly rabid as they can sometimes be) aren’t necessarily quick to list, say, “You Are Cordially Invited” (the episode in which Worf and Dax get married) or “His Way” (where Kira and Odo confess their love) among DS9’s top ten episodes. It’s also interesting to note that both of these couples were no more by the end of the series.”

    But how bittersweet that Kira/Odo ending. I love bittersweet endings.

    Bashir and Ezri being paired up (and right after Worf and Ezri……yuck!) seemed like the showrunners tossing a bone to the shippers. They’re both pretty and single, and have nothing else to do. Sure, fix them up, whatever, does anyone actually care, there’s a war on. It likewise came far too late to have any impact, it was just…I dunno, supposedly completion-y. The closest thing Bashir had to a series-long character arc; he started off a meekly skirt-chasing (less James Bond and more Hugh Grant) puppy chasing after a woman far more experienced and sophisticated than he was, and in the end….he kinda ended up with the exact same person, only now….she’s younger….and more insecure….and somehow LESS experienced and sophisticated despite several eventful years. Sooo….I guess it was Jadzia that was the problem all along. Just kinda de-age Dax, and she’s perfect for Bashir. What is that saying?

    “As far as I’m concerned, when it comes to Worf’s romances, his finest moment was in the fourth season TNG episode “Reunion”, when he avenges the death of his lover K’Ehleyr (Suzie Plakson). She had been introduced two seasons earlier and quickly became a fan favorite, which is why, unlike Dax’s death, her murder was a truly shocking moment (though, perhaps this is because K’Ehleyr’s murder is never mentioned in the original trailers for the episode, whereas DS9’s “Tears of the Prophets” made it clear that one of the show’s regulars would meet a premature end). But the episode itself became a classic because Worf shows us what he’s truly made of when he avenges her murder, his career be damned. (Though, not that it mattered much, since Picard just gives him a slap on the wrist.)”

    It helps that “Reunion” was just a damn good episode. And it introduced us to the glory that is Gowron…..’s magnificent crazy eyes. 😀

    “You are Cordially Invited” reeks of sweeps.

    “In contrast, Worf on DS9 does essentially nothing to avenge Dax’s death. This is one of the reasons why DS9’s final season is also its worst, because it makes Worf as ineffectual as Harry Kim on Voyager, with the same bad luck in the romance department, no less. Yes, Farrell wanted off the show, but her death, along with K’Ehleyr’s, basically made Worf a punch line when it came to matters of love. And his romance with Deanna Troi, a bizarre storyline that ultimately went nowhere, was the only one that didn’t end in horrible tragedy.”

    It was plenty tragic by itself.

    Worf never fit in on DS9. At all. Ever. Not even once. Pairing him with Dax was ridiculous; they were the two most ill-fitting regulars on the show, and they were supposed to be the “super cool” ones. They were thus, in a way, made for each other, and the pairing seemed natural. Even if they somehow made each other even more boring than they were alone.

    And, again, pairing him with Ezri was just wrong, no matter what logic it was supposed to have made.

  • MichaelANovelli

    Isn’t there already a married couple on BBT?

    • Yeah, it is made of the most interesting woman on the show, and the nerd who has had (by far) the most character development.
      Bernadette and Howard.

  • Jonathan Campbell

    “Criminal Minds take the safer route by keeping the sexual tension between its leads going for as long as possible. Criminal Minds fans love the semi-romantic interplay between Shemar Moore’s Derek and Kirsten Vangsness’s Penelope,”

    I think its been pretty obvious for a while now though that those two are not really interested in each other in that way.

    Its more like…a brother and sister relationship.

    Except if they were actually brother and sister, it would be be really, really creepy.

  • I resent the idea that Worf became less important in the last season of DS-9. He managed to retrieve the Breen super weapon, an act which saved the Federation. He also killed Gowron and put Martok at the head of the Klingon Empire, passing on the position himself. He didn’t kill Dukat because that was left to Dax’s best friend and show’s main hero Captain Sisko.

    • Thomas Stockel

      I have to disagree where Worf is concerned. Yes, you raise some valid points regarding his exploits, but his wife died. His. Wife. Don’t tell me a being driven by honor is going to leave the avenging of her death to a man who went home to sulk. Worf sacrificed his career to go back and save Dax’s life, she meant Everything to him. He was willing to toss away his Starfleet career to avenge K’ehlar’s death so please don’t tell me he wouldn’t have potentially dropped everything to hunt Dukat down to avenge Dax’s.

      The fact is, Worf’s marriage to Dax became inconvenient in season seven, as did the fact that Dukat had killed her. What should have been this burning desire for revenge never amounted to much, in the long run.

      • The alternative was: Worf goes for revenge, gets killed. I prefer the idea that he sees the Dominion responsible for her death rather than any one villain and then fought harder in the war.

        • Thomas Stockel

          Honestly, would Worf think that way? If it was her dying during some space battle then yeah, that makes sense. But this was crazypants Dukat showing up on the station and killing her. He knows specifically whom was responsible. So no, Worf patiently waiting for Sisko to get off his ass and back into the war makes no sense. Especially when Sisko never, ever makes a true effort to avenge Jadzia throughout season seven.

          And I think you’re selling Worf short. It’s not like he had to wade through a host of Dominion troops to get to Gul Dukat. The man was an independent operator at this point, going off and founding cults and such.

  • Marriage is not the cause of show failure. Shows fail after marriage because marriage was the only arrow left in the plot quiver. It is the logical close to a life chapter and thus a big event that means the series should logically end. Typically only shows that start off with the premise of characters being married (“Mad About You” “How I met your Mother”) can have such an event be a part of the narrative instead of the end goal of the narrative. Otherwise the event should be seen as a background to a bigger story, character development instead of character resolution.

  • Cristiona

    Honestly, it depends. The romance in Criminal Minds doesn’t matter because it’s a large ensemble cast. It bombed horribly with Moonlighting because the tension was a central theme, and a hook-up destroys that theme. Big Bang will probably suffer for this engagement, much like Fraiser did (and that was side characters).

    Of course, the all time winner was the old ABC show Anything But Love. They decided to have the two main characters hook up (despite the freaking title of the show!) and it more or less fell apart completely.

  • Gallen Dugall

    There are lots of niche writers in TV. People who specialize in writing one type of story. People who say they don’t know how to write children, or women, or homosexuals, or whatever. People I call bad writers. There’s half your problem right there. Marriage changes the dynamic of relationships and for relationship centered stories this means you have a fundamentally different story, and if your writers only know how to write the sort of story they wrote before it’s gonna show in the quality of their work.
    Add to that what Rocketboy1313 points out below, that marriage is used as a gimmick in shows that have already “failed” or reached their “narrative conclusion”, and I think that covers the topic comprehensively.

    • Cristiona

      It’s not just lack of skill on the writers’ part.

      If a show like Criminal Minds can’t manage it, then yes, it’s bad writing. If Friends had collapsed after Monica and Chandler, then yes, bad writers.

      But Moonlighting is a completely different example. The sexual tension between Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd was one of the core aspects of the show (possibly even more important than the detective work or the 4th wall breaking). Removing that by having them hook up gutted the show; it was never going to recover.

      In cases like Moonlighting (and, potentially, Big Bang Theory), it’s less that they don’t know how to write married characters and more that the foundation has completely shifted. Most series don’t survive having the the very core of the show abruptly changed. Archer switching from spy genre to Archer Vice is one of the rare examples.

      • Gallen Dugall

        the writer thing was just the first part of my comment
        I wouldn’t say marriage gutted Moonlighting, I would say Moonlighting reached its narrative conclusion. For some reason we can’t let good shows end here in the USAlund, we force them to go on and on long past when they are worth watching. I’m looking at you Simpsons.

        I stopped watching Archer shortly after it went Vice because their writing became super lazy… in fact it reminds me of the modern Simpsons, just limping along on blind fan support

        • Jennifer

          One commentator speculated (perhaps justifiably) that it wasn’t so much getting Maddie and David together that torpedoed the show; it was the fact that they almost immediately backpedaled and tried to keep them apart all over again. If they’d kept them together and made them into a latter-day Nick and Nora Charles, they might have succeeded…they could have kept the humor and interplay with the added dimension of the romance between them.

          • Matthew Given

            Yes exactly! I think that is what kills half these shows,it’s not putting people together it’s that 99% of the time they keep having them break up and get back together again over and over for the rest of the show’s run and that gets boring after a while.
            You cited a perfect example in Nick and Nora Charles. Watch those films and tell me that they do not have the best chemistry of any screen couple ever and they flirt way more them most other couples in anything and they work well together and yet they went through the whole normal relationship process from being married to having a kid and it never once hurt them. So it can be done and it doesn’t have to be the kiss of death. You just have to have good actors and writers who know how to use them.

      • E.Buzz Miller

        Yeah Moonlighting was built on the flirting tension that never meant to resolve itself, and so it removed the core of the characters’ premises. If they’d gone all in on it and tweaked the show to be something else it’d have worked better, but probably still not been the same show.
        Really the larger issue is they wanted the coupling to happen AND not change the show as required, and that just didn’t work.
        Trying to do both things never works, it’s why Sam and Diane slowly became odious on Cheers, because they never committed to that changing who those characters were, and kept trying to reset things by breaking them up.

      • MichaelANovelli

        I agree, but the ISIS gang switching from illegal-as-hell spy missions to just flat-out being criminals wasn’t *that* big of a stretch. 😉

  • Bouncy X

    well Big Bang Theory already got Howard and Bernadette married and its been fine. they don’t throw it in the face constantly or anything. granted they aren’t the leads but they are pretty close. so if they could pull it off with those two, can’t see why they couldn’t here. that being said, wouldn’t be surprised if it fails anyway.

  • Adam Bomb 1701

    I’m old enough to remember Valerie Harper’s series “Rhoda”, when that character left “MTM” to move to New York. Rhoda marries (a divorced man, played by David Groh) shortly into the first season; IIRC, Rhoda getting married was the reason the character was spun off. CBS realized that it had made a mistake; Rhoda was divorced by the third season, and for the rest of its run.
    “Little Joe” Cartwright was married at the start of “Bonanza”‘s fourteenth season, in a storyline meant for Hoss. Dan Blocker’s death passed that storyline to Michael Landon’s Little Joe. I don’t remember if the marriage survived past that episode, but “Bonanza” didn’t. It was cancelled midway through that season, after a timeslot change (from Sundays at 9, where it stayed at since 1959, to Tuesdays at 8.)
    Didn’t Remington Steele and Laura Holt hook up in the last season of that show?

    • Albert Giesbrecht

      Of course Adam got married and left the series.

  • Albert Giesbrecht

    You missed the best example to prove your point, mainly the marriage of Agent 86 to Agent 99, on the 1960’s version of Get Smart.

  • Matthew Given

    I think if you know how to write characters it is fine(Get Smart,Chuck,and Babylon 5 are three examples of shows I can think of where the leads got together and the shows never missed a beat and in B5’s case the show got better) and sometimes a show can go way too far keeping characters apart and it just seems like they are stupid for not seeing what is in front of them. I mean if two characters spend all their time together and are always turning to each other when they get into trouble and get mad when they see the other person dating someone else I find myself face palming when they tell other characters on the show they are not in love and they want to date someone else. Not because I care about the love story per say but because it makes characters who otherwise look smart seem like complete morons and I do have to wonder if the writers have ever met a real human before because I have never met one who acts like half the characters on TV do when it comes to relationships.
    Yes it can kill a show if it is badly handled but I also think sometimes show runners get so scared of the “M” word they pull stupid plot points out of nowhere just to stop it from happening. A Good example of this is the show Castle a show that started out taking place in what seemed to be the real world and had solid characters but now they put the two leads together and the writers are so scared that their getting married will kill the show that they are pulling all sorts of insane plot twists straight out of the sitcom soap and those are killing the show and causing the hardcore fan base to switch it off. Everything from having one of the leads cheat on the other one week after they declared their love for each other in front of other people while standing on a bomb,to having Beckett take a pointless job with the feds that only lasted three episodes and had no impact on the characters in any way since she just got her old job back the very next week(Despite the fact that one of her defining character traits has always been that she hates the feds because they take over cases and don’t care about victims and the feds she joined had just tried to cover up a murder in the same episode),to having a secret 14 year old marriage that somehow one character didn’t know about and didn’t come up in any of the background checks they had to pass in the last six years of stories including the job they took as a top level federal agent type person,to having a kidnapping and a magic memory wipe that makes no sense. it has become a straight up parody that has no logic left to any of it’s stories. I think most shows of this type should just end after four or five seasons since that seems to be how long they are able to keep the leads apart and putting them together seems to kill the shows. Instead of trying to get ten years out of a show and kill it with bad writing to keep the leads apart why don’t they just run the shows for half that time and put the leads together at the end of the last episode? That really seems like it is the best option.

    Still marriage doesn’t have to be the kiss of death,just look at Nick and Nora Charles. they were married and had a kid and yet they had the best chemistry of any screen couple ever and they flirted all the time so you don’t have to give up things like flirty or jokes just because the characters are married. You just need good writers and good actors. Sadly those seem to be in short supply on TV these days.