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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.