Castle, Moonlighting & the story problem of sexual tension

castleFrom time to time here, I write about television shows and movies.  They’re not really reviews, they’re just me studying story structure, because I find story structure fascinating, especially as it plays out in serialized formats like television drama.

So, I want to talk about the Castle season finale. I started watching Castle at the end of last season, and I recently picked up the first two seasons of Moonlighting on DVD.

Apparently, I have a thing for ABC dramas. It’s not intentional; it just seems to work out that way. I loved Moonlighting when I was in junior high. Like, “bought Bruce Willis’ awful album on cassette” loved Moonlighting.  Respect Yo-self!

MOONLIGHTINGMy husband Chris, who has seen only parts of 1 or 2 episodes of either series, remarked: “You love Castle because it’s the 2011 version of Moonlighting.”  He’s probably right.

I don’t want to spoil the Castle season finale in the event you haven’t seen it month later, but still intend to at some point.  I will say that it raises a question I have heard repeatedly asked about the series and others like it:

“Can a series built on unresolved romantic or sexual tension survive more than a few seasons?”

Also known as “the Moonlighting Curse.”

Which brings us back to story structure and plot development in a serialized format.  Which, of course, brings us back to LOST.

Typical story structure is described as an “arc” for a reason; there’s the introduction, the rising action, the climax and the denouement.  In emotional terms, you’re asked to make an emotional investment in the characters and their main problem, action and tension builds toward a deciding moment, and then you deal with the fallout and resolution of that deciding moment.

In plotting LOST, Lindelof and Cuse patterned their arc after JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series: smaller arcs that contribute to and eventually create one big arc.  They’ve often described each season as a “book” in a series, and they meant “series” in the literary sense, not the television sense. Their biggest structure problem was that they didn’t know if they were writing a trilogy, the Chronicles of Narnia (7 books) or the Encyclopedia Britannica, until they were almost three years in.  And if you think story structure isn’t important, look at the quality difference in writing immediately before and after that decision was made.

“The Moonlighting Curse” is a different kind of story arc pacing problem.

Each episode of Moonlighting or Castle (or Bones, but I haven’t really gotten into that series yet) is a “book” in that “smaller arcs that eventually create a big arc” format. Because yes, in each episode, you care about whodunnit. The episode-level problem is solving a murder.  But the big arc, the one that has its emotional hooks sunk into your psyche, is “Will these two people who are obviously perfect for each other end up together?”

There are two story pacing problems inherent in romantic tension. The first is the scale of the central conflict: it’s much smaller than, say, stopping Voldemort/Sauron/Randall Flagg’s impending evil empire.  As much as people talk about “epic romance,” I’m sorry to tell you that romance is not an epic problem. Its impact scales down to the size of two or three people.  Your audience doesn’t have the same level of patience for seeing that story play out.

The second problem is frequency: at around 20 episodes a season, by season 3 your story has had an Encyclopedia Britannica of volumes to get to resolution.  Even if you’re touching on the central conflict only lightly in each episode–your audience is going to be ready for it to reach a conclusion by then.

Soap operas handle this problem by having you reinvest your emotions in a new set of couples every season or so.  Structurally, they’re like romance novels that are all set in the same town; there is no big arc, just a constant stream of small arcs.

This won’t work for Castle or Bones, though, because they’re so firmly tied to the series leads.  What Castle will have to do, that Moonlighting couldn’t, is change the big problem and move on to a new big arc. They have to make the problem “Can these two people who are still so different stay together?” as compelling and fun to watch as the “will they get together?” problem.

If you’ve seen any of the Thin Man movies with Myrna Loy and William Powell, you have an idea of how you solve the Moonlighting curse. Because absolutely, a couple that is together and committed can generate sexual tension, engage in a lot of fun verbal sparring matches, and keep you invested in their story.  Anybody who’s been married any length of time knows getting together is a freaking cakewalk compared to staying together.  There’s plenty of dramatic tension and plot potential there.

There’s a point at which the series has to do an about-face and go from It Happened One Night to The Thin Man.


  1. Chris

    Good luck to them, Lois and Clark couldn’t make the “staying together” interesting enough to keep it on the air…

  2. Kat French

    I blame the writers. I honestly think making a relationship work in that case had a lot of conflict potential. But the writers just clearly were phoning it in at that point.


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