For the next three weeks, Vulture is holding its annual pop-culture bracket. In 2015, we battled it out for the best high-school TV show; this year, we’re determining the greatest couple on television in the past 30 years. Each day, a different writer will be charged with picking the winner of a round of the bracket, until New York Magazine TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz judges the finals, on October 14. Today’s round will decide whether Gilmore Girls’ Luke and Lorelai or Moonlighting’s Maddie and David move on to the next round. After you read, be sure to visit Vulture’s Facebook page to vote on which couple you think should advance.
Gilmore Girls’ Luke (Scott Patterson) and Lorelai (Lauren Graham) followed the socially compliant and sensible narrative of becoming friends, relying on each other, overcoming obstacles, and falling in love. Moonlighting’s David (Bruce Willis) and Maddie (Cybill Shepherd) followed the most unwise path of fighting with relentless creativity (to the point where the show’s scripts ran far longer than a typical hour-long drama), smoldering occasionally, and eventually falling on top of each other in the middle of an argument. One relationship was based on warm banter; the other was based on verbal warfare, mistrust, and insults.
I always adored watching Luke and Lorelai, and they had their own brand of crackling dialogue, as did everyone on that show. If we’re giving advice about whom to emulate, you’d have to go with Team Stars Hollow. But if we’re talking about being better television, and particularly if we’re talking about being more indelible as romantic comedy, that’s probably Team Blue Moon. So what’s the question, after all? If it’s which couple had a better chance of success, you have to bet on Luke and Lorelai, with whom we’ll be checking in shortly on Netflix. In fact, one of the drawbacks of the relationship was that they were so clearly well-suited to each other that the fact that they didn’t act on it for years (and years) seemed a bit senseless. They were both attractive, they had fun together, he loved her kid, and it generally got harder and harder to understand what they were waiting for. They were adorable.
Maddie and David, on the other hand, did not belong together according to any reasonable romantic theory. They only met because she lost all her money and suddenly had to actually run a failing detective agency he was in charge of that she’d been maintaining as a tax write-off. Yes, her surprisingly steely backbone in the wake of financial ruin was catnip to him. And yes, his needling efforts to charm and amuse her eventually charmed and amused her. But it would be dishonest not to acknowledge that what they had was chemistry in the absence of compatibility. The truth? They’d never make it in a million years. A Netflix revival would likely find them embittered exes, married to other people, hurling water glasses at each other and talking simultaneously but somehow gravitating always to the same room to have the same fight because they can’t help it.
For two reasons, Dave and Maddie win anyway.
One is that, if we’re in part judging on centrality to the show — and this is a relationship bracket, after all — their relationship, in all its weirdness and dysfunction, was the whole ball game. There were other characters, and every week there was a case to solve, but Moonlighting asked its audience to engage with their warring, door-slamming, unrelenting serve-and-volley very nearly for its own sake. It was not that romance was a natural part of a person’s fully rounded existence; it was that this romance was a spectacle, like a fireworks show or a demolition derby.
Gilmore Girls, on the other hand, was wonderful in part because its central story was Lorelai and Rory, and to a lesser degree Lorelai and her parents. Her relationship with Luke was always a complement to the real action, which was about family. So if we have to choose between two relationships, one of which carried a show on its shoulders and the other of which did not, there’s something to be said for the one that did the heavy lifting.
The other reason: Moonlighting was wickedly experimental and playful in the way it told its love story. At the time, the opposites-attract role model on television was probably Sam and Diane on Cheers, but this was Sam and Diane on speed, on rails, on a high wire. The notoriously dense scripts were full of wordplay, pop-culture references, winks to camera, surprisingly dirty innuendo for the time, and rat-a-tat fast-talking flirtation that sometimes asked them to talk at the same time for surprisingly long stretches, eventually sticking the landing by finishing in the same place. The trick episodes are famous. They played lovers in matching black-and-white fantasy sequences and played riffs on Shakespeare characters. But even day to day, they were all over the place: They dove into physical comedy bits like a food fight and one of the greatest farcical chase scenes in TV history. They made bets and argued about maturity; they hid in closets and jumped from a roof into a swimming pool. And surprisingly enough, they wound up in pretty substantive arguments at times: about euthanasia, about religion, about loyalty. About his father, his brother, her family, their exes. They talked, and they talked, and they talked. And while Luke and Lorelai were more obviously friends first, so were David and Maddie in their way: In the emotional episode “Every Daughter’s Father Is a Virgin,” he had to gently break the news to her that her father was cheating on her mother, and he did it with tenderness and kindness.
Now, we must deal with this: There is an urban legend around Moonlighting that holds that it was a victim, if not the originator, of a phenomenon in which a couple gets together and once they’re a couple, they’re not interesting anymore and the show fails. This is emphatically not what happened on this show. It’s true that it lost steam after they finally slept together, but it wasn’t because they did, and it certainly wasn’t because they became a couple — they didn’t. Instead, they were almost immediately separated again, and they stayed that way. Between hiatuses, summer break, and a long stretch of eight episodes where they were estranged and in different cities, David and Maddie appeared in two whole episodes together in the ten months after the famous “Be My Baby” scene, and the show never recovered. There was no boring domesticity, no happy coupledom. Togetherness is entirely innocent of killing this show; the culprit, in fact, was separation. A chemistry-driven show can survive the will-they option and the won’t-they option, but it cannot survive not having its leads on the screen together. (In part, on top of production delays for which the show was famous, life had intervened: Willis was making Die Hard and Shepherd was having twins.)
But despite — or perhaps because of — its challenges and flaws, Moonlighting looks now like the daring, weird, different beast it was. It was a romantic comedy, but it was out on its limb every week, relying entirely on this broken relationship of incompatible people to carry it forward.
WINNER: MADDIE AND DAVID