Get the TV kisses right and everybody wins

From <em>Friends</em> to <em>Cheers</em> to <em>Buffy the Vampire Slayer</em>, not all television couples have to ruin the show.

 

“A kiss is not a contract but it’s very, very nice,” sang the Flight of the Conchords in their HBO series. They’re correct but a kiss is a sort of seal on a romantic deal. A kiss says: “We have started something.” But that’s in real life. On television, a firm lip-lock is just as likely to be the end. If a face can launch a thousand ships, a kiss can just as easily sink ’em.

This summer, as I venture through the wasteland of pop culture, I’ll also be making the case for why it’s important. Television is real life as much as it’s not: we are often looking to it to show us worlds that we could never enter, while also reflecting the everyday situations we can connect with. The ABC show Scandal is exciting when Olivia Pope walks into the Oval Office to talk communications strategy with the president but when the pair swerve out of the range of the security cameras so they can kiss adulterously – that’s what we recognise as “real”, at least to an extent.

It was the same with the “Will they/won’t they?” of Ross and Rachel in Friends a decade ago. The kiss is important and when beloved characters give in, sometimes after months or years of yearning, missed connections and other writer-induced obstacles, our reaction can be visceral. Why, we often find ourselves wondering, would you go and do a thing like that and ruin everything?

Television fans, like most fans of popular culture, are inveterate list-makers: their favourite, their least favourite, the best, the worst, and so on. Telly kisses are a category all on their own. A request on social media for people’s opinions on TV programmes ruined (my emotive word choice, granted) by an ill-judged – or, more usually, “ill-handledin- the-aftermath” – kiss yielded several examples, accompanied by howls of rage un - dimmed by the years since cancellation.

One that sits in our collective TV memory is the smouldering consummation between David and Maddie in the 1980s comedy drama Moonlighting. It’s spawned the “Moonlighting curse”, referring to the diminished fizz between Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd after their season-three clinch (“I’m sick of this – two years of ‘Is you is’ or ‘Is you ain’t’,” barks David, before the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” kicks in and they kiss and roll around on the carpet).

Moonlighting’s dwindling ratings were not solely down to the kiss but the myth persists. Look away now, fans of E4’s New Girl, but that barnstormer of a kiss Nick and Jess shared recently (“I mean, yeah, I saw through space and time for a minute but that’s not the point”) has brought it back to the fore. It’s still a fact that giving in to characters’ lust is playing with fire and can be tricky as hell to pull off.

There can be no one out there who will defend the Niles and Daphne kiss – and eventual marriage and baby – on Frasier, nor the terrible pairing off of Joey and Rachel in Friends: those decisions were indefensible acts of TV cruelty.

But consider this – the first Ross and Rachel kiss came relatively early, in season two, without wrecking the show and the show-runners did it again with Monica and Chandler several seasons later. Did Buffy and Spike getting together kill Buffy the Vampire Slayer or ultimately enhance it? The Mulder and Scully kiss, ambiguous when it came in season seven of The X-Files, was somehow perfect; the kisses in NBC’s Community are practically built into the set. Perhaps the lesson here is to do it with minimum fuss – no unnecessarily extended arcs that can provide too many opportunities to mess up the delicate ecosystem of a show. The kiss is not the problem, you see – it is the handling of the after-effects.

In Fox’s crime drama Bones, after a long and celebrated denial of attraction, the forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan and the FBI agent Seeley Booth hook up off-screen and return in the next season with a pregnancy and work as usual. In NBC’s Parks and Recreation, Leslie and Ben manage to get – and stay – together with almost no show fallout.

So the kiss doesn’t haven’t to be a deafening record scratch in a TV show. The real test, which, for my money, New Girl is handling realistically and admirably so far, is how the resulting shockwaves are dealt with. It can and has been done well, from Cheers to Ed. Get that right and everyone wins.

Ross and Rachel in Friends.

Bim Adewunmi writes about race, feminism and popular culture. Her blog is  yorubagirldancing.com and you can find her on Twitter as @bimadew.

This article first appeared in the 20 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Dream Ticket

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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear