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 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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Pete Burns: too abrasive to be a national treasure, his talent made him immortal

The musician's vulnerability and acute individualism made him hard to pigeonhole but ensured endless media fascination.

When Dead Or Alive's “You Spin Me Round” was number one in 1985, the singer Pete Burns found himself trapped in a limousine by screaming schoolgirls. It's a common enough occurrence — overnight success, autograph hunters, fans wanting a piece of you — but in this case Burns was in his hometown of Liverpool and the schoolgirls were screaming “We’re going to kill you, you fat poof!” From the moment Burns hit the public eye, his untethered wit and unapologetic appearance had the ability to inspire, inflame, and get under society's skin.

In 1985, freshly famous, Burns was already a familiar face about town. Liverpool's centre is compact, and he traversed it every day in the early Eighties to work in Probe Records, the city's equivalent to Rough Trade. Behind the counter, working alongside possibly the most caustic shop assistants in the country, Burns was the most approachable. His demeanour was something quite different, though – hair teased up into a dark lion's mane, a cloak dragging behind him decorated with bells that jangled ominously whenever he moved (he could be audible streets away), and black contact lenses for added horror. 

He looked like a star in waiting, but was in the shadow of Liverpool's Crucial Three: Ian McCulloch, Julian Cope and Pete Wylie. The relentless electro pulse of “You Spin Me Round” was light years away from the first Dead Or Alive single in 1981, an extraordinary slice of neo-psychedelia called “Flowers”, on which Burns' booming, vibrato-loaded voice seemed to be urging us to travel on a gothic time-travelling galleon back to San Francisco: “What's wrong with this world?” he roared, over shrill organ and sheets of echoed guitar. Liverpool's brief but iridescent pop revival at the turn of the Eighties – a dark strain of melodicism that linked Echo & the Bunnymen, the Teardrop Explodes, Wah! Heat and early Dead Or Alive — would later be succinctly demystified by Burns: everybody took acid, they all pretended they were living on the West Coast in 1967 rather than Toxteth in 1980, and they all listened to the Doors.

By the time “You Spin Me Round” hit number one in March '85, Burns' acid tongue and working class glamour were a necessary corrective to a year which would make stars of such catastrophically dull acts as the pop duo Go West. He was just what the media wanted after Boy George acquired a destructive heroin habit and fell from grace.

Neither was ever likely to happen to Pete Burns. He felt uncomfortable around anyone out of control on booze or drugs as it reminded him of his upbringing. His mother had escaped Nazi Germany, married a Scottish soldier, and settled in Liverpool. She became a depressive alcoholic after discovering what had happened to her Jewish family during the Holocaust in Germany. Burns made several suicide attempts, he said, to keep her focused and alive.

This vulnerability was combined in childhood with an acute individualism. He wore an American Indian headdress to primary school one day and refused to take it off. He fought compromise and conformity at every turn, and didn't care a hoot if schoolgirls called him a “fat poof”. He was never off, not even for a tea break; he was Pete Burns, full time. A friend of mine recalls being in the queue for a Liverpool club called the System in 1982 — Burns passed him, pulling full-on dance moves when he was only halfway down the steps, which led directly onto the dancefloor — he hadn't even paused to say hello to anyone.

As a pop star, Burns clearly couldn't give a shit, and wouldn't play ball with radio, record companies or the press. Fame didn't tighten his tongue, though it did allow him to be outrageous on a heightened level. After Haircut 100's Nick Heyward gave Dead Or Alive a pasting in a Melody Maker, the group burst into a toilet cubicle and sprayed Heyward with five fire extinguishers. On tour in America, Burns called his press officer's house at 3am in the morning, screaming “I need a plug! A rubber plug! For this fucking bath!” The upshot of the conversation was that Burns had never seen a bath plug operated by a plunger rod.

Pop stardom in Britain, then, was brief. The PWL team that gave him “You Spin Me Round” (their first number one, and unarguably their best) quickly cooled on him, following it with lukewarm soundalikes – only the luxuriant “In Too Deep” came close to matching its fire. Dead Or Alive's next truly great record wouldn't be until 1988 with “Turn Around And Count 2 Ten”, another poppers-at-the-ready electro-blitz which only reached number 70 in the UK but made him a superstar in Japan.

Burns' vulnerability later resurfaced in endless, much documented plastic surgery – he said that the only part of his body that hadn't had work were the soles of his feet. He was always too abrasive to become a national treasure, but he must have known that “You Spin Me Round” had effectively made him immortal — uncoverable, perfect, a saturated record on which it is impossible to add anything. It's so euphoric, so very full of life.


Reflections on Pete Burns:

Gary Kemp, musician and actor

"Pete was one of a triumvirate of cross-dressed boy stars, brought up on a diet of glam rock, who stormed the barricades of macho rock in the Eighties. He also created one of the best white dance records of all time."


Julian Cope, musician and author

"In a sense I’m relieved for him, he was in such pain and was never happy with how he looked… there was something so inevitable about his death, but it’s important that he’s remembered as a truly significant cross-cultural figure

I think the gender fluidity that exists today is really fucking useful — if Pete had become famous now he would have been fine… he was a pioneer. I think he had hero qualities.

He knew so much about music, especially underground stuff, but when other people were around he would revert to his thick babe persona. He wanted to appear superficial, but he was no more superficial than [Andy] Warhol. He was a deep mother fucker.

Pete was forced in a novelty direction by the time he lived in. He demanded that the rest of the world look at, not away from, people who were different.

Pete tried to live in freedom and at least where’s gone to he will find peace."


Bob Stanley is a writer and a member of the pop group Saint Etienne. His book, Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Story of Modern Pop is published by Faber & Faber.