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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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis