“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.