“It was bound to happen sometime.” That’s what Donna said to Josh on a recent episode of The West Wing when they finally—finally—kissed, after nearly seven years of flirty banter. In that episode, Josh and Donna enjoyed a slapdash, almost unintentional, smooch, inspired by the happy news that the presidential candidate they work for was polling well. Then, in Sunday’s episode, when it became apparent that everyone else in the campaign had paired up around them, Josh and Donna had sex. Twice.
Donna was right, of course—it was inevitable that the two of them would eventually consummate their relationship. The spacey-but-shrewd, willowy blonde played by Janel Moloney has always been sweet on her boss, Josh, the gifted, sarcastic White House strategist played by Bradley Whitford, despite the fact that his hair is terrible even by D.C. standards. And though Josh has at times been dismissive of Donna’s professional ambitions, and even of Donna herself, it has often seemed that he loves her, too—especially when he sat distraught by her hospital bedside after she was nearly killed in Gaza in the Season 5 finale.
Because this is prime time, however, it was also inevitable that the courtship would take ages. Television hates nothing more than a happy couple. Elaborate mating rituals and thwarted love seem to make better viewing than the comfortable routines of life à deux. Still, seven years? Is it possible that Josh and Donna have set some kind of record?
Movies and books have it easy when it comes to romance—whatever push-and-pull they peddle can tie up near the end, leaving the viewer or reader to imagine what happens next. But on television, writers who deposit a couple in each others’ arms for the season finale must then write their way through the morning after—and the second date, and the 15th—come September. As a result, they go to great lengths to keep promising couples apart. The obvious strategy: extremely protracted wooing. On the 1980s detective show Remington Steele, for example, the workmanlike, anti-fun Laura spent four seasons infuriated by Steele’s flash and charm before she finally succumbed to it. And even Josh and Donna have occasionally been outdone. On Frasier, for example, the effete Niles pined after Daphne for a full seven years. During most of that time, his efforts to pursue her were so pathetic that she didn’t even notice; it was Frasier who finally blabbed.
In other cases, a pair gets together, only to break up and then make up again with the regularity of an oscillating fan. See: Sam and Diane from Cheers, Big and Carrie from Sex and the City, and, perhaps most notably, Ross and Rachel from Friends. That couple got together in the show’s second season, only to hit the skids the following year, calling it quits after Ross had a one-night stand when he thought they were “on a break!” They got married while drunk in the fifth season, and even had a baby together in the eighth, but it wasn’t until the series finale—naturally—that they finally overcame their years of ups and downs.
Sometimes it takes a cockamamie plot device to keep a lovelorn couple apart. On Alias, for example, as soon as double agent Sydney fell into bed with her CIA handler Vaughn, kidnappers abducted her and faked her death. And in the 1998 X-Files movie, Mulder and Scully’s long-anticipated initial hookup was thwarted when Scully was—of all things—stung by a bee. Anaphylactic shock is a mood-killer, to be sure. In the seasons of the television show that followed, the couple shared a few measly kisses. Wherever they are now, I hope they’re compensating for their chastity. (In the world of fan fiction, they certainly are.)
When did these stunted relationships become so prevalent? Did the trend begin with M*A*S*H, which featured derisive repartee between Hawkeye and Hot Lips? Did the respectful but playful dynamic between Mrs. Peel and John Steed of The Avengers pave the way for Mulder and Scully? Cheers was one of the first comedy programs to make sexual tension its central premise. Sam and Diane’s love-hate relationship drove the show during its Shelley Long years, and made a serial out of a sitcom. The couple’s power struggle had more in common with Dallas than it did with Happy Days, All in the Family, or any other successful sitcom that came before it—Friends would not have existed if Cheers hadn’t.
Today, as slow-motion courtships proliferate onscreen—see the Kate-Jack-Sawyer triangle on Lost, Jim and Pam on The Office, Grissom and Sara on CSI—it’s important to remember that we’re living in the Moonlighting era. Almost 20 years after the Bruce Willis-Cybill Shepherd detective series ended, it is Moonlighting’s post-coital flameout that keeps the Joshes and Donnas of the world fully clothed. The show had been on for less than two years when US Magazine—not a weekly yet, if you can remember such a world—screamed “Do It, Already!” in a February 1987 cover story. A month later, David and Maddie obliged, before an astonishingly large audience of 60 million viewers. (The Friends series finale drew 52.5 million.) From there, Moonlighting seemed almost cursed. Shepherd’s pregnancy absented Maddie from the story for months the following season, and then a 1988 writers’ strike caused all television production to shut down. When Moonlighting came back after a nine-month absence, it had a terrible 13-episode fifth season, crawled into the forest, and died.
Since then, we’ve all grown used to the couples we love waiting a lot longer than two years to get it on. The problem seems to be that writers and actors are unable to reliably generate and sustain palpable sexual buzz between two characters who are actually having sex—which may be a depressing comment about life in general. After all, what do you replace that fun flirtatious energy with? Discussions about what to order from Fresh Direct?
In its sixth season, Gilmore Girls presents an interesting cautionary tale. The iconoclast Lorelai and the grumpy Luke got together at the end of Season 4, temporarily delighting fans. But during the show’s fifth season, it became apparent that the two actors are simply not physically comfortable with each other: We barely see them kiss or show any affection—and thank God for that.
What to do? Most viewers still want the couple to end up together; we just don’t want to watch them be together. You can see why the writers might resort to a temporary breakup—one that endures for about as long as the Gilmore Girls runs and then gets resolved by the series finale. If they do, I’ll play along. The marriage plot remains a tried-and-true narrative thread, and in Victorian novels it never bothers me when a seemingly unworkable relationship is miraculously, happily tied up in the final pages. If these lengthy hindrances and postponements are simply the television equivalent, then I’m willing to believe Donna, Rachel, Carrie and every other Jane Eyre-inspired sister when she finally tells me—right at the end—”Reader, I married him.”