It's a familiar reference to a lot of shippers: Moonlighting. I've seen the show referenced three times in the last month alone. Once by Teen Wolf creator Jeff Davis in an interview with E! Online discussing the super popularity of the Stiles/Derek relationship, and twice - twice! - in the Entertainment Weekly fall TV preview, both in an article about the return of Castle. It's trotted out whenever writers, producers, creators, even actors are trying to explain why, even though two characters are obviously in love with each other, they haven't yet started dating. You see, they don't want another Moonlighting.
The basic idea is this: Moonlighting was a 1980s dramedy about private detectives starring Cybill Shepherd and Bruce Willis. Their characters, Maddie and David, had the familiar sexual tension, will-they-or-won't-they relationship that is so common today. They consummated their relationship in season three, which many people feel was too early. After that, the show's ratings experienced a sharp decline, which eventually led to its cancellation at the end of season four. Despite the fact that executive producer and head writer Glenn Gordon Caron has himself said that he doesn't feel that event is what made the show go downhill, everyone else seems to attribute the show's end to the David/Maddie ship becoming canon. (Jeff Davis certainly does!)
I (and probably others) call this the "Moonlighting Effect", and I also call it bullshit. Do you hear me, TPTB? Bullshit. Blaming the declining quality of a show on the relationship between two characters is completely ridiculous. For one, it's insinuating that, once two people get together, they become less interesting. For another, it's laying the blame on the viewers instead of where it should rest -- on the showrunners.
If it were true that people who are in an established relationship are less interesting than people who could potentially date, there would be no established couples on television at all. There are lots of couples who are plenty interesting. Marshall and Lily on How I Met Your Mother are two of my all-time favorite characters, and their relationship is fabulous and funny -- it's also happy and committed. Except for an extremely brief subplot in season two, they have been together the entire series. TPTB, if your writers can't write an established couple that's just as interesting as your not-yet-canon-but-getting-there pairing, then you need to find new writers. Look at Chandler and Monica on Friends. I actually liked the two of them better as a couple, and they hooked up at the end of season four in a series that had a ten-year run. In fact, just look at any series with a married couple -- Modern Family and Happy Endings immediately come to mind -- as proof that relationships can be committed and still entertaining.
If viewers lose interest in a show, if the ratings start to decline, it is up to the showrunners to take a good, long look at the show and go, "What's wrong, and how do we fix it?" It seems to be a recurring theme in Hollywood that no one knows how to make the transition from "will they or won't they" to "they did, now what?" Writers seem to be incapable of maintaining character integrity once a couple starts dating. I have a lot of issues with the Leonard/Penny pairing on The Big Bang Theory for just this reason. In season three, when the two became official, their relationship was one of the worst things about the show. Not because they were dating, but because apparently they both experienced personality overhauls, and not for the better. I won't go into my entire rant about them, but Leonard belittled Penny's beliefs and seemed to view her only in a sexual manner, and Penny constantly made "jokes" about finding a new boyfriend. Whenever their relationship was the "A" storyline, it was because they were fighting. They were always fighting. They were not good together. I danced when they broke up. Now, however, their relationship is much better (though I still don't like them), because they're actually themselves. They're not caricatures that don't make sense, and their relationship is much more organic and entertaining because of it.
Nathan Fillion (who plays Castle on Castle) is quoted in the aforementioned Entertainment Weekly as saying that viewers lose interest when a couple goes canon. I feel that is a dismissive attitude towards legions of fans, writing shippers off as fickle fangirls (or fanboys) who will jump ship once it docks. Granted, I can only speak for myself, but when I ship a couple, I invest a lot of time and energy in the characters -- that doesn't end when they finally get together. Yes, the buildup and the anticipation are fun, but it's not like I go, "Okay, now what else is on?" when a pairing kisses after years of waiting. Most shippers are attached to the characters and the pairing and aren't going to turn tail and run when they finally get what they want. There are plenty of people still interested in the Kurt/Blaine relationship on Glee even after the boys have been together an entire season (and then some). Because it is the characters who keep us interested, not necessarily their relationship status.
(Here is where I would go off on a tangent describing in great detail how I absolutely hate the overused "love triangle" plot device as a way to create drama in an established couple. Kurt and Blaine technically had two in only one season, even though there were a variety of other perfectly normal and not at all ridiculous issues that could have introduced drama into their relationship - Blaine transferring schools to be with Kurt, Kurt graduating a year ahead of Blaine, and Blaine beating out Kurt for the starring role in the musical, to name a few. However, I will spare you the diatribe and simply say this: drama for drama's sake does not go over well with fans, despite what TPTB may think.)
Showrunners are so desperate to avoid another Moonlighting (which is apparently the only television show in the history of ever) that they often drag the sexual tension out for years. As many people feel that viewers lost interest in Moonlighting because they got the characters together too soon, the reverse is also true. I like to call this the "NCIS Coefficient", in reference to Tony and Ziva on NCIS, who have been dancing around each other for approximately eight seasons. It's gotten extremely annoying. Extending a "will they or won't they" dynamic for as long as possible is not the way to keep viewers. For starters, it's unrealistic that two people would wait that long to even make a move. It's also extremely boring. And while Tony and Ziva may not want to violate Gibbs' rule #12 ("Never date a coworker" x), those of us who have been waiting...and waiting...and waiting for the two of them to finally get their act together have gotten tired of waiting.
I am just as interested in established couples as I am in couples that I want to get together. I want to see my ships last, I want to see their relationship grow and develop and mature. There are so many storylines that can grow out of a pairing that has just started a relationship (stories that avoid drama for drama's sake -- Tony and Ziva, for instance, have a ridiculous amount of baggage that would last at least a couple of seasons). Anyone who has ever read fanfic will know that the possibilities are damn near endless. If the writers of a show feel that there's nothing that can be done once a ship goes canon, then perhaps they're not very good writers. They need to stop blaming Moonlighting and start thinking about what they can do to prevent a similar situation when - and it should always be when, not if - their characters start dating.
For the record, very few things will make me lose interest in a pairing, but it has happened before. I was very active in a fandom that shall remain nameless because of a certain ship, yet after the ship became canon (acknowledged by the writers and producers in many interviews but not very evident on the show itself, oddly) there was a storyline that led to the guy cheating on the girl. I don't know about you all, but I can swallow any plotline (even cheating, though I deplore it in real life) as long as it's sold to me in a believable manner. This was not. The whole storyline was, in my opinion, poorly done, simply drama for drama's sake, and the character was ruined for me. I stopped watching the show because of it. What angered me was not necessarily the actions of this character, but more the fact that the couple barely had any time to even be a couple before they were going to the extreme "we need more drama!" plots.
If you want to keep your viewers interested, TPTB, then do the pairings justice. If it's natural for a couple to get together, then they should get together. If they don't last, then they don't last. If they start to get stale, have one of them get a new job or lose a family member, or have them go apartment hunting or, god forbid, acknowledge that they're in a rut and they should do something to spice up their love life, or even break up (to perhaps get back together later, like Ross and Rachel). And if cheating is on the menu, at least make it make sense. Don't toss it into the mix because you've already run out of ideas for a couple that's barely half a season old.
My point is, stop using Moonlighting as a crutch. Just because it didn't work on Moonlighting (whose collapse can be attributed to a variety of factors, including limited screen time between the two leads in season four, which defeats the entire purpose of getting them together, but whatever), doesn't mean it won't ever work again. Because it has worked. It can be done, TPTB. It can be done well. So suck it up and do your jobs!