Monday, September 2, 2013

Recommended: Moonlighting

My roommate and I have had some good movie conversations. The guy is intelligent and thoughtful, and his taste is both good and broad. But he's also a bit younger than me. The other day, we were talking about film superstar Bruce Willis, and it suddenly struck me that maybe he wasn't as familiar with Mr. Willis as I was.

That's when I decided to show him a Bruce Willis that I correctly guessed he knew nothing about. See, Bruce used to tend bar in Jersey (yes, that line from Die Hard was a genuine in-joke) before he made his name through acting. Very quickly, he made a stellar break-out as the male lead for a new ABC mystery/comedy/drama, Moonlighting. The TV series opens with former model Madeleine Hayes (Cybill Sheppard), who wakes up one morning to learn that her accountant embezzled almost all her cash and fled to South America. In seconds, she goes from an upscale life of leisure to having to worry about her finances.

Aside from her home and material possessions, the only thing her crooked accountant left her was the Blue Moon Detective Agency. Maddy goes to inspect her last remaining investment and finds that the staff is full of assorted kooks who goof off instead of working. Case in point: the employees' limbo competition in the main room. The receptionist answers the phones with long-winded greetings that always rhyme. Next, she meets the sole manager of this nuthouse, a licensed PI called David Addison (Willis).

Rather than act like a detective or a responsible leader, David's a loud-mouthed ringleader/flirt/big brother to his coworkers. He encourages them to mess around on her dime, which immediately shocks and infuriates Ms. Hayes. She intends to close the failing business, a fact which Addison responds to with guilt, flirtation, pleading, and finally, anger. Despite chasing her away, David genuinely wants to preserve the agency (and his own job), so he relentlessly pursues Maddy to convince her to give it a shot. He breaks through her insistence when fortune sends them a case loaded with danger and international intrigue.

The pilot episode is not very good, but it has some strengths. It showcases the premise and characters slightly, yet the show still stands out as quite different. Fortunately, the series only grew stronger and funnier with time. Critics soon praised Moonlighting, and it became the breakout hit of the '85 season. It got Emmy nominations in its first year, and Emmy as well as DGA, WGA, and Golden Globe noms in most every year after. Bruce even snagged an Oustanding Male Lead Emmy, and he and Cybill took at least one GG.

Although the writing was truly exceptional, I think the biggest factor was that they aced the casting. My roomie was blown away by this young (and follicle-full) Bruce Willis, a Bruce whose style utterly changed in later years. Although Willis has shown range, these days he tends to play dour, low-energy characters. Even in relatively-recent comedies, like The Whole Nine Yards, Mr. Willis plays things very low-key. Through a few Youtube videos, I got to show, not tell, my friend that this super-serious megastar used to be... downright zany. Imagine if Daniel Day Lewis had a show that was as funny and insane as Monty Python's Flying Circus.

Yes, Bruce Willis used to be a high-energy, fast-talking, semi-manic comic actor who maybe could've gone toe-to-toe with any of the comedic movie stars of the 1980's. He neatly inhabited the role of David Addison: an average Joe with an uncommon wit, a party animal who could get his work done if pushed to it by taunting or curiosity, a sexist and big-mouthed wise-ass who is also decent and kind and just.

David Addison is, basically, an overgrown - if precocious - kid. His appeal is instant, as young Bruce is so charismatic, but it's probably saved from being annoying because the writing is so sharp and the delivery and chemistry are nearly always perfect. He also gets punched a lot, giving the viewer a check for David's worst behaviors.

This show was blessed.

The writing - my god, the writing on this show! I'm already a total sucker for a mystery, whether it's Clue, or Sherlock Holmes, or Columbo. So the first amazing thing about Moonlighting, from a writer's perspective, is how beautifully they play with language. Puns, alliteration, assonance, irony; other times, great writers like Seuss and Cummings come up. But why tell you about it when I can just show you:

or, one of my favorite moments in TV history:

David and Maddy are presented as true opposites. He is rough, where she is smooth. Hayes is orderly, while Addison is a chaotic slob. Maddy talks about her personal life the way people should with an unfamiliar supervisor, while David thoughtlessly lays it all bare. They are like positive and negative coming together to make an explosion, matched only in (a) their way with words, (b) their passionate stubbornness, (c) how quick they are to fight and disagree with one another, and (d) how loudly they could slam doors. They must place among all time TV duos, and they earn that ranking with ease.

The mystery element was always handled as smartly as Columbo's incredible how-done-it approach. Whether the instigating event occurs at the start of the show or part-way through, whether that scene is brief or long, they're intriguing. And the show sometimes takes a straight-forward or a circuitous path to winding up at the doors of Blue Moon.

But, as you can see, the genre elements were handled oddly. How many crime-fighting investigators had every mystery resolved by people other than themselves? When you watch that comedic friction arise between bickering partners, you have to be a little amazed that Maddy actually says that the cases "solved themselves. Sometimes despite your - our - efforts."

Moreover, you must understand that we're talking about a show from 1985. Although prior programs had displayed an ability to be self-aware - dating back, in my experience, at least to Jackie Gleeson's The Honeymooners - Moonlighting was over-the-top about it. Promo ads were made with Bruce and Sybill playing Dave and Maddy talking about their Emmy chances. When the series had made a few storyline mistakes and had a ratings dive due to scheduling issues (and a writer's strike, remember those?), a character might look straight at the camera and ask people to keep tuning in; they once even promised that the show would get better!

Moonlighting didn't simply break the fourth wall - they smashed straight through and bent it to their own purposes. For anyone who loves both the art and the craft of writing, this show could be such a finely-wrought master's piece that it's like a daydream.

One of the things that I respect most about this TV show is that they experimented and changed things up. Between 1985 and 1989, over 66 episodes, the series consistently demonstrated smart writing and inventiveness, especially after the first couple of eps of S1 and before S4 started...

You might watch an episode that occurs in both past and present as David gets called to go back to New York and meet the girl that got away. Much of one episode is presented in song-and-dance style sequences. The DGA-Award winning 3rd season ep, "Atomic Shakespeare" transposed the cast into a wild mockup of The Taming of the Shrew.

This is such a great episode!

The series would later fall on hard times, mainly due to two factors. First, Glenn Gordon Caron, the series' creator, would produce scripts that were double the standard length for a 1-hour show. He would also sometimes complete the script on the day filming was to begin; other times, his careful work resulted not only in rising costs, but in production delays - so a rerun would unexpectedly air when a new ep was scheduled. All these delays, coupled with that writer's strike I mentioned, proved disastrous to its success.

The other big factor was the romantic involvement between the two lead characters. David flirts with Madeleine from day one, but he does that with most females and she is genuinely repulsed by his piggish sexism and objectification of women. In the following eps, the two establish something like a rapport - they might (and will) fight at the drop of a dime, but it's not like she wouldn't care if his life were awful.

Addison, in turn, soon adds a bit of protectiveness to his fractious attitude towards his boss. It's partly, I'm sure, because she's a woman (which is patronizing), and partly because the two do learn to rely on each other after so many brushes with death. Gradually, there was a flirtatious atmosphere between the pair - when they weren't yelling at each other. Leaving aside the fact that Willis and Shepherd did actually sleep together once, David and Maddy had an undeniable chemistry, and that makes everyone think "romance."

So now we're in the 3rd season, and by its 7th episode (31st overall), the two are portraying Petruchio and Kate, Shakespeare's classic (non-mystery-solving) bickering couple. The tension had been building since at least the 10th ep, and the people in charge had continually pushed it aside. The audience wanted to see this couple get together, yet no one in production wanted to pull the trigger. Fans most likely felt more teased, not satiated, by seeing the leads together in fantasy sequences.

Then, in that season's 14th entry, our quarreling couple get intimate. There was a rival for Hayes' affections, played by a young Mark Harmon, that kicked off a multiple-episode arc. This was when most people said the show jumped the shark. Why?

Because the moment had (a) been artificially-delayed for a long time, and (probably worse) (b) the immediate aftermath was an awkward distance between the two. Suddenly, he's being all romantic and caring, while she's freaking out and backing off. No romantic wants to see two people finally come together only to immediately pull out of the whole affair.

Fortunately, Wiki matches and condenses what I've gathered through interviews and fan discussion about the DVD commentary tracks. In essence, it was behind-the-scenes factors for the fourth, penultimate season that truly sunk the ship. Bruce broke his clavicle while skiing, which limited his acting time. Cybill got preggers with twins, which reduced her availability even more so. When your series' clearest asset is chemistry between the leads, interest will decline when they spend a lot less on-screen time together.

Oh, but that's not all. Its male star was making the blockbuster hit Die Hard during S4. First, the producers had less time with Willis, and then, after that film's breakaway success, Bruce became more interested in a film career than a weekly TV show. Recall that Shepherd was already considered a big success, while "Bruno" was a nobody (sorry) whose star rose quite quickly and reached very high. At the same time, as a long-standing "name," Cybill became (understandably) less compelled to work 14-hour days on a show since she had two newborns at home. And, apparently, this pair of coworkers/former-lovers were getting more contentious in real life, as well.

Also, the series creator, producer, and head writer, Caron - or "GGC," as I often think of him - was ousted from Moonlighting about a year and a half before the whole venture imploded. The change sounds as if it came about in part from tension between GGC and Cybill Shepherd, and in part from the fact that Glenn's perfectionism had both (a) increased the show's production costs while (b) never quite managing to produce a steady run of scripts that were ready, on-time, for shooting.

Bruce also tried to parlay this into his love of singing.

And so, like a happy marriage turned utterly rotten, the once-beloved, now ratings-defunct program left the airwaves with a mixed vibe. On the one hand, it was sad for people who recalled "the good days" to see such potential turn into flatter, less-fun viewing. On the other hand, people at home were engaged by 30-odd episodes, then received another 30-odd which were a disappointment by comparison. It was a beautiful horse, once, but fanatics - those who hadn't jumped ship already - were pretty much ready for it to be put out of its misery. It's even sadder that most of the principals involved were, emotionally, way ahead of their viewers.

Y'know, what? Screw all that! For at least 35-38 episodes, Moonlighting was smart, arresting television. It expected the audience to keep up instead of talking down to them. The leads worked freakishly-well together for a long time. And it was one of the funniest things to ever air on TV. GGC's creation was bold, stylish, and influential.

For all those aspects alone, I highly recommend you check out this rightly-revered TV show - at least for the first 3 seasons. If nothing else, "youngins" like my roommate will get a great example of TV that was ahead of its time, as well as a great insight into the curious career of one Walter Bruce Willis. That dude, no matter his untouchable mega-star status now, was born in West Germany to an American soldier and a German woman. He had a stutter in high school, which he overcame through stage performances. He worked blue collar jobs - eventually tending bar in Manhattan - until he made his mark. Soon after, he overcame all odds to make into the BIGTIME.

And, whether or not success has been good for him as a thespian - I'm one of the few who criticizes his high-profile work while also acknowledging his roles in smaller-budget and independent cinema - I cannot help but thank this man for having worked on a show that repeatedly made me laugh 'til it hurt. For those of you who have never seen it, Moonlighting is readily-available with a bit of searching. Check it out, get back to me with your thoughts, and marvel at what was and what (later) could have been. Moonlighting, at its best, could rival the 2nd-8th seasons of The Simpsons for its ability to charm as well as entertain.

Bonus point: you can make fun of Maddy's insane 1980's shoulder pads, which make her look like a football linebacker.


  1. I have fond memories of this show as well and the Shakespeare episode was the best(not to mention the secretary who constantly spoke in rhyme!).

    Around the same time period,NBC has Remington Steele with Stephanie Zimbalist as a woman starting up her own detective agency but used a man's name to get credibility(how enlightened the eighties were!) and Pierce Brosnan as the mysterious con man who stepped to claim that title and worked with her.

    Both shows paved the way for such series as Castle and Bones,where the woman are professionals in their own workplace and the men offer their own brand of expertise with a light hearted touch. It's an element that really works well for the mystery genre and good for current fans to see where it all comes from-good work,Thaddeus!

    1. Thanks so much, lady t! I never saw Remington, though I knew that GGC was behind that series as well. Romance + mystery really is a classic pairing, as seen in so many of Hitchcock's early films, like The Lady Vanishes and The 39 Steps. It's a good fit.

      I have a post coming up next week that centers on a Bones cast member, but I didn't see much of that series. I found that the stories could be written well, but I didn't like the dialogue, sometimes quite strongly.

      I liked Castle because I'm a big Fillion-booster (he's got charm and acting chops to spare), but I preferred the tone from its first season.

      Eps that followed tended to put so much stress on the will-they-won't-they, and had a hard time matching tone. If it had been played more as a comedy (which it did at first), it would've been easier to swallow. But they went for the emo-drama and the crimes were often harsh enough to make the humor feel odd.

      I heard that the show was finally defusing that, and I checked in to see that the series was very much back on form after that adjustment. Good for them for correcting in mid-stream. I also do love all the TV reviews that talk about the obvious hidden love affair between the two male partners...


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