We’ll walk by night. We’ll fly by day. Moonlighting strangers who just met on the way.
DVD Review: Moonlighting Seasons 1 & 2
By David Mumpower
May 31, 2005
Anyone who had a smile brought to his or her face by these lyrics knows where I am going with this. The moment we have awaited for years has finally come to pass. The best show of the 1980s, Moonlighting, arrives on DVD today.
At the start of 1985, the television landscape was dominated by standard action fare such as The A-Team and Magnum P.I. along with conventional sitcoms such as the instant hit The Cosby Show. But there was an undercurrent that the cable television era required network television to re-evaluate its formulaic products. The debut of Cheers had opened up a new avenue for character development. This critical darling showed that the only two popular genres of the era, comedy and drama, could be blended together into a previously unknown amalgam, the dramedy. The Emmys dominance of Sam Malone and Co. demonstrated that the bar had been raised for network television.
More importantly, desperate network execs at ABC took heed of the fact that their peers at NBC had righted a flagging ship. All that was required was to take a gamble on a show that proved impossible to pigeonhole into any known formula (and hire Bill Cosby). In a brazen attempt to duplicate this success, ABC spent the first quarter of 1985 endlessly hyping their most ambitious production ever. The final commercial before the pilot ran even apologetically ended the campaign with, "The promotion is finally over. Moonlighting is next." Why all the hype? Part of it was the network's current state of wretchedness. Most of it, however, was recognizing greatness when it's placed squarely on your doorstep.
Creator Glenn Gordon Caron caught lightning in a bottle with his premise, one which was somewhat ironically forced upon him by the network as part of a three pilot contract agreement. ABC wanted to rip off the success of one of their few hit shows, Hart to Hart. They also wanted to add in a splash of the copycat series of competing networks, Remington Steele and The Scarecrow and Mrs. King. The snag was that Caron, a former writer on Remington Steele, wanted no part of couples detective television. It was exactly this sort of pigeonholing that had caused him to become unemployed in the first place. Since he had no choice, though, he went with it.
The catch involved his lack of guidelines. There were no further instructions other than “couples detective series”, allowing Caron to set out to write a show with a target audience of one person, himself. As is so often the case, the scribe presumed his niche style would alienate the stubbornly conservative television viewers of the mid-'80s, but it proved to be a watershed moment in serial television. His decision was to focus on dialogue to a degree that had never been attempted in the network era. In point of fact, it was a tried and true brand of comedy dating back to the Howard Hawkes screwball comedy era, but television convention historically eschewed fast-paced, confrontational dialogue. Until Moonlighting.
While Gilmore Girls fans would be right at home with rapid fire quips, occasionally occurring at the same time, in 1985, no one knew what to think of the product. In fact, a critic at the LA Times famously attacked the pilot only to rescind his comments a month later when he finally caught up to the game speed of the dialogue. His reaction was emblematic of the problems faced by the show in the early days, but despite the public’s apprehension about the sheer velocity of the punch-lines, they were captivated nonetheless. This was the show that introduced the “Will they or won’t they?” theme of sexual tension to the North American lexicon. Moonlighting became instant water cooler television, ubiquitous programming that garnered a thunderbolt of media attention not just for its quality but also for the behind-the-scenes encounters of its stars.
Cybill Shepherd had become a star at the tender age of 21. Her work in The Last Picture Show, both dressed and naked, made her a celebrity. By the time the mid-'80s rolled around, though, she was a 30-something actress in a town where anything over 29 is too old. When the opportunity arrived to play a bankrupt actress turned private detective and romantic sparring partner, the southern belle jumped at the opportunity to restore her fading glory. Her co-star was a street tough bartender and unknown actor from New Jersey. His name was Bruce Willis, and his star ascended as rapidly as has ever been seen in the industry due to this series combined with the movie he got because of it, Die Hard.
Shepherd and Willis had the kind of chemistry that cannot be replicated outside a laboratory setting. The flip side of their relationship was that all the heat had to come from somewhere. In their instance, it was forged in the fire of conflict. Shepherd and Willis have both confided on several occasions that most arguments written into the script were unintentionally practiced beforehand. The duo had difficulty being in the same room together without getting into some sort of verbal brawl. The accidental output from their frequent hostile encounters was that their passion carried over onto the set, resulting in some of the best he said/she said tête-à-tête ever filmed. The overall effect was similar to William Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew, a fact not lost on the cast and crew. The finest moment in the show’s history was a send-up of that very production.
So what makes Moonlighting so special and, more germane to this discussion, a must-own DVD set? The quality of the show’s writing is peerless, even to this day. When Bravo was re-running the episodes in 2003, I marveled at how well the dialogue held up some 20 years later. While re-watching the episodes in anticipation of this column, I am again left dumbstruck by the timelessness of the content. Moonlighting maintains its elegance even in the face of a media-savvy generation that has been become jaded to the tricks that once made the show so novel. Bruce Willis was not the first actor to break the fourth wall in his delivery, but he was the best. That track record still largely stands. When he looks into the camera and cracks wise about the more absurd plot elements, his comic timing resounds as an unmistakable superstar finding himself for the first time. Watching the early days of Moonlighting is the rare opportunity to see greatness in its genesis, then be able to track the evolution into legendary status.
Before the show became the poster child for excess and poor planning, it afforded a rare opportunity to viewers. The first two seasons of Moonlighting are flawless television and the crown jewel of 2005 DVD box sets. This is a must-own compilation.