Thursday, June 08, 2006


Remembering Moonlighting

By Edward Copeland
March 3, 1985, Moonlighting hit the airwaves with its two-hour pilot. I didn't see it immediately — I'm not sure when I caught on to it, but it soon became one of my favorite TV shows of the time — perhaps all time — until off-camera shenanigans and production problems helped march the show to its own self-destruction.

Just recently, I revisited Seasons 1-3 of Moonlighting and rediscovered its charms and watched the signs as the show spun out of control. To be honest, there's not much past Season 3 worth taking a look at. I also remembered the frustration that came week after week after with reruns because they couldn't pull a new episode together. Imagine if the show premiered now, on HBO perhaps, and a few weeks would seem like nothing compared to the interminable delays HBO forces on fans of its programs. Moonlighting also would have been able to get away with shorter seasons without anyone blinking an eye.

It hardly would have mattered because rewatching Season 3, with the great dramatic arc of the Dave-Maddie-Sam triangle, and you see that they really wrote themselves into a corner. The problem wasn't that everyone was impatient about Maddie and Dave getting together, it's that once they did, there wasn't much left to do. Those series of episodes were priceless and few television moments have been as sad as a rain-soaked David showing up at Maddie's door with flowers at 4 in the morning only to have Mark Harmon open the door. They also were smart by making Harmon's character of Sam such a nice guy that it didn't fall into the typical triangle where there was a bad guy. In fact, really Dave is the point of the triangle that's lacking, no matter how much viewers loved him. I take that back — really it was Maddie that was the problem. Perhaps Sam and Dave should have been the couple — they seemed more compatible.

Season 3 is priceless. Aside from the triangle episodes, it offered gems like "Big Man on Mulberry Street," with its six-minute dance scene directed by Stanley Donen, and of course what is perhaps the greatest of all Moonlighting episodes, "Atomic Shakespeare," with their take on the Bards Taming of the Shrew. It's not that Moonlighting wasn't able to mix drama with its silliness to great success, as when Maddie discovered her father had been unfaithful or in the aforementioned "Big Man on Mulberry Street" when a good friend of David's dies and leads to the revelation that he was once married to his sister. However, once the dramatic element was about Dave and Maddie and Sam, there really was no going back. They tried — somewhat successfully with the detective story that ran throughout the triangle episodes and ended in one of those crazy chases, but at the same time, it seemed out of place with the main storyline. They tried again in the season's final episode where they pushed the Dave-Maddie relationship to the background of a case, but something had been irretrievably lost.

Of course, the problems on the set didn't help with Cybill Shepherd's unexpected pregnancy, Bruce Willis' broken collarbone and whatnot. Perhaps Moonlighting was too bright a star in the firmament of great TV shows not to burn out quickly. What happened in the seasons to follow, while not without its moments, was a televised trainwreck as they fumbled with what to do, having Maddie get pregnant and run away, David mistakenly jailed and poor sidekicks Agnes Dipesto and Herbert Viola (Allyce Beasley and Curtis Armstrong) forced to pick up the slack. While they were great, they couldn't handle the load alone as faithful viewers were growing more and more annoyed by the directionless nature of the show and the frequent absences of the leads. Then, there was perhaps the most bizarre episode ever, the 5th season opener "A Womb with a View," where they transformed a clip show into a musical miscarriage. Yes, the wait for Dave and Maddie to get together wasn't the problem (hell, it was only 38 episodes spread out over a little more than two years), they should have never put them together in the first place, letting the passions go on unsatisfied. I'll always treasure those first three seasons (a mere 39 episodes) as something special and try to pretend that the series ended with Dave and Maddie rolling down the hill in their car as they broke their non-sex pact one last time.

As for the DVD extras, there are some nice commentary tracks, including ones where Cybill Shepherd does her best Rod Steiger lunatic impression, and some nice documentaries. One thing I learned that I never realized while watching the show: how many scenes were filmed with doubles, since Cybill worked better in the mornings and Bruce worked better in the afternoons. Hell, for much of their climactic lovemaking, they both weren't there at the same time. Somehow, that seems like an apt metaphor for what happened to the show in general.

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I've all but written off MOONLIGHTING over the years. I only viewed it intermittently back in the day - this piece makes me want to go rent some of the DVDs. Nice!
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