Friday, March 05, 2010


Some walked by night...

By Alex Ricciuti
By the mid-'80s, scripted American television already was more than 30 years old and it was showing its age. So much of it had become stale, formulaic and highly standardized. There were sitcoms and there were dramas. Cop shows had been on the wane since the end of the '70s and for the most part TV sucked, just like it still does today. Yes, there are exceptions (Mad Men, Lost, etc.) and these exceptional shows owe a debt of gratitude to those that tried to break those formulaic molds of the past.

On March 5, 1985, ABC began airing Moonlighting. A screwball comedy, a detective/mystery, a drama, a show that broke the fourth wall, sometimes with incredible wit, sometimes with cringe-inducing contrivance, a crime show about a detective agency with no clients. Madeleine 'Maddie' Hayes was a spoiled ex-model who got taken for everything she had by her thieving accountant and left with nothing except ownership of the Blue Moon Detective Agency.

And there was David Addison, the iconic American white male - smart, arrogant and a fast-talking con-man. From the beginning there was something...shall we say, Remington Steele-ish about David Addison (creator Glenn Gordon Caron had worked on that show too). Was that his real name? Who was this guy and where did he come from?

Hey, remember when Bruce Willis was talented and funny? What went wrong? Did losing his hair make him that insecure?

With a theme song performed by jazz great Al Jarreau, an infinite amount of homages to Hitchcock, film noir, the screwball comedies of Howard Hawks, the show established the broadest tonal parameters of any previous scripted fare on TV, moving effortlessly from comedy/parody to mystery/drama to melodrama without missing a beat. Subsequent shows which tried to balance genres, from Ally McBeal to The Sopranos, have obviously taken their cues from Moonlighting in blending outright comedy with brutal drama.

And it's lamentable but honest to say that Bruce Willis has never been better since. Have a look for yourself, it's shocking to recall what a brilliant performer he could be. In his work since, we are only given a few glimpses of Addison, usually in those few good quips of his in the otherwise brooding, tough-guy persona he adopted for the Die Hard movies and that he was never able to let go of. There have been some exceptions, notably Nobody's Fool and Pulp Fiction, but this is 2010 and both those films were more than 15 years ago.

Think of George Clooney and what a great comedic actor he's been in those Coen brother's comedies – O Brother. Where Art Thou, Intolerable Cruelty and Burn After Reading. Recalling Willis' raw energy in Moonlighting, you can easily see him doing something very similar. He opted for the action hero thing and the audience lost out.

Moonlighting had many classic episodes, such as the extended dream sequence one which placed David and Maddie in a 1940s neo-noir murder mystery setting, each character with their own version of events. It even had a running-gag nod to Fellini, with a recurring reference to the unsolved Anselmo case – Guido Anselmo being the name of the director played by Marcello Mastroianni in Fellini's 8½.

The show was at its best when it played as straight comedy. The wild, witty banter between David and Maddie. David's usual antics, with the office-chair races and sing-a-longs. Moonlighting was simply fun to watch.

Cybill Shepherd was great too. But not an undiscovered talent like Willis. She was already known to be sexy and funny – always a rare combination of talents.

And Moonlighting loved Vertigo. They once did a whole episode which was a total take on that Hitchcock classic. In the more romanticized, mystery-laden shows, the music always echoed Bernard Herrmann's score from that film. (Cybill Shepherd herself starred in another film heavily resonant of Vertigo, Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver.)

But then the show lost it which likely again served as a cautionary tale to subsequent show runners on how to keep suspense and dramatic tension going over several seasons. Show do these things much better today – yes, I mean Lost.

The show was plagued by production problems, discord between the co-stars, Willis' ever-growing ego...and so, the thing kind of fell apart. Willis had bigger plans in mind and the writing became too self-conscious, too self-referential, and outright lazy. That's TV.

Without the likes of Moonlighting and Twin Peaks, for both their inspiration and their terrible blundering, you wouldn't have the kind of slow-burning narratives that are so effectively employed in many of the classic TV show of the last decade. Those shows have been able to sustain dramatic tension over the course of many seasons because the creator/producers and writers of today, like so many of us, grew up watching lots and lots of TV.

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The saddest part of Moonlighting was watching the show self-destruct before your eyes -- and even that was filmed (though I think you underplay Cybill's role in that. She's been a pill on every show she's worked on. She's basically scarred Alan Ball for life. I lost count of how many characters on Six Feet Under were thinly veiled takes on her.) Then there was also Willis' back injury to deal with... Allyce Beasley and Curtis Armstrong did what they could, but the sidekicks couldn't completely take over and save the show. At least we'll always have "Atomic Shakespeare."
I was such a fan of this show. Atomic Shakespeare is one of my all-time happiest tv viewing experiences. I loved the sheer creativity.

You're right, Edward. We all watched it self-destruct. C'est la vie.
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