Welcome to another Wildcard Wednesday! Over the holidays, I had the opportunity to screen — mostly for the first time — the complete series of Moonlighting (1985-1989, ABC), the iconic detective drama/romantic comedy that relaunched Cybill Shepherd’s career and helped rocket Bruce Willis to stardom. As star-crossed (or moon-crossed) partners, David Addison and Maddie Hayes’ rocky will-they-won’t-they dynamic made the show more than your typical murder mystery procedural. But from the start, the series was plagued by production delays that yielded a far smaller episodic output than ordered by ABC. (This meant a lot of material thrown to Allyce Beasley as the quirky receptionist, Agnes, who had to pick up the slack and allow time off for Shepherd and Willis, both of whom developed reputations of difficulty.) Over four-and-a-half years, only 65 hours were produced (plus a two-hour TV movie pilot). The show was in reruns far more than any other on the network, and this began to define the series even more than the romance. In this post, along with one in April and another in May, I’m sharing both my thoughts on the show’s trajectory and my picks for the series’ best episodes.
But I’m not your typical Moonlighting fan. While I absolutely believe the dynamic between Maddie, the former model who discovers she owns a detective agency, and David, the fun-loving investigator who melts her icy exterior, is what makes this show special, I also do not believe that a great episode of Moonlighting is dependent on heavy relationship-oriented story points. In other words, I prefer a script in which their interaction is inspired by the weekly happenings; I don’t need the weekly happenings to be about their interaction. The show works best when an episodic mystery exists in the same space as the couple’s chemistry-popping banter. Offerings in which the sole plot deals with their tiring and occasionally sappy back-and-forth dynamic generally disappoint, because the show never handles their “relationship” in a completely believable or satisfying manner. This is because David and Maddie live and breathe based on the will-they-won’t-they tension, and that usually works best when it’s more subtextual than “maintextual.” Furthermore, a fantastic Moonlighting balances goofy slapstick with high-stakes emotional drama, something that’s so difficult to accomplish (and many more series this decade would try but fail). As a result, finding a good episode of this series is harder than it should be. It’s an unfortunate truth that more episodes miss than hit. But, and this I believe wholeheartedly, the hits are worth all the misses.
The first season consists of a two-hour pilot (which, for once, I’m going to count as one episode — the way it’s listed on the DVDs) and five regular episodes. ABC ordered six, but production was unable to deliver. Creator Glenn Gordon Caron, who wrote several early episodes of Remington Steele, was heavily involved in these initial episodes, and they’re the most mystery-focused of the show’s entire run. But Moonlighting‘s mysteries are spotty, and it takes until the end of the season for the show to reach the sweet spot of calibration between the types of stories they’re telling and the chemistry displayed between Shepherd and Willis. The production problems become noticeable in Season Two, which features only 18 episodes. During this time, in which Moonlighting is in its freshest and least-bumpy era, the show establishes its penchant for breaking the fourth wall. That is, Moonlighting makes it a point to acknowledge the audience’s existence, and while the initial breaks of character involve quick throwaway lines or episodic introductions by the cast, some of the gimmicks become more pronounced and exaggerated as the year progresses. For instance, the season finale culminates in a chase sequence through the studio, has its action interrupted by a props master, and ends with David and Maddie leaving the soundstage while bidding each other a farewell until the fall.
As you can see, Moonlighting took chances — partly for necessity, partly for art. And more than anything else, that’s what makes it worthwhile. Now, for my favorites from the first two years, listed in airing order with the two-hour pilot considered as one individual installment (and remember, I’m not like most fans…)
Season One (Spring 1985)
01) Episode 6: “The Murder’s In The Mail” (Aired: 04/02/85)
David and Maddie go to collect fees from a client, only to discover him dead.
Written by Michael Scheff & Mary Ann Kasica | Directed by Peter Werner
As the finale to the abbreviated Season One, this is the first Moonlighting episode that displays the show’s unique charm, cementing the chemistry that had been bubbling and fusing between Shepherd and Willis since the TV movie pilot. Stylistically, this installment contains a really fun car chase and a fantastic pie fight at the climax. (Again, it’s that hard-to-get balance of comedy and drama.) The best bit, however, is the Dr. Seussian rhyme that occurs as David and Maddie try to crash the banquet.
Season Two (1985-1986)
02) Episode 8: “The Lady In The Iron Mask” (Aired: 10/01/85)
David and Maddie try to track down the man who threw acid on a woman’s face.
Written by Roger Director | Directed by Christopher Leitch
Some episodes earn distinction for having a mystery that’s more interesting than most (because, let’s face it, Moonlighting didn’t pretend that it was concerned with crafting these plots) — and this is one such entry. The highlight of the show is the farcical chase sequence with everyone dressed as the redhead in the black dress and veil. And, like every episode from the supreme second season, there’s great interplay between David and Maddie.
03) Episode 10: “The Dream Sequence Always Rings Twice” (Aired: 10/15/85)
David and Maddie each dream about a murder that took place in the ’40s.
Written by Debra Frank & Carl Sautter | Directed by Peter Werner
We’re hardly into the show’s run and it’s already breaking form with this episode built around a gimmick: two dream sequences set in the ’40s and photographed on black-and-white film. (Yes, it was more expensive, and yes it was time consuming.) It’s a gorgeous episode and the performances are top notch, allowing Maddie and David the chance to dream out some of their lusts. Also, Orson Welles shot this episode’s introduction several days before he passed away. A veritable classic, especially for classic movie buffs: his dream is a Warner Bros. film and hers is an MGM!
04) Episode 11: “My Fair David” (Aired: 10/29/85)
David and Maddie make a personal bet while investigating a kidnapping case.
Written by Bruce Franklin Singer | Directed by Will Mackenzie
Barbara Bain is involved in this week’s mystery, but the crux of this episode — and why it’s most enjoyable — is the heavier material between Maddie and David, whose bet over whether or not he can spend the day acting “mature” infuses the episode with a lot of worthwhile laughs. (For readers who are already fans of the series, this is the infamous limbo episode.) Great offering for fans of the Maddie/David pairing, with a solid mystery in support.
05) Episode 17: “The Bride Of Tupperman” (Aired: 01/14/86)
David and Maddie compete while trying to find a client his ideal wife.
Written by Jeff Reno & Ron Osborn | Directed by Will Mackenzie & Christian Nyby
Of all the mysteries from the second season, this is one of the more convoluted, as a man hires the agency to find him a wife. His plot, as it’s uncovered, is to find a wife, kill her, and take the insurance money. But Maddie and David have different ideas as to the man’s ideal mate and they both choose one. This competition, like in the above offering, makes for an abundance of enjoyable character-oriented comedy. And coupled with the solid and interesting story, this one’s a standout.
06) Episode 21: “Witness For The Execution” (Aired: 03/11/86)
David is framed for murder by a man who kills himself.
Written by Jeff Reno & Ron Osborn | Directed by Paul Krasny
During initial viewings of this episode, I found most of the widespread enjoyment among the fan base to be a result of the first official kiss between Maddie and David. Writing it off as too relationship-focused, I neglected to appreciate the strength of the story itself, which has David attempting to stop a suicide, only for the deceased to have orchestrated his demise so that David looks responsible. Sure, there are moments that play with much too much melodrama (like that oft-discussed kiss scene), but the episode is otherwise well written.
07) Episode 23: “Funeral For A Door Nail” (Aired: 04/29/86)
David and Maddie try to stop their client from being killed by his own hired hit man.
Written by Jeff Reno, Ron Osborn, Charles Eglee, & Jonathan Lemkin | Directed by Allan Arkush
The premise for this episode is much more interesting that anything that comes about in the installment itself (although the sequence where Maddie and David visit the peep show is highly memorable), but there’s great stuff between our moon-crossed detectives, who debate about whether or not they should take time off and go out of town together for a wedding to which she had previously invited him. Their chemistry is in full force here.
Other notable episodes from the second season that weren’t highlighted above include: “Knowing Her,” in which Dana Delany plays an ex-girlfriend of David’s (who murders her rich husband), “Every Daughter’s Father Is A Virgin,” an overly emotional episode in which Maddie asks David to find out whether or not her father is cheating on her mother (he is) — Robert Webber and Eva Marie Saint are the parents, and “Sleep Talkin’ Guy,” which simply features an interesting premise about David taking tips from a hooker whose mobster client talks in his sleep.
Come back next Wednesday for another Wildcard post! And tune in on Monday for another Irving Berlin musical!
Thank you so much, Jackson, for reviewing one of my favorite one-hour shows. (I would say “one of my favorite DRAMAS,” but as we all know, “Moonlighting” wasn’t exactly what most would classify as a dramatic series.) I’m looking forward to reading your thoughts on subsequent seasons of this and other shows. (By the way, did you know Jeff Reno and Ron Osborn, who wrote several of the episodes you picked, almost became producers on “Cheers”? I’m not sure where I read it, but according to them, the Charles brothers came across their spec “Cheers” script, declared it the best spec they had read up to that point, and offered them the full-time gig. They REALLY wanted to work on “Cheers.” However, Reno & Osborn ultimately decided to join the staff at “Moonlighting” in an attempt to diversify their careers.)
Hi, Rashad! Thanks for reading and commenting.
That’s right. They were just coming off of NIGHT COURT (several of their episodes will be highlighted here in May) and had to choose between CHEERS and MOONLIGHTING, opting to go with the latter because it was so unlike the stuff they had already done. It’s a shame that their CHEERS script, about Norm suspecting Vera of infidelity, wasn’t produced, although the series did eventually do a similar show that season, “Love Thy Neighbor.”
It was so hard to be a fan with this show when it aired because you’d be lucky to have a new episode every other week. I finally gave up after they hooked up – the writing really tanked!
Hi, Elaine! Thanks for reading and commenting.
MOONLIGHTING is a show that makes for a much better viewing experience on home video than it did in its first broadcast. Stay tuned in mid-April for my thoughts on the best from Season Three!
You know, it’s just too bad there was no such thing as Netflix or Amazon when “Moonlighting” was on the air. Caron and his staff might have been able to avoid much of their production-related issues had they had those luxuries of shorter “seasons” and no hard-and-fast rules about when new batches of shows had to be delivered to audiences.
Perhaps, but there are hard-and-fast rules with every distributor, even those specializing in streaming-on-demand. (Dates are part of every deal, and Netflix, in particular, is NOT as hands off with their original content as they’d like you to believe.) As a means of deflection, MOONLIGHTING has often touted their artistic expression as the primary cause for their being unable to meet broadcast network standards. But I don’t blame the established rules, I blame the precedent set at the top by Caron, who failed, even in the first season, to ready the deliverables on-time. So I think the show would have had trouble in any platform because of the production’s chronic inability, even with a small six-episode order, to deliver what was contractually obligated.
But at some point, it does became ABC’s fault. The foolhardy optimism at the beginning of every new season strikes me as odd; after several years of the same issues, why wouldn’t ABC have just decided to push back the premiere date until they could guarantee a new episode every week? There surely would have been several new series prime for cancellation that could have been replaced come November/December, and the fans would have endured the wait if it meant original episodes every week. But, alas — hindsight is always 20/20! (Well, I’m far-sighted, so maybe not in my case…)