Welcome to another Wildcard Wednesday and the continuation of our coverage on the best of Moonlighting (1985-1989, ABC)! Over the holidays, I had the opportunity to screen — mostly for the first time — the complete series of this 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. Last month, I shared my favorite episodes from the first two seasons. Today, Season Three!
I must reiterate what I wrote last time: “I’m not your typical… 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.”
Although I believe Season Two is the show’s freshest and “least bumpy,” during which the series’ writing defines itself and establishes the criterion for which all future years and episodes will be judged, Season Three has the highest number of classics (and that’s why it gets its own post here on Wildcard Wednesday). This year, which only contains 15 original episodes (due to some major production problems — including a pregnant leading lady and an injured leading man), is notable for being the first time we see the serialization of story on Moonlighting and most of it is with regard to David and Maddie’s relationship. Many will remember that the season’s memorable penultimate offering, “I Am Curious… Maddie,” climaxes in their first night of passion (a highly promoted installment that also was a Nielsen winner). Unfortunately, as I quoted above, I find that the installments utilizing these coupling machinations as the primary narrative don’t work because the interaction between these two indelible characters is predicated on lightness — snappy, witty, and irreverent. Indulging the audience by exploring the couple with a more serious eye naturally means that the pair isn’t being presented true to their origins — and when they don’t work, the series doesn’t work.
I also think it’s important to remember that Moonlighting’s metaphorical tongue was, from inception, firmly planted in its metaphorical cheek. Stories with gravity that traffic in gross sentimentality only work if they serve as commentary — either on the genre or on the characters. Wrecking its own satire by infusing heady heart onto the characters is a problem for this series, and not many fans will admit to this, because the David/Maddie relationship is so “rootable” that it’s easy to ignore the constraints being imposed upon the show itself when we’re otherwise getting what we want narratively. However, the extended end-of-the-season arc, which includes Mark Harmon as the temporary third point in a love triangle, isn’t as narratively rewarding as many of the diehard David/Maddie “shippers” would lead you to believe. Not only is the use of a third person as a means of drawing the central couple together a cliché — and one used without irony (as this series would ordinarily not think twice about employing) — but Harmon’s character has no sense of humor; we can’t support a character who simply does’t belong on the series, and when that needed investment is removed, the arc becomes merely perfunctory: we know why he’s here and we know what’s going to happen.
However, the season long tension-filled build-up to that release, though a drawn out affair, yields some of the show’s most electric material, which I think you’ll see reflected below. If the second season of Moonlighting sets the agenda and sees the series in its “Golden Age” — the purest form of the series doing what we want it to do — the first 60% of the third season is the show’s “Peak Age” with heights heretofore unreached. From episodes that smartly use the Maddie/David stuff, which became difficult to deny in the middle of the year prior, in support of the weekly mystery, to cleverly designed spectacles that illustrate Moonlighting‘s uniqueness (like Shakespearian parodies and clip shows with Rona Barrett, during which the series can mock its own behind-the-scenes reputation), the show scintillates. It’s for this reason that the third year is my favorite, and although the season’s riches are not evenly distributed throughout these 15 episodes, the quota of excellence is nevertheless overloaded.
Also, despite my well-justified distaste for the serialized romance episodes and the use of the duo as a possible couple within several episodes of the season, I do not subscribe to the popular opinion that having the main couple sleep together ruined the show. Instead, I think the show suffered from the aftermath of their sleeping together. (And even though we get a brief taste of what’s to come in the interesting but difficult-to-form-an-opinion-on season finale, we’ll save our discussion on the way the storyline was handled for next month’s post on the last two seasons, where the troubles are clear and unavoidable.) In the meantime, here are my favorites from Season Three, listed in airing order — with the two-hour pilot considered one individual installment (and remember, I’m not like most fans…)
01) Episode 26: “The Man Who Cried Wife” (Aired: 09/30/86)
A man who killed his wife believes her to be alive — and hires Blue Moon to find her.
Written by Kerry Ehrin | Directed by Christian Nyby
This episode features probably the most heavily utilized murder mystery plot of the entire season, but it’s matched with some rapid-fire sequences between David and Maddie, as the theme of spontaneity is reinforced (hard) throughout the case. My favorite moment from the installment is the final scene, which takes us, without explanation, through the detectives’ two fantasies, and then what actually transpires. Such chemistry — supported by strong writing!
02) Episode 28: “Yours, Very Deadly” (Aired: 10/28/86)
Agnes has a fling with a temp while and David and Maddie try to track a woman’s pen pal.
Written by Roger Director | Directed by Christian Nyby
Another episode where there’s actually a case (a rarity during the remainder of this season)! The mystery itself takes a few surprising turns, culminating in a hijinks-filled chase to the song “Please Mr. Postman.” Also, this marks the first appearance of Curtis Armstrong as Bert Viola, Agnes’ new love interest, who will become a regular next year. I don’t like episodes centered on these two very much, but I enjoy seeing them as a counterpoint to David and Maddie.
03) Episode 30: “Big Man On Mulberry Street” (Aired: 11/18/86)
Maddie follows David to New York and learns some secrets of his past.
Written by Karen Hall | Directed by Christian Nyby
While I’ve tended to overlook the installments from this season that are too personally and emotionally driven (as I find them often manipulative and, in many cases, humorless), I make an allowance for this one. Okay, the whole secret of David having been married is routine, and the twist of his having walked in on his ex-wife with another woman is a blatant attempt to shock, but there’s a fabulous dance sequence in this episode that’s utterly worthwhile — classic.
04) Episode 31: “Atomic Shakespeare” (Aired: 11/25/86)
The Moonlighting cast take part in a telling of The Taming of the Shrew.
Written by Ron Osborn & Jeff Reno | Directed by Will Mackenzie
Probably among the show’s most famous installments, this one is also reportedly the lowest rated episode of the entire series. We’ve seen The Taming of the Shrew adapted and reimagined in various incarnations (like Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate), and it’s an ideal fit for Moonlighting. The production values are, naturally, outstanding, and the sense of unabashed and unalloyed creativity is intoxicating. The church sequence is uproarious, but every moment between David and Maddie (or Petruchio and Kate) is a winner. Among the series’ absolute finest.
05) Episode 32: “It’s A Wonderful Job” (Aired: 12/16/86)
Maddie sees what life would be like if she had closed down the agency.
Written by Debra Frank & Carl Sautter | Directed by Ed Sherin
A Christmas installment, this offering employs a gimmick that many sitcoms have used — the It’s A Wonderful Life structure. I don’t think this series does it any better or worse than any other shows have, but the device works for the characters at this point in their arc, it’s memorable, and it also once again exemplifies a series with a creative life that’s seemingly limitless. (Nitpick: I wish the kiss at the end had factored into the next few’s stories.)
06) Episode 33: “The Straight Poop” (Aired: 01/06/87)
Rona Barrett comes to investigate why there are no new episodes.
Written by Glenn Gordon Caron | Directed by Jay Daniel
Continuing this awesome run of unrivaled imagination, this installment is one big meta-theatrical romp (and a sneaky clip show) as gossip columnist Rona Barrett invades the Blue Moon detective agency with her camera crew to find out why the show has been unable to produce new episodes. Making fun of all of its production delays, and its slow-boiled handling of the David/Maddie tension, this episode is exactly what makes the series special. Another favorite, and in my opinion, that last enjoyable episode of the show in its pure form.
07) Episode 35: “Blonde On Blonde” (Aired: 02/03/87)
David gets mixed up in murder when he attempts to follow Maddie.
Written by Kerry Ehrin | Directed by Jay Daniel
Mark Harmon appears for the first time at the end of this installment when David finally screws his courage to the sticking place (a Shakespeare reference – aha!) and goes to tell Maddie he loves her — only to find another man at her door. While the rest of the arc disappoints, this initial shock, and the entire fascinating 45+ minutes that build to it, make for a memorable outing. Also, the unusually hot intro sequence with Shepherd is a highlight.
Other notable episodes from the third season that weren’t highlighted above include the four somewhat-probelmatic final episodes of the year: “Sam And Dave,” in which David Addison makes a fool of himself in front of Maddie’s new astronaut beau, “Maddie’s Turn To Cry,” in which Maddie is caught between her feelings for the two men, “I Am Curious . . . Maddie,” in which our protagonists finally sleep together (the aforementioned BIG EVENT), and “To Heiress Human,” which deals (moderately) with the immediate aftermath of their night together, but foreshadows some big missteps that are ahead…
Come back next Wednesday for another Wildcard post! And tune in on Monday for another forgotten musical!