Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Once in a Blue Moon: It's 30 Years since Moonlighting First Lit Up Our Night Sky

In its debut,''Moonlighting'' managed to concoct an ending that had Dave and Maddie hanging, Harold Lloyd-style, from the hands of a large public clock several stories above street level. At the time, I thought the series was, at the very least, unusually promising. 

Now, with the better part of a season behind them, it is clear that ''Moonlighting,'' created by Glenn Gordon Caron, is indeed something special. For one thing, it has the courage of its offbeat goofiness. For another, it has the irresistible chemistry being generated by the two stars.

John J. O’Connor review in The New York Times, 1985

The two-hour Moonlighting pilot movie debuted on March 3 in 1985. Can it be 30 years since Al Jarreau told us, "We'll walk by night, We'll fly by day, Moonlighting strangers, Who just met on the way."

I, along with much of the TV viewing public, fell in love with the series and suffered the heartache of its decline and demise. I thought about the Blue Moon Detective Agency for the first time in decades last fall, when I was thinking of what to send the BFF for her birthday that would have some resonance to our long friendship. It popped into my head that she was living on Taiwan when "Atomic Shakespeare" first aired, which had completely swept me off my feet. So I bought her the DVD of season 3. Now that I had opened that door, I wanted to reconnect with my lost love Moonlighting, like wanting to read old love letters you have bundled up in a box under the bed, so I watched the series in a week-long marathon.

One thing I realized was how many episodes I had never seen, and yet my memory of loving and then leaving this show is so vivid. I had watched Remington Steele with my parents, and it was good, but there was no heat between Stephanie Zimbalist and Pierce Brosnan.

Then Glen Gordon Caron took some of the essence of that show—he wrote and produced its first ten episodes— and brought us to the moon with David and Maddie, and it was indeed, something special.

The pilot seems very slow now to watch, but as John O’Connor—the now forgotten, once powerful TV critic for the New York Times— tells us, there was already something unusually promising.

You Made Me Love Yous

Why did the country fall in love with Maddie and David falling in love?

The premise was good and believable: super model learns her accountant embezzled all her money. She’s broke except for a tax write-off of a detective agency named for her Blue Moon shampoo sponsorship that comes with employees David Addison and Agnes Dipesto.

•Cybill Shepherd looked particularly stunning in the early episodes. (Then her look hardened and her hairstyle went crazy 80s.)

•Bruce Willis overflowed with a natural charm and the wit of youth. He was happy and he knew how to enjoy himself in a way many people envy. Limbo dancing just isn’t seen enough in office buildings.

The signature overlapping dialogue is built on Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell’s banter from His Girl Friday, but the specific cadences between our two detectives are exceptionally appealing, it is true sparkle, true √©lan, and the extent to which they used it was amazing.

•The Music!!! The show must have spent a fortune on licensing, because almost everything was original artist: Whistle while you work, Marni Nixon as Snow White; La Bamba, Richie Valens; Please Mr. Postman, the Shirelles; New York State of Mind/Big Man on Mulberry Street, Billy Joel; Nowhere to Run, Martha Reeves & the Vandellas; When a Man Loves a Woman, Percy Sledge. The list is priceless and endless.

•The Love of Film & Pop Culture The series echoed many beloved film and pop culture touchstones.  The episode titles themselves give an idea of the spirit that animated the series:

Brother, Can You Spare a Blonde? • The Dream Sequence Always Rings Twice • Somewhere Under the Rainbow • Atlas Belched • 'Twas the Episode Before Christmas • North by North DiPesto • In God We Strongly Suspect • It's a Wonderful Job

•Their falling in love happened slowly, built on how well they worked together solving cases. In the DVD extras, Caron said he had to promise ABC execs that the characters would not become romantically involved “because no one would believe a woman like that would fall for a guy like that.” Remember this started filming just as Billy Joel (that kind of guy) and Christie Brinkley (that kind of woman) got married.

And when Bruce & Cybill were in the zone, you felt like you could not get enough of David & Maddie's magic.

The Decline: Blame It All on the Writers
The stories are legion: Cybill was hard to work with, then got pregnant with twins; Willis started as a guy glad to have a job, then became John McTiernan with a swelled head; Caron left; and the writers seriously lost their way.

It fascinates me when writers of TV shows seem to forget—-or just don’t understand—-the history of the characters they are writing (and have created).

For instance, when the writers finally maneuver Maddie and David into becoming lovers, she immediately has regrets about ‘this thing” and wants “a pact” that it won’t happen again.

When she asks for time together, a date, outside of the bedroom, David says okay, then doesn’t plan anything, and takes her to a Laundromat. That’s ridiculous. This is the man who in season 1 had the imagination to follow her down to Argentina! when she goes after the accountant who stole her money and talk his way into a seriously sophisticated hotel wearing a white dinner jacket. Now that he is with the object of his heart’s desire he’s a palooka that can’t make a dinner reservation? A writing failure.

And her. She drones on and on about how they have nothing in common. But she got out of a warm bed with Mark Harmon!! to find David on a stakeout and finish a case with him. That’s what they have in common: their business,  working together, and she knows she has fun with him. So why does she keep questioning why she’s with him? Another writing failure.

The fact that Shepherd’s pregnancy and Willis’s Die Hard filming meant there would be numerous episodes that kept them apart could have been handled creatively in so many ways that didn’t end in a RIDICULOUS wedding of Maddie to the Walter. A huge writing failure. (And yet I am one of the few people on the planet that think the miscarriage episode with Baby Willis in the womb—"A Womb with a View— is wonderfully creative. )

It fascinates me that as much as a writer has seemingly complete control over what characters say and do, there seems to be another force that’s part of the creative process that writers can’t always overpower. Some series are cosmically doomed and their characters go off the rails. Such was the fate of the Blue Moon detectives.

But before they ceased to exist in the last episode, "Lunar Eclipse," (which no one had any interest in by the time the series finale came around), they left 66 episodes that in hindsight (away from the emotion of feeling disappointed in our love for the duo) are all enjoyable, and some are . . . . DAZZLING.

Scenes from Season 2, Brother, Can You Spare a Blonde.

Maddie Does Gilda

Good Lovin’


Tim Footman said...

It's very difficult to determine in retrospect whether Shepherd's and Willis's mutual loathing is what gives Moonlighting its special frisson, or whether the viewer is imposing that. But it does add another delicious layer to the experience.

M.A.Peel said...

They didn't start out loathing each other. She was the star and he was a nobody with a lot of confidence. So the frisson was real on another level.

Very unlike Fred & Ginger, who didn't particularly like each other (but never hit loathing)