There’s probably no television concept in the world that is richer than the detective drama. The decades have flourished with them but one of the problems that often occurred (certainly in the 80's) was that after a while many of them became just too familiar; very few took the idea and developed it into something unique. Some did however, and none were more groundbreaking than ABC’s Moonlighting - a show that wanted to be different, that literally spoke to its audience and delivered week in, week out some of the finest performances ever seen on a syndicated show. It was the decade of big hair and big clothes, cool attitudes and flamingos; it brought Cybill Shepherd back into the public limelight and made an international star out of Bruce “The Wisecrack” Willis.
The set up is short and simple:
Maddie Hayes (Cybill Shepherd) had enjoyed much success from her modelling career; her face graced hundreds of magazine covers until at a young age she had earned enough to retire. But one day she would lose all of her riches when she returns home from a cruise to discover, much to her horror that her accountant has run off with all of her money. There’s only one way to get back some capital and that is to liquidate several small businesses that she has investments in.
This soon brings her to the City of Angels detective agency, led by David Addison (Bruce Willis) - a somewhat brash fellow who manages to get on Maddie’s nerves in an instant. She’ll only be too happy to inform him that she will have to close the agency, much to his chagrin. Try as he might, David isn’t exactly doing a great job in convincing her otherwise, but as luck would have it an event soon occurs that sees Maddie in quite a predicament. When she and David bump into a dying man who hands her a watch they find themselves embroiled in a mystery that will bring them together - for better or worse.
It is easy to see why audiences tuned in to Moonlighting between 1985 and 1989. So wrapped up in the emotional adventures of Maddie and David they cared little for the actual storylines; and let’s be fair some of them were hardly stunners, with a few following predictable paths. It was never really about the cases though; it was always about Maddie and David. The war wasn’t out there on the streets; it was in the offices of the Blue Moon detective agency. Maddie and David were always at loggerheads, one always had to be right and one had to be wrong, their values and philosophies on life differed. Maddie was accustomed to success and wealth while David was too cool to care; he lived for the moment and always kept a positive outlook. Each week something would happen that ensured the pair be at each others' throats (no tongues, that would be for a later time). See Maddie and David are like an odd couple - they care for each other, they both know that; there’s no hatred, just a lack of tolerance for prolonged periods. Despite all their ranting and raving they did alright together and realised that they needed to depend on each other. If something bad ever happened to the other then their differences would be set aside and they would solve their own personal conflicts. Sure those outside who hired them were troubled, but so were the detectives. But unlike those who employed their services Maddie and David had nowhere to go to for help, they only had each other.
It was more than that though. It is all too apparent that none of this would work quite so well if not for the bravado of Willis and Shepherd. Chemistry like this hadn’t been seen in a long time and it’s easy to see why they were referred to as the Hepburn and Tracey of their time (the comparisons continued). Cybill Shepherd had done some flicks for which she got some praise, while Bruce Willis had barely done anything. Both actors were incredibly talented and now the world would finally see just how much so when they teamed up for their starring vehicle. So great was their onscreen presence that you have to wonder about their off-screen life. It’s been reported that they never always got along too well; Shepherd would tell you that they always riled each other up before a scene just to get into the moment. It’s hard to believe that they couldn’t be the best of friends or even lovers; each episode would reveal something wonderful taking place between the two, whether it is a loving glance, a smirk or smile, a simple touch even. It was all believable - a dynamic that is as memorable today as it was twenty years ago.
It also helps of course that the writers of the show came up with some of the best lines ever heard on TV - too many to count and recreate here. Suffice it to say that David had a killer tongue and Maddie was more than capable of matching his wits; they bullied each other to see how far the other could go. The pacing is quite unlike any other and often the pair talk over each other as their wires cross and thoughts differentiate. This kind of quick-fire succession kept Moonlighting‘s ratings soaring through the roof. Is it any surprise in the end just how many Emmy nominations it received? The real surprise is that just one of those Emmys was ever won.
It would be unfair not to mention the third cast member who consistently appears throughout the series. Allyce Beasley provides an added quirkiness to the show, she was the lovable middle ground, though no more sane for it. Miss Agnes Dipesto would have the unique ability to welcome clients over the phone with an overly long rhyme. She knows that she has a boring, predictable job and perhaps that is the only way for her to spice it up a little - David and Maddie just leave her to her own endearing devices. Later in season two she would have some beefed up roles (with season 1’s “Next Stop Murder” having been practically all hers), most notably for “North by North Depesto”, which would take her out of the office and let her experience a day in the life of a detective. In time we learn to realise that Miss Dipesto is essential to the series, she’s a comfort zone for Maddie and David. Sometimes she might wind up one or the other with her own brand of strangeness but she’s always there as a shoulder to cry on, and lord knows Maddie needed a female friend when things got out of hand. But Dipesto is also very loyal to David who was her first employer at the agency; so it becomes difficult at times when she’s torn between the two. Happily enough any bad situations are rectified by an episode’s end and we know it’s all going to be good again come next week.
This wasn’t the only show to have done the whole “battle of the sexes” thing. Cheers had started all that quite early on in the 80's but Moonlighting added the “screwball” element. It took the blueprints from tested and successful shows and mixed up its own cocktail of delight. Defining its key elements were the aforementioned sexual attitudes, the uncertain romantic elements, slapstick and witty one liners - all of which come in to play without fail. These elements were so extensively used that by the time season two came around (after a very brief six episode first season) the writers needed to outdo themselves. The season would go on to push buttons. Just how far can David go to wind up Maddie? Not very would it seem, but he never intentionally sets out to annoy her (well maybe just a bit). Still, when he’s bored and breaking into song or arranging fights and limbo dancing parties in the office it’s enough to send Maddie into fits and unleash the ice queen within her; well it is a business she’s trying to run as she keeps reminding him. So amidst the relationship’s difficulties we get the additional fact that the business is a failure. Each episode of season two usually highlights how few clients turn up and how frustrating it is for Maddie and David to sit in their offices bored out of their skulls, but when a case finally does come in they‘re like giddy children. The same things were addressed in season one though so things needed heating up.
Season 2 then gets a little risqué; it showcases several unorthodox ideas and takes the dialogue to an occasional adult level, which makes the series far more suggestive than before. Not only does the relationship further develop but the characters even begin to form a direct connection with the audience, thus the fourth wall is broken. Later series attempted the same thing, the most noteworthy being Garry Shandling’s “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show” in 1986, with its infectious “la la la la” theme tune. We can see just how influential the series became from this point onward.
The following will contains spoilers for two key episodes
This all started off when the writers and directors realised that they would occasionally be a minute or two short, due to Willis and Shepherd's quick fire delivery. As a result of this they would shoot fillers that would sometimes appear at the beginning of an episode. Willis and Shepherd address the audience in character, which is often a delight to see. These little pieces contain things from reading out fan letters that kept asking when the two would get together and kiss, to pioneering 3-D episodes that never actually came to fruition despite the pair brandishing 3-D specs at one point. This proved to be a hit and later it developed further. By season two Maddie and David’s feelings and status within the series were very well established and they needed to be put into new situations. Cottoning onto the idea of a fourth wall breach the writers then began to develop major storylines around that very concept. There are two superb examples here: The first is in the episode “The Dream Sequence Always Rings Twice”. The producers come up trumps, not only managing to get the great Orson Welles to introduce the episode (which aired just days after his death) but they also filmed half of the episode in black and white, for which we’re reminded not to adjust our television sets. Paying homage then to classic 40’s noir, David’s narration takes us through events. It’s the first truly excellent example of the series pulling its audience right into the action. The second most notable episode of this season is “Twas the Episode Before Christmas”. The story centres itself on Miss Dipesto, who finds a baby abandoned in her apartment. As events proceed strange things occur as David points out: The Three Kings, a mother named Mary, no room at the inn - you can see where all of this is going. By the end of it all a totally unexpected event occurs when David takes Maddie by the hand and they leave their office and walk off the set, where the entire crew can be seen around them singing Christmas carols. Maddie and David hold each other, wish us a Merry Christmas and we go along with it; these were not only unique to the series but also remain some of the most memorable moments in television.
This was all part of the show’s charm. Moonlighting knew what it was, its tongue was always placed firmly in its cheek and it was never afraid to break convention and remind us often that it was just a television show. It would deliberately tease us: by the end of season two when Maddie and David are about to drive off the back lot, she asks him what’s on his mind but he tells her that his question can wait until the fall.
End of spoilers
Moonlighting is also a highly self referential series. If one thing stands out today, highlighting the series as a product of its time then it’s the constant referral to the 80’s. Making fun of just about everything that the 80’s stood for viewers today may look upon the comedy as being a little dated, and possibly rightly so but for most it will be of little concern because the jokes have stood the test of time well. The references can be tossed aside for modern audiences quite easily, while those who remember the 80’s or indeed watched the series first time around can still appreciate every gag; it’s still very much at heart a story about two people getting along in life, and thus it relates greatly to any viewer. Willis had the suits and big shades, Shepherd had the big sparkly dresses, but hey they looked great, which brings me to the look and feel of the series.
Moonlighting at the time looked like no other show. It had an unmistakeable presence about it. None is more evident than when seeing Cybill Shepherd lit up in a way reminiscent once again of the 40’s starlets. At first it passes you by quite easily but as season two develops we can see it as a consistently recurring element. The show featured many guest directors but its cinematographer, Gerald Perry Finnerman who breathes life into the show’s aesthetics. Watching each episode is like looking at a love affair between the camera and Shepherd; her head is always highlighted with a soft, glistening light during close ups. Her eyes shine brighter than anyone else’s on set, sometimes a little too noticeably as a white band of light crosses her face but nevertheless, she was beautiful and we were meant to be mesmerised. And it is Cybill Shepherd who gets most of the complimentary shots. Willis gets some fine moments when he’s not meant to look gruff and worn down, but he aint the doll of this piece.
Again by the time season two was up and away the show had become so popular that high profile guests began to pop up every so often. Orson Welles as previously mentioned was a huge deal - it’s Orson Welles! The guests came steady after that, from television stars to some upcoming movie actors, with the likes of Whoopi Goldberg and Judd Nelson appearing in the season two finale. It seemed that everyone wanted a part of the show which was without a doubt the biggest thing to hit television at the time, and through exposure it made plenty of stars out of the then, young hopefuls. You’ll still find plenty of familiar faces in season one, with Brian Thompson, Gary Graham, Tim Robbins and Vincent Shiavelli (who would soon after become romantically involved with Allyce Beasley); with season two also allowing the likes of Richard Belzer, Robert Z'Dar, Billy Drago, Robery Joy, James Avery and others to have their moment of fun.
Season 1 :
“Gunfight at the So-So Corral”
“Read the Mind, See the Movie”
“The Next Murder You Hear”
“Next Stop Murder”
“The Murder’s in the Mail”
Season 2 :
“Brother, Can You Spare a Blonde”
“The Lady in the Iron Mask”
“Money Talks, Maddie Walks”
“The Dream Sequence Always Rings Twice”
“My Fair David”
“Somewhere Under the Rainbow”
“Portrait of Maddie”
“Twas the Episode before Christmas”
“The Bride of Tupperman”
“North by North Depesto”
“In God We Strongly Suspect”
“Every Daughter’s Father is a Virgin”
“Witness for the Execution”
“Sleep Talkin’ Guy”
“Funeral for a Door Nail”
Lions Gate Home Entertainment presents the first two seasons of Moonlighting in its entirety in a six disc box set, complete with some worthy extras. Each disc has a rather simple but attractive menu design and not much in the way of options. There are no chapter stops direct from the menu. Also there is no “extras” menu to access the audio commentaries from. These can be found by selecting “episodes”.
One thing that stands as being disappointing is that none of the "next episode" promos feature at the end of each episode. Several times during the commentaries we get to hear how great these are and that hopefully they'll be included, but sadly they're not.
Presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1 the series looks better than expected. A little extra effort was made to clean up the prints and the results are impressive. All the signs from an 80’s show are here and have nothing to do with the authoring, such as grain and slight softness in areas, but this really does look great overall. Flesh tones are nice, if a little too pink at times; contrast levels appear natural and blacks and shadow detail are also particularly good. I would go far as to say that these have been sourced from original elements and not second or third generation tapes, as there seems to be no evidence of any such thing, which has happened in the past with other shows. Aliasing seems to be the only trouble here and thankfully it’s fairly infrequent, along with some mosquito noise evident during the final credits roll. Fans should be happy indeed.
As for sound, well here‘s some extra good news for starters. Both seasons feature every piece of original music used during syndication. You’ll be pleased to know that all the classic tunes can be heard, from the likes of Patsy Cline, Little Richard, Otis Redding, The Rolling Stones, The O’Jays, Patti LaBelle, Mitch Ryder & The Detroit Wheels and many more; not to mention plenty of classic song renditions from Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd.
The series was originally broadcast in mono and that is what we have here: a 2-channel mono track that is exactly as we would want it. Naturally both front speakers output identical elements, sounding as good as you could hope for. The dialogue throughout is clear and presents little difficulties, with just some slight moments of up and down tone. Not to worry though, it’s always sounded that way and was likely a result of post dubbing. Also it must be noted that there was plenty of overlapping at the time the sound was recorded on set, though unconventional to most film makers this was what Caron wanted.
There are no subtitles, which is very disappointing but at least Closed Captions are included. However they're the not the most reliable of things and not everyone is going to be able to enjoy them as conveniently as they would with simple subs. It's a shame Lions Gate dropped the ball here for what is an otherwise great presentation.
Unfortunately I never received Disc 1 of the box set for review and as a result I cannot talk about the extras listed on that disc. It is supposed to contain an audio commentary on the pilot episode with Glenn Gordon Caron (writer/creator), Robert Butler (director), Artie Mandelberg (editor) and Jay Daniel (producer). Also advertised are deleted scenes and a gag reel, which I presume are also on this disc. Finally “The Story of Moonlighting” - part 1, Not Just a Day Job rounds off the extras found within. Discs 2 and 4 have no extra features, so onto those that do.
Disc 3 :
“The Dream Sequence Always Rings Twice” - Audio Commentary with Peter Werner (director), Debra Frank (co-writer) and Glenn Gordon Caron (creator)
One of the most popular episodes of the series gets a decent amount of coverage here. Clearly those participating admire their own work, often commenting on how striking it is. Fair enough, they’ve every reason to be. We’re told that Debra Frank’s script was rallied around several studios until it was picked up for Moonlighting, which just happened to suit it down to the ground. From there discussions arose which concerned ABC, particularly when the director wanted to shoot on black and white film - something that had never been done for a modern series. It influenced just about every show afterward to make their own black and white special. We also learn that the series had sheer audacity, so much so that they simply called Orson Welles and asked if he’d appear on the episode. He died one week after filming. The spirit of the show lends itself to the old Warner Bros and MGM films. Both had different styles and these would be contrasted between Maddie and David’s dream sequences. A few anecdotes are thrown around as well as praise for the show’s stars, overall making this a pleasant enough listen.
“My Fair David” - Audio Commentary with Bruce Willis (actor) and Will Mackenzie (director)
The episode opens with Mackenzie informing us of his first job on the series directing, followed by a quick hello from Bruce Willis. As we get into the episode the pair discusses some of the things that were not included in the original script, such as David’s limbo party that was designed to create a good atmosphere between the cast members. Bruce enjoys himself looking back on the episode, seeing himself younger and churning out the lines so damn quickly. Will mentions the diffusion filter used on set to highlight Cybill’s face, while Bruce went without. They enjoy a lot of the jokes and reminisce about how quickly they picked up on the script and delivered dialogue. The track is overall quite sombre with fond recollections. About half way through things get a little quieter as Will and Bruce enjoy the episode but they soon get back into discussion and talk about how much fun the series was.
Disc 5 :
“Twas the Episode Before Christmas” - Audio Commentary with Peter Werner (director), Jay Daniel (producer) and Allyce Beasley (actor)
We get to hear about how the episode came about and how long the shoot lasted for to begin with, which was 11 days and longer than usual, particularly when they needed to get it ready for a Christmas showing. The gang go on to talk about the quick banter that went on throughout as they become wrapped up in watching the episode. The “driving talks” that would become a signature part of the series get a little discussion, with emphasis placed on how the quick cut nature compliments the comedic dialogue. Most of the commentary consists of analytical observations and as it approaches its end Peter, Jay and Allyce sit and fondly remember the break in the fourth wall.
“Every Daughter’s Father is a Virgin” - Audio Commentary with Cybill Shepherd (actor) and Glenn Gordon Caron
This is perhaps the best commentary on the set. Cybill and Glenn talk more about the production of the series as opposed to the episode itself, although for Cybill this is obviously a very personal episode that she relates to; at one point she gets very emotional when it reminds her of her own father. Like other commentaries before, the speakers tend to get a little carried away in actually watching the episode (despite Cybill having seen it a day prior to the talk) and leaving long pauses, but they both find time to dish out plenty more anecdotes and facts, such as Cybill’s tendency to get a little angry at times, or that the doors on set had to keep being replaced because she kept slamming them so hard when in character. It is also interesting when they talk about how the scripts were often so long and yet they still came up short due to the super fast delivery of the lead characters.
Disc 6 :
“The Story of Moonlighting” - part 2, Inside the Blue Moon Detective Agency (15:35)
The cast and crew reflect back on what it is that made the show so successful and what went on during its development. We learn about studio concerns, budgets and shooting schedules; how it worried ABC initially. A fair amount of time is spent on some of the second season’s finer moments including “The Dream Sequence Always Rings Twice”. Some of the details imparted here have already been covered via the commentary tracks but this still manages to remain an interesting feature and is a fine addition to the set.
The “Moonlighting” Phenomenon (11:35)
This time several fan club members get to voice their opinion on the show. They talk about why they love it so much, while occasionally cast and crew interviews pop up in-between. There’s not much here to learn that we don’t know or have figured out ourselves already, but still it shows just how much the series was and still is loved.
Moonlighting is as engaging today as when it first aired. Sharp, witty and clever, Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd proved to be comedic masters while bringing us one of the most compelling relationships of the 80’s to the small screen. The scripts were laced with brilliant dialogue, flawlessly executed by its stars and many of the episodes contain wonderful supporting performances and fun storylines. Oh and how about that song? Lions Gate have done a stellar job in presenting this wonderful series, so Season 3 is going to be highly anticipated.