Some walk by night, some fly by day. Barnaby Eaton-Jones does both and writes about Moonlighting on the way...
Madelyn ‘Maddie’ Hayes: How do you know he’s dead?
David Addison: It’s either that or the man wears an obscene amount of blue rouge.
It’s over 30 years since Moonlighting (1985-89) limped to a typically fourth-wall breaking climax and left our screens, leaving behind it an indelible firecracker of a show that proved once and for all that a showrunner and two ‘will they/won’t they’ leads need to stay in charge and stay out of each other’s underwear, respectively, to make a programme work.
There’s never been a show like it before or since, not only in style and content but also the simple fact that every season was never guaranteed a standard amount of episodes due to it being such a difficult show for creator/showrunner Glenn Gordon Caron to marshal. The fact he left after the third series and had to endure seeing his baby struggle to stand on two feet for the final couple of series must have been punishment enough.
Of course, it’s not an original concept – the two leads echoed the typical fast-talking combative hero and heroine of 1930s screwball comedies (think Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday) and the asides about the show itself, which became a stock-in-trade-schtick, were things that The Marx Brothers were doing many years earlier – but there was some magical alchemy that made Moonlighting different and brought all its influences together to form a perfect series for its time. And that certain something were the two leads, in the form of the mostly-unknown Bruce Willis and the former model and movie star Cybill Shepherd.
She was feisty and full of fire, he was fast-talking and full of smirks. If you met them in real life, you’d probably walk the other way, but beamed into your living room you can’t help but be drawn in. Their characters got diluted and unbelievable as the series progressed into difficult territory after it became a surprise hit, but in the first few series they circled each other like predators – each one desperate to out-quip each other and neither backing down when they thought they were right. It was a double act made in televisual heaven and – as often happens – that spark was from the frisson that the actors got from working with each other. It was very much a love/hate dynamic, which they’ve admitted themselves.
The genesis of the show is all encapsulated in the feature-length pilot episode, which crams everything into it – however small those moments may be – in order to get bigger and broader and bolder with them as the series progressed.
It is here, in the pre-credits sequence, that the essence of the plot is cast – with a perfectly ‘80s montage of competitive jogging, sinister punk-for-hire and gloriously effective keyboard music. It’s actually a really good build-up to establish a little mystery and to keep you intrigued. Where there would normally be the full theme tune, we’re treated to a wordless, slowed-down, saxed-up version of the famous song (which would be sung by Al Jarreau at the start of every episode, rather than just blown out of a saxophone in this opener).
As the saxophone washes over us, the camera lovingly pans across the wall of a posh house – lingering lovingly on all the brilliantly appropriated photos of Cybill Shepherd from her modelling days and onwards; which sets up her character as a big-time model who’s about to fall on very hard times. She was billed and introduced as the hot sun that the show revolved around. Of course, as the series went on, Bruce Willis’s cocky cheek would burn as brightly as Cybill’s strong guiding light but he’s not introduced until after the 10 minute mark.
And what a mark both leads make in their introductory scenes.
Madelyn ‘Maddie’ Hayes (Cybill Shepherd) is wiped out financially by grand scale embezzlement and – for a lady who’s shown as having a departing cook, an already-departed driver and a desperately motherly housemaid – it’s a typically quick financial fall from grace that would, for a decade built on money, flashiness and excess, be something horrific to happen to a character that an audience would sympathise about.
She was the face of Blue Moon – that was her big modelling success. A brand of cosmetics which will eventually become the name of the Los Angeles detective agency that she inherits in what’s left of her tangible assets. But, for now, it’s called City of Angels and it’s one of many businesses that are losing her money she doesn’t have as investments for tax write-offs. She’s forced to shut the long list down, that’s read out on screen. Obviously, the one you see her going to in order to do just that is the detective agency – the place that will be the beating heart of the show for five series onwards.
Of course, it would have been a rather different show altogether if she’d been seen going to shut down the dog grooming outfit or the dirty book store!
Her failing detective agency is staffed by a Greek Chorus (who respond to what’s going on around them like a set of comedy mime artists) and a forever-rhyming narrator in the form of receptionist Agnes DiPesto (played with wide-eyed, kooky charm by Allyce Beasley). Meeting Agnes first sets up the playful nature of the off-kilter agency, as she answers the phone in vague poetry and is clearly full of schoolgirl crush for her boss, David Addison (Bruce Willis).
There’s something brilliantly childlike about her character which gets lost later in the series with the introduction of her love interest Herbert Viola (Curtis Armstrong). When things proved difficult behind the scenes, with the two leading actors, it would often by these secondary characters who would step up and take the weight of the series on their shoulders – which was always a mistake, in my opinion. They were, rightly, supporting characters for a reason and making them leads or comedy sidekicks to the leads always unbalanced episodes.
But, here in the pilot, this is Agnes in her purest form, as she introduces the bristling Maddie Hayes to office-basketball-playing David Addison – who instantly infuriates Maddie by seeming to recognise her and settling on the fact she was a Playmate of the Month rather than the model she once was.
The sparks fly when Maddie and David are together, with the speed of their quick-talk echoing the pace of the story; a story which heavily borrows the main plot element from the film The Marathon Man, which had appeared in cinemas a decade earlier. Scripts were double-length, due to the rapid delivery of cross-talking repartee. The pilot is essentially a thrill of the chase adventure, with Maddie and David accidentally caught up in the subplot during an exchange where David interrupts Maddie’s evening date at a restaurant and tries to get her to change her mind about shutting the detective agency down. They become an unwitting double-act in a dangerous game of diamond-smuggling, ending up relying on each other.
But, as ever with Moonlighting, the plots are second nature to the ride you have with Maddie and David. It’s interesting to see, in this pilot movie, how the relationship template is adhered to rigidly and would stay like it until the ‘jump the shark’ moment of them finally giving into temptation and sleeping together later in the series. The power status battle, where David becomes the Deputy in his own business and also is constantly chasing after Maddie to either antagonise her or admire her, is well played – as Maddie proves herself, in the ‘80s vein of Dynasty Diva, to be a hard-nosed, no-nonsense business woman who softens round the edges as she gets sucked into a venture (and adventure) she did not want to be part of.
There are some splendid narrative jumps in the pilot, allowing the two plots to merge and then run together – with a night-time car chase, a tense set of elevator rides, and a sinister interrogation and near-torture scene as stand-outs; as well as a pair of FBI agents who aren’t FBI agents and a pair who possibly are!
However, for all its comedy, Moonlighting also plays it very serious. The pace doesn’t let up and you really forget that this has a run time of nearly 2 hours.
When you populate your pilot with interesting character turns as well, it’s a sign that a writer knows how to keep an audience engaged. This is shown to great effect in an early scene with the nice juxtaposition of cuddly Grandpa Heinz (Robert Ellenstein), sitting and smiling as his family sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to his young granddaughter at her party, being disturbed by a phone call and suddenly morphing into a vengeful employer spitting out orders and threats to hitmen in order to retrieve the MacGuffin of the smuggled diamonds.
There is also the delightfully urbane and sneering performance by Dennis Lipscomb, with a sideline in relaxed evil, as Simon – the man ordered to retrieve the diamonds; who dispatches people left, right and centre with the help of his muscle-bound, granite-jawed thug of a bodyguard.
The popular Moonlighting trope of talking directly to the audience or referencing the fact that this is a television show does pop up briefly in this pilot, with a very lovely throwaway line delivered by Bruce Willis at the end of a tense conversation with a nefarious sort…
DAVID ADDISON: Looks to me like you didn’t finish the whole nine innings.
MADDIE HAYES: What?
DAVID ADDISON: Don’t gang up on me! I don’t write this stuff.
The climax of the pilot relies on some old-fashioned high-jinx at the top of an Art Deco building with a large clock looking out over downtown LA. It’s a clear call-back to the shenanigans that silent comedian Harold Lloyd scared audiences into laughter with in his 1923 film Safety Last! – with perilous stunts practised over great heights.
It begins with David, being the macho man, attempting to climb up the clock to reach those pesky hidden diamonds, but he ends up losing his footing twice and only just landing safely on the balcony they’re walking round. It’s a lovely twist, and it happens throughout the pilot (and the series), that – when the stakes are down – Maddie will be the one who steps up and does it herself. She can be the screaming heroine who needs rescuing on the odd occasion but she’s always shown as the braver of the two leads – which is something writer Glenn Gordon Caron should be noted for (and he’d do it again, with his subsequent television series Medium - with a strong woman in the lead role - and then completely succumb to stereotypical idiotic male leanings when firing actress Eliza Dushku from the series Bull in 2018, over sexual harassment claims, and getting rightly admonished for it).
Of course, when Maddie hitches up her skirts to climb up the giant clock face, there’s an inevitable gag about looking up Maddie’s skirt as she gets higher but it’s befitting the bruised ego of David that he’d resort to that after having the dangerous job taken away from him. He too has to show his mettle towards the end, climbing precariously out over Los Angeles on a bending ladder, though.
If you’ve not seen Moonlighting before and want to see what the fuss is about, the pilot is a good place to start. Sometimes, pilots get eclipsed by the series that follow them but – although there are brilliant and wacky and off-the-wall episodes to come – this is a perfect template for the show to riff off.
It re-launched Cybill Shepherd’s career, it launched Bruce Willis’s career, and it revitalised formulaic 1980s television – hitting the ratings height early on and then hilariously referencing the fallout and ratings decline during the run of the show itself. It veers off course massively after the third series but ends on a deliciously quirky note that sort of makes up for the mess they made of the last two series. But, for a show that was constantly built on in-fighting, perfectionism and the desire to do something different, it’s a wonder so much of it made it on air at all.
In the final scene, as David pushes his charm to the limit in order to persuade Maddie that changing the name of the detective agency to Blue Moon and having her along as his partner in crime-fighting is the right thing for her to do, I’ll leave the last words as an ethos (and epitaph) for the show itself…
DAVID ADDISON: You. Me. Business.
Follow Barnaby Eaton-Jones on Twitter @BarnabyEJ
Images - IMDb