Friday, September 21, 2007

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 32: Moonlighting (1985-1989)

The unfortunate departure from television of Veronica Mars, my favorite prime-time detective, has left me remembering fondly another classic TV series regarding detectives, in this case a pair of them. Moonlighting (not to be confused with this season’s vampire detective series, Moonlight...) was created by Glenn Caron Gordon. This talent also gave TV one of the greatest superhero shows of all time, Now & Again (1999-2000) and is currently behind the Emmy-Award winning Medium, which is as much unconventional family drama as it is psychic genre series. Returning to Moonlighting today, one detects Caron’s skill in crafting dynamic characters and more importantly, making them look, sound and feel like individuals, not ciphers explaining plot lines. If Veronica Mars is an updating of the film noir form with today's tech devices (wi-fi, cell phones, etc.) functioning as critical McGuffins in the resolution of mysteries and crimes, Moonlighting is (for the 1980s anyway...) the last word on the The Thin Man aesthetic. Like the rarified world of Nick and Nora (Powell and Loy), this is a universe of delightful wordplay and what seems today like impossibly innocent charm and banter.

The pilot episode of Moonlighting (directed by Robert Butler) not only sets up the series premise, but reminds the viewer of the era it was created: the mid-1980s. In the very first moments of the pilot, for instance, we see a criminal with a Mohawk haircut (like he stepped out of The Road Warrior...), and a close-up of a Sony Walkman. Touches like these age the series somewhat, but also makes it a great nostalgia trip if you happened to be around during that time. As for me, I remember watching Moonlighting on network television in first-run, waiting patiently (seemingly forever...) for new episodes.

More importantly, the pilot establishes the premise of the series. Ex-model Maddie Hayes (Cybill Shepherd), the Blue Moon Shampoo Girl, has been robbed blind by her business manager, and is left only with a series of non-liquid assets - write-offs - which include a pawn shop and a detective agency. Since being poor “doesn’t become” her, the prissy Hayes immediately visits all of the businesses she owns and begins to shutter them, firing employees and selling off materials. When she arrives at “City of Angel Investigations,” however, she encounters glib detective David Addison (Bruce Willis), who convinces her that they should team up as partners and run the re-named “Blue Moon” Detective Agency. Maddie is unreceptive to the notion, at least until she becomes involved in a murder mystery involving a stolen wristwatch, an item that could lead right back to stolen Nazi gold from a half-century earlier.

The pilot is inventive and funny, even if the narrative is slight. The amusing climax involves Maddie and David on a high-rise building in Los Angeles (on a ledge just below a giant clock…) attempting to recover a stash of hidden diamonds. It’s one-part thrills, one-part comedy, and wholly charming. Maddie ends up dangling on the hands of the oversized clock, hanging precariously over the street traffic far below. Movie buffs will recognize the scene as a variation of the classic Harold Lloyd gag/stunt from Safety Last! (1923), and this is part and parcel of Moonlighting's charm. At the same time that it is very 1980s, it also pays homage to Golden Age Hollywood.

Most of the mysteries served up on Moonlighting are amusing but equally slight. What truly made the series great; and what continues to make it a classic program today, is the writing (and performances) of the two eternally-in-opposition characters, Maddie and David. In a sense, it’s the old “Odd Couple” gambit, pairing Shepherd’s prissy, rules-oriented character with Willis’s “wild and crazy” guy persona (which was parodied so often in the 1980s and 1990s that at first it’s difficult to take seriously here...).

Yet what remains fascinating about these sparring partners is not just their individual differences and clear lust for one another, but rather the way that their characters symbolize particular views and agendas about the world and modern America. In particular, this is a series but the changing terrain of the war of the sexes. Bubbling right under the surface of Moonlighting's affable exterior is commentary on 1980s sexual politics, and it’s a fascinating subject to re-visit today (post-Ally McBeal - which in my view represents the death knell of feminism).

In particular, the 1980s was a period in which feminism, at least to a certain extent, floundered as an organized movement thanks to the forces of resurgent conservatism. The ERA went down to defeat in 1982, and anti-feminist forces held power for the entire decade. Yet - at the same time - women were gaining very real power in the work force as never before in American history. Just beneath the sexual-tension surface of Moonlighting is a series concerning such then-hot-button issues as what it means to have a female boss, the "appropriate" workplace relationship between men and women, the cultural infantilizing of men (or man-children, as Kathryn calls them), and a discussion of when and where charges of "sexism" might legitimately and meaningfully be lodged. Moonlighting's sparring partners are constant combatants in this war, always jockeying for positions of superiority.

In “The Dream Sequence Always Rings Twice,” a first season episode filmed in gorgeous black-and-white and introduced by Orson Welles, Maddie and David each “fantasize” about an unsolved 1940s murder case at a night club called the Flamingo Cove. Tellingly, they each play a role in an adulterous love triangle, and each is convinced that their “character” is innocent and that it is the other person who was guilty of murder. David takes on the persona of a coronet player who falls for a femme fatale, the chanteuse wife of a clarinet player -- Maddie in his dream. In his fantasy, he is an innocent down-on-his-luck guy led astray by a tough-talking, irresistible dame.

By contrast, in Maddie’s version, it is the coronet player -- David -- who is the seducer. She rejects all of his advances until he almost literally forces himself upon her. He comes at her powerfully, telling her he doesn't hear her objecting, meaning she doesn't stop his romantic advances. In both cases, "our" Moonlighting characters (the modern detectives) take on a character supporting their sexual agenda; we see the story through that lens, from both sides of the "war of the sexes." In the present, David accuses Maddie of being sexist because she assumes that the (male) coronet player is guilty; that no woman would have murdered her husband without a man urging her to do it. David's assertion is equally sexist: that the coronet player was led astray by the wiles of an irresistibly alluring woman; that the misdeed was paid for by the promise (and delivery...) of sex.

Another classic episode, "My Fair David," adopts Shaw's Pygmalion as source material and sees Maddie betting David that he cannot behave like a mature adult for one week. This means he can't do the limbo in the office waiting area (where there might be clients...); this means he can't sing and dance (as is his wont) and he can't even crack-wise. David's "cost" for losing the wager is that he must fire two employees at the detective agency, proving he can be a grown-up, professional and "boss," not merely a buddy. If Maddie loses the gamble, she has to unclench and do the limbo in the office reception area. The idea is Maddie's dedicated attempts to render David (a prospective partner...) an "acceptable" man to female eyes: meaning that he take seriously his job (a symbol of security), and that he presents well in public. Maddie needs him to be a trusted ally, not an infant. The old canard about women is that they fall in love with men, but then set about to change them; to blunt their edges to make them acceptable as providers and prospective fathers. That notion is clearly at play here.

However, there's more. The wager takes an interesting turn in "My Fair David" when the office receptionist, Miss DiPesto (Allyce Beasley) comments to Maddie that she has "de-Daved Dave," meaning that in her drive to change Addison's juvenile behavior, Maddie has ripped away the very qualities that make him attractive as a male. In the end, even Maddie comes to this understanding; she confesses that she misses "the old David," the one who loved life and made her laugh. So these childish qualities, which Moonlighting obviously views as "male" qualities, are seen as positive ones. Importantly, David doesn't really learn anything in this episode; whereas Maddie learns to lighten up. Men: 1. Women: 0.

Not every episode goes that way, of course, (though there is a Moonlighting episode that adapts The Taming of the Shrew, with David and Maddie in central roles...), and the approach is generally even-handed. What makes the individual episode sparkle is not merely the underlying context, but the staccato banter, delivered with warp-speed aplomb by Shepherd and Willis. The battle of the sexes is a game - perhaps, a deadly serious one - and David and Maddie are committed warriors. Yet their primary weapon is wit, and even in the age of Gilmore Girls, television doesn't often commit itself to the verbal flights of fancy we see on abundant display here. Also, as all lovers surely know, chemistry is a critical part of the romantic equation. I don't know whether Willis and Shepherd liked each other or not, but together they personify romantic chemistry. They possess in spades what Duchovny/Anderson had on The X-Files, and what Tracy and Hepburn shared back in their day. This personal chemistry makes every move, every quip, every battle of the wits on Moonlighting something more than just a war of the sexes-style diatribe or men vs. women argument. It makes it...foreplay.


  1. Anonymous11:06 AM

    Maybe this show should be re-imagined for TV next season. I could easily see this as Uwe Boll's entre into producing weekly television.

    Chris Johnson

  2. Starring Jan Merlin, right Chris?? :)

    Hey, thanks for the photo of VM at the Emmys! Yowza!

  3. Anonymous9:38 PM

    Jan Merlin would be cool. But I am on a Uwe Boll kick now. You should rent Bloodrayne 2 sometimes and review it on here. It is a masterpiece.

    Chris Johnson

  4. Hey John, it's Chris O'Brien. I always enjoy your blog. I love Moonlighting too and still have the "Taming of the Shrew" episode by some magical chance, originally taped on Beta. It's named "Atomic Shakespeare."
    I graduated with a PhD in Lit and now I am trying to start a career as a voice actor, based in Taipei at first. I have three books coming out this year, two textbooks and an essay in another book about teaching in Asia.
    Please catch the love I'm sending to you and June and the small one.

  5. Hi John and Kathryn, this is Chris O'Brien. Things are going well here basically, I graduated this summer with a PhD in English lit. I have 3 books coming out this year, two textbooks I revised and an essay in an anthology of essays about being a part time college teacher. Also hoping to start a career in voiceovers and voice acting, and I'm going in next wk to tape a demo.
    I loved Moonlighting too. I have by some miracle saved the "taming of the Shrew" ep of Moonlighting, which was originally taped by my family on Betamax. The episode's name is "Atomic Shakespeare." Classic. I was glad to get the title of the episode about the cornet player. The rendition of "Blue Moon" in that episode is my favorite.
    Love to you all!!! Miss you guys a lot and hope we can visit some day.

  6. Oh yeah, John, I forgot you have moderation on. I thought I had failed to post. You can pick the less bemusing greeting to post and discard the other if you wish.
    The warm greetings and wishes for you are the same anyhow.
    Chris O'Brien