Tuesday, January 18, 2011

No Longer a Moonlighting Stranger: Musings on "Moonlighting"

November and December 2010, January 2011

I recently watched all five seasons of Moonlighting on DVD. It is an interesting TV show. If memory serves, it brought a renewed cinematic quality to the small screen in the 1980s (The Rifleman, Father Knows Best, Peter Gunn brought a cinematic quality to US TV in the 1950s and 1960s) and you really get a sense of its importance in US TV history when watching it and putting it into historical context. Moonlighting also has a wonderful sense of playfulness that is particularly thrilling when the show breaks the fourth wall, as it periodically does. I love the "Brechtian" qualities of the wonderful "Twas the Episode Before Christmas" episode, which breaks the fourth wall breathtakingly and quite touchingly in its final minutes, for instance.

I have found the episodes of the show good and sometimes very good. As I mentioned I liked "Twas the Episode Before Christmas". I very much enjoyed "Tracks of My Tears" and "Maddie Hayes Got Married" among others. The famous episode "Atomic Shakespeare" (at three million dollars apparently the most expensive episode of television at the time), the Moonlighting version of The Taming of the Shrew which was done in iambic pentameter, however, didn't do much for me. It is kind of like a Three Stooges version of a Looney Tunes cartoon dropped into Shakespeare.

The episode that follows "Atomic Shakespeare" is disturbing for another reason. Cybill Shepherd complained in her book Cybill Disobedience that she felt the creator of Moonlighting, Glenn Caron, was punishing her character Maddie Hayes for her feminism (She also claimed that he later punished her for getting pregnant). In the episode "It's a Wonderful Job" Maddie makes her employees work on a case during the Christmas holiday to their consternation. When Maddie leaves the office after her aunt dies, an aunt she did not go to see in the hospital though it was only "four blocks away", and retreats to a pub to drown her sorrows Maddie is visited by an angel who grants her wish that she had not allowed the Blue Moon Detective Agency she owns to continue in business. The angel shows her the error of her unfeeling ways by showing her what happens to two of her employees, Agnes DiPesto (Alyce Beasley) and David Addison (Bruce Willis). Agnes turns into a darker unfeeling professional mirror image of Maddie while David gets engaged to Cheryl Tiegs (undoubtedly a reference to Shepherd's career as a model before she entered the acting profession). The show ends with Maddie apologising to David, Agnes, and an employee she fired and asking Agnes to phone their client telling them the agency would be unable to help him at the moment because it was Christmas week.

I am just one "reader" of "It's a Wonderful Job" (based, of course, on Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life) but it feels to me like the character of Maddie, a character who runs a business and demands professionalism in her business (typicially a man's job), is being condemned by the powers that be in Moonlighting for her behaviour and counterpointed, negatively, to David's life and work is a game to be enjoyed (Maddie sees David's behaviour as adolescent) and Agnes's life can be fun particularly when it rhymes ways of living and acting (behaviour Maddie sees as sometimes unprofessional and perhaps losing the agency business). It feels, in other words, sometimes like Moonlighting is kind of a backlash to female professionalism and the kind of masculinisation that happens to females in the world of business rather like the 1933 movie Ann Carver's Profession.

Despite my concerns, despite my sometimes negative reactions to these episodes Moonlighting was and remains important in the history of American television. Moonlighting not only brought a renewed cinematic quality to TV (the beautiful black and white of "The Dream Sequence Always Rings Twice" filmed in MGM and Warner Brothers style and the gorgeous blue moonlight hues of so many evening scenes) but brought what Cybill Shepherd called Hawksian comedy to the small screen, screwball comedy, in other words. The hate/love/hate/love relationship between Willis and Shepherd in the show was right out of 1930s and 1940s Hollywood Screwball Comedy.

Moonlighting, of course, has had an immense impact on American TV and film afterwards. You can see the hate/love/hate/love relationship in a show like Castle. You can hear the overlapping fast dialogue made famous by Moonlighting to 1980s viewers of the show in Gilmore Girls. You can see and hear the fast overlapping dialogue, the musical qualities, and the debates over gender and feminism of the show in David E. Kelley's Ally McBeal. You can see and hear all the popular culture that became commonplace in the show in so many shows afterwards (something that has become so cliched in contemporary Hollywood that perhaps it should be passe) in Moonlighting's wake including Twin Peaks, The Simpsons, X-Files, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, South Park, Family Guy...

Beyond its impact on US television (and beyond) Moonlighting can teach the film and TV scholar a little something. Moonlighting was, as is sometimes the case, impacted by its actors lives beyond the small screen. Late in the third season of the show actor Cybill Shepherd got pregnant. Shepherd's pregnancy and the fact that this pregnancy limited her work schedule required Moonlighting's creator and writers to retool the series on the fly during fourth season. As a result Shepherd's character, Maddie Hayes, left Los Angeles for her parents home in Chicago and Bruce Willis's character, David Addison, was changed particularly in the first episode of the fourth season, from a guys guy to a pleading I love you Maddie please stay with me sort of bloke. During the first ten episodes of the fourth season Shepherd and Willis were never on screen at the same time.

For many of Moonlightiing's creative personnel today looking back on the show it was the changes Shepherd's pregnancy brought to the show not the end of the will they? won't they? when will they? theme that was at the heart of the show, which caused Moonlighting's demise. Moonlighting, the fast talking Hawksian comedy (think His Girl Friday) which lived and died by the chemistry between Shepherd and Willis, declined, in this tale, because of the separation of the two characters by the realities of life beyond the small screen and never recovered from it. It was, to use a cliche, smacked in the face by reality.

By the end of season five Moonlighting was canceled but went off the air with class giving us one of the great series ending episodes ever, an episode that appropriately played up Moonlighting's penchant for breaking the fourth wall and poking fun at network television itself. The creator of Moonlighting, Glenn Caron, would go on to create another TV series that is set to go off the air this Friday (21 January 2011) Medium, a show I like more than Moonlighting.

Addendum
I recently started watching reruns of Remington Steele (NBC, 1982-1987), the show Glenn Gordon Caron produced and wrote for prior to creating Moonlighting, on Me TV. As a number of people have pointed out over the years Remington Steele with its mixture of comedy, romance, drama, and screwball and its reflexivity--the character of Remington Steele (Pierce Brosnan) refers to a Hollywood film or more in virtually every episode of the show, films that often help Steele and his partner in crime detection Laura Holt (Stephanie Zimbalist) solve the crime of the television hour--was a major influence on Caron's Moonlighting.

I had never seen Remington Steele before but I have to say that episode for episode and season for season I find Remington Steele stronger than Moonlighting. And I like the fact that Remington Steele, unlike the more masculine oriented Moonlighting, a show that borders on misogyny at times in its depiction of Cybill Shepherd's character Maddie and her relationship with Bruce Willis's character David, has a far more feminist feel to it than does Moonlighting.

At the heart of Remington Steele is the narrative motif that Laura Holt, being a female private detective in a male profession, has to create the fictional Remington Steele that the mysterious con man played by Brosnan becomes in order to make it in the private detective world, something the show never forgets and something the show announced to viewers in every opening credit sequence in the shows first season. It is this narrative theme, that Holt has to create a fictional male superdetective boss in order to survive and thrive in a male world, that makes Remington Steele feminist and which turned Laura Holt into a hero to many TV watching females in the 1980s.

Speaking of feminism and Hollywood I found it interesting that Remington Steele, the creation of Robert Butler and Michael Gleason, had been floating around Hollywood since 1969 when Butler pitched it to Grant Tinker, co-founder of the MTM production company that would become a Hollywood legend in the 1970s and 1980s thanks to its production of seminal television shows like The Mary Tyler Moore Show (CBS, 1970-1977) and Hill Street Blues (NBC, 1981-1987), shows which stretched the character and narrative limits of mainstream American television at the time. There was apparently resistance to Remington Steele from Hollywood's networks because the show centred around a female detective and the fictional male boss she had to create in order to make it in a man's world. It was only when Tinker became head of NBC in 1981 and the character of Remington Steele was made flesh and played by a young Pierce Brosnan that NBC finally green lighted a pilot. Art, it seems, really does reflect reality.

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