Rewind: Celebrating the brilliance of "Moonlighting"

Modern, hilarious and energetic, "Moonlighting" dazzled us in the '80s -- and only looks more groundbreaking today

Published March 9, 2013 12:30AM (EST)

Our TV critic launches a new column revisiting our favorite, most enduring sitcoms and dramas.

“Moonlighting,” the wonderful romantic comedy co-starring Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd as bantering, codependent private detectives, aired on Tuesday nights on ABC from 1985 to 1989.  Unlike many of its contemporaries, “Moonlighting” remains a cultural touchstone — also airing on Tuesdays during those years, “The A-Team” and “Matlock”! — in large part because of the long shadow it has cast on TV romances: You know, the “Moonlighting” curse. But the focus on the curse has unfairly narrowed “Moonlighting’s” legacy. It means that when we talk about “Moonlighting,” we’re usually talking about what “Moonlighting” got wrong, and that, as David Addison might say, makes about as much sense as zebras speaking Martian. “Moonlighting” is and was stunningly modern, hilarious and energetic in a still breathtaking way, meta before meta was standard, a social media series before there was social media. (The first show to talk about the “Moonlighting” curse was basically “Moonlighting.”) So, forthwith, a consideration of “Moonlighting” that has nothing to do with romance at all.

“Moonlighting” tells the story of David Addison and Maddie Hayes, the id and the superego who, together, made for one kicky brain. David’s a loosey-goosey rapscallion who can talk to anyone and likes to limbo in the office, a walking, talking, witty good time, and she’s conscientious and responsible, witty and willful in her own, less charismatic way. (It’s the grace with which Shepherd accepts her not as-charming-as-Willis lot that actually makes her the proper foil for him: She’s got guts.) David’s all spontaneity, Maddie’s all for thinking things through; David wants to be everyone’s friend, Maddie has a hard time being anyone but David’s; David needs to grow up, Maddie needs to loosen up. But even with all these differences, like all good screwball couples, they have one thing in common: They both love to argue, with each other. Arguing, bantering, infuriating, playing, fighting, making up — all at top volume — are their favorite activities, and they make them look like fun.

“Moonlighting” made Bruce Willis a star, and it is impossible not to understand why: Watching him in this show is to immediately grasp the entire Bruce Willis “thing,” to understand the fount of his charm and why he will be dishing out one-liners for the rest of his life. The unique thing about David Addison is that he is a manly man who never, ever shuts up. Forget tall, dark and stoic: David Addison is one of the chattiest Cathies in the history of television, a talk, talk, talker who, yes, did kind of clam up when it came to his feelings. (This is why, to me, even the people who love Willis because he was John McClane — so most people — just love Bruce 2.0. John quips, but he doesn’t babble. The id is already under control, and with every year, as the Willis jaw gets more and more square and set, his twinkle fades.)

There are other fictional characters who have Addison’s sort of devil-may-care swagger (Han Solo is a clear antecedent, Raymond Chandler’s private dicks liked language as much), but the only ones who are as verbal are basically Woody Allen and his descendants. But David is not a neurotic and he’s not rambling because he’s uncomfortable with the rest of his body. The degree of difficulty in writing and in performing this sort of part, in essentially upending accepted macho behavior by making unaccepted, typically feminine behavior seem macho is so hard that very few characters like this exist on TV. The only sort of corollary to David is maybe Hank on “Breaking Bad,” another jovial, chatty macho man, who compared to David is a model of calm and control, or perhaps the boys of “New Girl" or Seth Cohen of “The OC,” who are not nearly so masculine.

Shepherd is not as good as Willis, which is sort of like saying someone is not quite as fast as Usain Bolt: Ain’t no shame being second to that kind of best. She was more famous when the series began — she’d been a model, and appeared in “The Last Picture Show” and “Taxi Driver” and dated Peter Bogdanovich — and the show was a comeback vehicle for her. She took the part because she realized everyone saw her as a frosty bitch, and this was a way to lean into that particular image problem. (Katharine Hepburn did this same kind of leaning in, to even better effect, with “The Philadelphia Story." Takeaway: Anne Hathaway should cast herself as a theater kid, stat).

Maddie existed in a really exceptional moment for competent women: Dorothy from “Golden Girls” and “Who’s the Boss’s” Angela were some of her prime-time buddies and she bumped into “When Harry Met Sally’s” Sally Albright on her way off the television. But this competence was not to be confused with perfection, because this competence was in and of itself a sort of flaw: It made its possessors too perfect, too uptight, too emasculating, too threatening.

In “Moonlighting” it is possible to see the roots of both the manchild and the kind of female scold who made an entire generation of women want to write more flawed, oddball characters, just so they wouldn’t get stuck playing another buzzkill. But just as David’s not really a child, even if his all-play-at-work ethos presages some of Judd Apatow’s shtick, Maddie is a reminder of why supreme female capability wasn’t always dull, it was also ass-kicking and genuinely threatening to the male status quo. Because of David’s love of words, no one is ever going to accuse Maddy of being too much of anything, and she gets to storm and rage and fight and joke and be sweet, even as she performs all the essential adult functions. She is, literally, the boss. (Do you think we’ll be able to look back on the aughts and see our anxieties about gender roles actually inscribed in the titles of our sitcoms?) Maddie’s about as far from spazzy, flighty Lucy Ricardo, constantly disciplined by her husband, as she is from spazzy, flighty Jess Day, even though Jess couldn’t and wouldn’t exist without Maddie.

Glenn Gordon Caron, who created “Moonlighting” and oversaw it for three and a half seasons before getting bounced (a kind of latter-day Dan Harmon situation), has talked about how the series was inspired a little by ‘Taming of the Shrew.” (“Moonlighting” did a “Taming of the Shrew" episode, with Maddie in the Kate part and David as Petruchio.) But it’s not just “Taming of the Shrew,” it’s also “Taming of the Boor.” Maddie did have "shrew" characteristics: screechy and demanding and uptight, but she was also right. Adorable, lovable, witty David was also a brute who showed up to meetings late and drunk and unshaven and who constantly hit on everyone and would have run the Blue Moon Detective Agency into the ground. If Willis’ charisma sometimes unbalanced the balance between the leads, there was a reciprocity written into the show’s very premise.

“Moonlighting” was considered a drama, but tonally it’s like a single-camera comedy, albeit with a multi-camera setup. The dialogue flies fast and furious, with a level of banter and word play — take your pick of any of these —  that could not exist if there was a laugh track and does not exist in most dramas (the work of Amy Sherman-Palladino and Aaron Sorkin excluded). “Moonlighting” is also formally inventive and goofy, in a way we now associate with comedies, but has a sort of unplanned, devil-may-care shagginess it's near impossible to find anywhere on TV. The ambitious “Community” has basically nothing on “Moonlighting” when it comes to genre busting: "Moonlighting" did a claymation segment, it had a "Honeymooner’s" send-up way before "30 Rock," it did a whole film noir dream sequence, and a long dance number to a Billy Joel song (check out Willis' moves), and it was regularly tossing in crazy buttons whenever it felt like it. (See, for example, this bit with the Temptations. And yes, Shepherd's dance at the end really does show up when you flip to "game" in the dictionary.)

But the most modern thing about “Moonlighting” is how much it was trying to communicate and be in conversation with its audience: how much it was was trying to be an Internet show before there was an Internet. “Moonlighting” was very meta from the start. It broke the fourth wall often, without ever breaking the spell of the show. David Addison would crack jokes about what the writers were up to — "What do we do now?" Maddie asked once. "Wrap this up in about 12 minutes so another show can come on the air,” he replied —  but he would never do so as Bruce Willis. In the Christmas episode, which ends with probably the sweetest thank you to a cast and crew ever, David looks around at the office and the decorations and says to Maddie, “Do you think this is the Christmas episode?” They wander out the door, and onto the soundstage, where the whole crew and their families are singing “Noel” in fake falling snow. And then they kiss and wave goodbye, as Maddie and David.

This sort of winking is nothing compared to what came later. Starting in the second season, “Moonlighting” would regularly open with a segment that featured Maddie and David talking directly to the camera, making some meta-commentary about something that had happened in the real world.  The first one featured them reading letters from fans about when they would kiss: They said they didn’t know, they only just read the episode's script, and they don't kiss in that one. After “Moonlighting” lost 15 of 16 possible Emmys, the show opened with a segment allegedly filmed before the Emmys with Maddie and David talking about how their victories are totally in the bag. How could they lose! Sixteen nominations! This is what you do when you can’t tweet about how losing 15 Emmys feels.

By the third season, “Moonlighting” was if not quite in creative crisis, certainly in chaos. Episodes weren’t arriving on time, Shepherd was pregnant, Willis had broken a clavicle, everyone knew Willis and Shepherd didn't like each other.  And so in “The Straight Poop,” “Moonlighting” made a meta-clip show episode that featured gossip columnist Rona Barrett conducting interviews with Maddie and David about why they couldn’t work together.

As the season went on and more and more time elapsed between episodes, Gordon Caron would come up with exceedingly clever, overly apologetic ways to do what was essentially “Previously, on 'Moonlighting.'" (This was an earlier time, when "Previously ons" weren't standard.) Jeff Jarvis, a TV critic at the time, cheekily introduced an episode, noting that perhaps the audience didn’t know what was happening because the show was on so infrequently they'd started reading books on Tuesday nights. Another episode featured man on the street interviews: The first people interviewed explained they had stopped watching, because it wasn't on enough.

These little segments are remarkable, both for their cleverness and their self-awareness, but most of all their desire to please. “Moonlighting” really wanted to be in communication and conversation with its audience, who loved it, who were impatient with it. It wanted to let the audience know what was happening, even if what was happening was that they couldn't really get it together to bang out 22 episodes, and so they did this the only way they could at the time, with the show itself. "Moonlighting" was self-reflexive in a way that is totally common now, but was so remarkable then that it made a fuss nearly every time it looked itself in the mirror.

Even as the audience started to dissipate, "Moonlighting" just anted up. (And about the “Moonlighting Curse." Forget strikes and deflating chemistry; in the fourth season, Maddie split for Chicago and she and David did not appear together for eight more episodes. That’s probably not a curse, that’s just suicide, or as David and Maddie put it when talking about what getting together might do to the show, "telecide.") While Maddie was in Chicago, David got stuck in prison: On the show ABC executives started looking for replacements, and ABC started selling off the set. As the show went on, losing audience all the while, it couldn’t stop talking about itself,  how it had gotten itself into this hole, how it could get out, and what did the audience think? It was begging for feedback. The show ended with Maddie and David coming back and seeing their set being dismantled. It was the TV show that most wanted a huge chorus of people to be talking about what was wrong with it — or what was right with it. If it were on the air right now, it might regret that impulse, but I wish we could find out.

By Willa Paskin

Willa Paskin is Salon's staff TV writer.

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