Wednesday, May 14, 2014

This Day in TV History (‘Moonlighting’ Glow Ends)

May 14, 1989—With the properly named “Lunar Eclipse,” Moonlighting, the Cybill Shepherd-Bruce Willis comic thriller series, aired an original episode for the last time. If the show’s title had really wanted to refer to a celestial body, however, it might have been better termed “Comet-Gazing” to describe its blazing but all-too-brief appearance in the TV landscape.

The moon is, of course, a constant in the heavens. In contrast, the creation of showrunner Glenn Gordon Caron had blazed bright and fast, beginning with as much wit and daring as any that television had witnessed to date.

Yet, like the characters in the Blue Moon Detective agency who were left to puzzle out at the end why their business had to close, viewers of this critical darling, a show with as much comic energy and zest as television had seen to that time, were crestfallen as to why it had fizzled out in such a dispirited fashion.

Moonlighting has become a cult favorite over the years—a term hard to associate with a show that lasted into its fifth season. But the series never became a syndication mainstay, as most shows of that duration do, because its 67 episodes fell a good deal short of the 100 generally regarded as baseline for syndication. 

Even at its best, it was a nightmare to produce—the most expensive hourly series of its time, with long scripts done and delivered the day of shooting to their exhausted co-stars, who also loathed each other. (Male viewers who enjoyed the many, extended shots of Shepherd’s legs emerging from the elevator and walking down the corridor didn’t realize that the images weren’t made for their voyeuristic pleasure, but to allow the writers more time to produce something, anything while they continued to write frantically.)

In the last three seasons, the series went awry. Once Caron satisfied viewers’ wish that Maddie and Bruce Willis’ bad-boy David Addison and Cybill Shepherd’s former model Maddie Hays should finally consummate their relationship, he did not seem to know what to do with them. Additionally, Shepherd’s real-life pregnancy left her unable to shoot at points—and understandably peeved over the burden of memorizing long scripts at the last minute, not to mention a character she felt had become too one-note and bitchy. 

By the end of the third season, after one too many fights between the exasperated Shepherd and the show’s perfectionist, disorganized creator, Caron was out. Then, in 1988, once Willis, after a couple of unsuccessful attempts, finally achieved film superstardom with Die Hard, it was only a matter of time before he would want to leave the series.

All of this, naturally, had an effect on the product. Viewers grew tired of the unexpected last-minute delays of episodes, and when the series was moved from its longtime Tuesday night perch to Sunday, they didn’t migrate over.

I prefer to think of the show at its peak, up to around September 8, 1986, when Shepherd and Willis appeared on a “Sly and Sexy” cover story for Newsweek. By this time, their lightning-fast repartee had not only vaulted the show into the top 10 and earned it a slew of Emmy nominations, but had also given it a well-earned reputation as TV’s throwback to the glorious era of the screwball farce epitomized by His Girl Friday and Bringing Up Baby. In fact, no less than perhaps the most sublime male performer of that film genre, Cary Grant, let it be known that he never missed an episode.

Thousands like myself agreed fervently with Grant. We chuckled at “Atomic Shakespeare” and tried unsuccessfully to recall another TV show written entirely in iambic pentameter (or, for that matter, a more clever modern update of The Taming of the Shrew). We marveled at an episode evoking classic ‘40s film noir, “The Dream Sequence Always Rings Twice,” shot in black and white and featuring an introduction by Orson Welles, made only days before his death. We loved the show's mocking destruction of the “fourth wall” separating performers from viewers. In the years since, no matter how well Shepherd and Willis might have done, we still think they were never better than they were at this show's best. It's no wonder that, on its Website, the Writer's Guild of America listed Moonlighting as tied for 60th among the "101 Best Written TV Series."

This past Christmas, I received a DVD of the first two seasons of the show. Watching episodes brought to mind the melancholy undercurrent of the series even then, the fear of the two Blue Moon partners that, if they expressed their tenderness, the other might not reciprocate. Now, though, the wistfulness is increased by how young the stars appeared, and how fleeting was the magic they brought to so many like myself.

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