'Moonlighting,' a weird, wonderful '80s detective romcom, is now streaming on Hulu
For years, Moonlighting, the late-'80s detective/romcom starring Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd, has been on a lot of people's lists of shows that weren't on streaming and should be on streaming. Well, now it's on streaming. Specifically, it's on Hulu. All five seasons are there, from the splashy TV movie that served as the pilot to the fourth and fifth rounds when the show was huffing and puffing and rarely delivering the way it did in the beginning. (Sometimes people say this is because they "got together" as a couple and it ruined the show; this is factually incorrect.)
But oh, those first three seasons. Even back in the 1980s, when network television is often too-simply remembered as having been formulaic and desperately in need of the reinvention cable would bring, Moonlighting was sharp and strange and experimental.
One reason was the stars. It's immediately obvious why this show shot Bruce Willis, probably then best known as the guy who sang in a commercial for Seagrams wine coolers — speaking of the 1980s — directly to superstar status. He plays David Addison as cocky but insecure, his fast-talking slickness both a method of survival and a lubricant that lets him slide through life without working too hard. Cybill Shepherd plays Maddie Hayes, a wealthy and cool-toned former model (like Shepherd herself) who is scammed out of all her money and discovers that she's the owner of a ragtag detective agency that was being maintained as a tax writeoff. And so, Maddie and David become partners.
On the surface, it's such a classic pairing that it borders on cliché: He's a vulgar and wisecracking man-child, she's a classy tough broad horrified by his shenanigans. But it turns out that he is quite soft-hearted, and that she is whip-smart and fearless, and this part, you and I have both heard before.
But the execution, led by creator Glenn Gordon Caron, took an unfamiliar shape. The most obvious precursors to this show were probably Hart to Hart, about a glamorous married couple who solve crimes, and Remington Steele, which is about a woman who invents a fake male partner to lend her detective agency credibility. (The latter, by the way, did for Pierce Brosnan what Moonlighting did for Bruce Willis.) The difference is that both of those, while certainly wryly funny, had a tone that remained largely tethered to reality.
Moonlighting, on the other hand, went fully farcical, particularly late in each episode when the climactic action sequences came along. They include four identically dressed people running through a hotel to the William Tell Overture, a pie-throwing scene, and a chase in a hearse where the whole funeral procession gets involved. ("David, we're being followed. By a lot of people.") The dialogue was dense with jokes and wordplay; check out this rhyming sequence, which is thrown in with no explanation at all, and which is only funnier when you watch the bloopers of the poor actor in the scene with Shepherd and Willis trying to wrap his mouth around it.
And, too, there were the format-breakers. "The Dream Sequence Always Rings Twice," a black-and-white episode introduced by Orson Welles, was shot on real black-and-white film rather than being simply decolorized, and it's absolutely gorgeous to look at. The Shakespeare riff "Atomic Shakespeare" is playful and silly, but also clever. Stanley Donen (who directed Singin' in the Rain) even choreographed a dream ballet to a Billy Joel song for the episode "Big Man on Mulberry Street."
But for all the fast talk (this is the show that made me a fan of banter) and all the experimentation, and for all the production delays and rumored on-set drama, what surprises me when I look back at these episodes is how effectively Willis and Shepherd could turn on a dime and play true, touching, often very simple emotional scenes together that co-existed with that farce and that experimentation. They're both great in "Every Daughter's Father Is a Virgin,"a deeply bittersweet episode about a visit from Maddie's parents, played by Robert Webber and Eva Marie Saint. They're both great in "Big Man on Mulberry Street," in which they deal with a previously un-discussed episode in David's past. And they're both great in "Witness for the Execution," which is about a difficult case they can't agree on (and which includes a milestone moment for their relationship).
Some things do not age well over a period of nearly 40 years; in particular, David's unabashed horniness is played for laughs even though it happens at work and amounts to sexual harassment of his boss/partner. But the pleasures of this show that burned very brightly and very chaotically remain well worth revisiting.
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