26 September 1999 | Ric-49
Revived Romantic Comedy on Television in the 80's
Moonlighting went on the air in January of 1985 as a mid season replacement, beginning with a two hour TV movie pilot episode. The reviews were mixed - and so was the pilot. Was this a detective drama? A romantic comedy? It appeared it was trying to be both. Within a couple of episodes it became clear that creator Glen Gordon Caron was planting the show firmly in the field of romantic comedy - a good choice because it was in these moments that the series would really shine.
By the third episode it was clear they were on to something original, or if not completely original, at least written and executed better than anything else on TV at the time. The Tracy-Hepburn like sparring between Shepherd and unknown actor Bruce Willis, and the sophisticated writing by Caron and the other writers just got better and better as they finished their first half season of ten episodes.
The highlight of that first batch was the celebrated "black and white" episode, "The Dream Sequence Always Rings Twice." In it Maddie and David interview a client who owns a once famous LA nightclub (like the Coconut Grove), which is about to be torn down. There they learn of a mysterious murder that occurred there in the 40's, still unsolved, that revolved around a trumpet player having an affair with the band's married girl singer. The singer's husband was killed and both the trumpet player and the songstress claim the other did the deed. Of course David assumes the woman framed the musician. Maddie feels it was much more likely the sleazy guy did it. Each of them daydream their version of events in 1940's black and white, with Bruce playing the trumpeter and Cybill the singer. Each of their mini-stories works as film noir homage, and the pairing of the two versions come off even stronger. In addition it allowed us to see David and Maddie in a romantic setting without having to put the characters directly into that kind of plot killing situation. The episode won Emmy nominations for everyone involved, including Cybill and Bruce. Bruce won.
Which brings up "the troubles." How many giant egos can one series sustain? Tension began to mount between Shepherd, Willis, and Caron. Cybill was the "star" - but she was essentially playing straight man to Willis. His manic character and split second timing were the force driving the chemistry forward. By the time they were filming the first full season - he was as recognizable as she was. And after years of struggling and starving in New York - he was enjoying every minute of his new found fame.
And then there was Glen Gordon Caron. He was very much a "hands on" producer and had very definite ideas about where he wanted to take the series. His perfectionism frustrated his cast and writers. Several times the crew would begin filming an episode while the writers were still writing. Caron had a commitment to the network for 22 episodes per season. He never delivered more than 20. His shooting regularly went off schedule and over budget. The quality was there on the screen ("Atomic Shakespeare" - a riff on the Taming of the Shrew was practically a movie in and of itself), but the show began to tick off viewers who complained about all the reruns while they waited for a new episode.
As the series moved into its second full season it hit a creative peak:
· The aforementioned Taming of the Shrew
· Big Man on Mulberry Street - with a musical sequence by "Singing in the Rain" director Stanley Donen
· The four Sam and David and Maddie episodes with Mark Harmon as the straight up astronaut whose proposal forces Maddie and David to confront their feelings.
Then it happened. A confluence of events that seemed to drain the show of all its life:
· Maddie and David "did it" - killing off the eternal suspense.
· The writers, tired of all Caron's tirades and very much in demand with all their Moonlighting awards, left the series. Caron had to bring in a fresh crop.
· Cybill Shepherd became pregnant with twins. The timing of the pregnancy would prevent her from filming between September and at least December - a prime production period.
· Glen wrote the pregnancy into the show - and had Maddie flee LA for home - for months. This allowed him to film Shepherd's scenes alone during the summer. Of course with 3000 miles between Maddie and David it's hard to get much zippy chemistry going.
Coming from the creative high of the second season, the letdown in the third year was all the more apparent. By the time they dumped the baby (a miscarriage) at the beginning of the fourth season - the magic was clearly gone. Shepherd and Willis were anxious to move on to more lucrative film projects, and the final season was only a slight improvement over the disappointing previous year.
But, as the nursery rhyme goes - when it was good, it was very very good. In addition to the episodes mentioned above, try to catch some of these on cable:
· "My Fair David" - Maddie bets David can't go through a week without breaking out into some Motown ditty, or making crass sexist comments.
· "Devil in the Blue Dress" with Judd Nelson and Whoopie Goldberg