When ABC commissioned Glenn Gordon Caron to write a boy/girl detective pilot back in 1984, Caron was reluctant. Besides, he was despondent. This was to be the third pilot he had written for the network – neither of the previous two being picked up and turned into a series, despite his hopes for them and belief in their quality. Caron had had form with the ‘tec series, however. He had written for early episodes of the hit Remington Steele. But he felt, nonetheless, that he had neither a feel for or an especial interest in the genre. Friendly persuasion was applied, and he ran with ABC’s suggestion. The result was a wonderful pilot that mashed comedy, drama and sexual tension – the first episode of what was to become one of the most inspired, creative and, as it turns out, influential series ever to come out of a network: Moonlighting.
The show would feature a boy/girl detective dyad, sure enough. But this was to be no Hart to Hart. And it wouldn’t be some simple derivative of Remington Steele, either. It would pair an odd couple, whose differing opinions on just about everything complicated their business. They would bicker incessantly and would be secretly first hot for, then in love with, each other. The show would fashion a unique product from the melding of the best Hollywood traditions: 30s screwball comedy, noir, slapstick, rapid-fire wisecracking in the Hecht/MacArthur mode – and would honour and make fun of them all, with a liberal helping of knowing postmodernity.
Cybill Shepherd was cast in the role of Maddie Hayes, a now broke, former high-fashion model who ends up being forced to turn her life around financially – after she is cheated by her accountant – by running her only asset: a detective agency she had used as a tax write-off, Blue Moon Investigations. The role cleverly played on Shepherd’s own circumstances. She was a former model, who had gone into film with roles in The Heartbreak Kid and, most iconically, The Last Picture Show. It was on the set of this latter film that she fell in love with the director, a married Peter Bogdanovich. The relationship did not make things easy for Shepherd in Hollywood when he left his wife, producer and screenwriter Polly Platt, for her, and took charge of her career with disastrous results. Further roles in film and a TV series followed but each vehicle tanked. By the time she was cast in Moonlighting, Shepherd was just thirty-five years old – and in the agonising position of being a very recognisable has-been. She badly needed the break, but never imagined that the series would be a defining point in her career and, in fact, offer her a role of such status that it would even eclipse that of Jacy in Picture.
Caron needed to find a smartass, cool fool to spar and spark with her. The character would neatly subvert the noir laconic – he would be a man of very many words, and one who could deliver them like a machine gun. Bruce Willis was an unknown thirty-year-old, out-of-work actor when he read for the part of detective and ‘manager’ incumbent of the agency, David Addison. Willis’s career looked like it was going nowhere, fast. But when he and Shepherd read together, their interplay lit up the room and the sexual chemistry was apparent to everyone – most especially Shepherd, who felt that he was not only playing David, but that he was David. Willis couldn’t believe his luck and, at least initially, his gratitude for his big break was felt by all who worked with him.
Alongside the often ludicrous but brilliantly crafted plots the two unravelled, the principal architecture of the show was the pair’s dialogue and eternal tango. They would interrupt each other, often delivering their monologues in overlap, becoming so wound-up in the process that it looked like it would end in violence (which it did, on a few occasions). They would slam the doors of their respective offices. Maddie would stomp off, her clutch bag at oxter, her immaculately groomed hair bouncing in the LA sunshine – David would chase after her like a schoolboy: mocking, absolutely desperate for her attentions. Much of the warmth we felt towards the characters was that they were essentially two lost souls and, emotionally-speaking, teenagers. And, then, they were not what they appeared to be. Maddie seemed to be the quintessential ice maiden, a Hitchcockian fantasy in her Halston dresses, with her baby blonde locks. A sort of modern-imagined Grace Kelly. But as we know about ice maidens, they do tend to melt. Much humour comes from David’s constant ridicule of Maddie’s uptight, WASP principles and insistence on control – and her absolutely volcanic eruptions in response. David appears to be a laid-back guy who sees fun as the sole mode, but, during the course of the series, is revealed to be intense, complex and vulnerable under all his play-it-lite. It is something the viewer recognises but Maddie does not, until much later. It makes her hectoring of him seem all the more comical and poignant. Be serious, she always seems to be saying. But we know he already is – and, more to the point, he’s already serious about her.
At the agency, the pair are joined by a rhyming receptionist in the form of Agnes DiPesto, whose surreality was made completely believable on account of her kind-hearted, wide-eyed personality. Later, she develops a crush on and then goes on to enjoy a romance with new recruit Bert Viola. That pair offer relationship advice to the warring would-be lovers, Maddie and David, and pastiche the buddy/buddy trope from TV and film. The firm also has an inordinate amount of seemingly eternally underemployed caseworkers, despite the always parlous financial fortunes of Blue Moon. They enjoy limbo contests, sing soul classics, play wastepaperbasketball; the fun only stops when they fret that they are going to be fired on account of their inefficiency, which they occasionally are – before being rehired by the essentially good, socially paranoid, eager-to-please Maddie, who fired them in the first place. They function as a sort of low-rent Greek chorus, offering commentary on and dissent to the leads. They are also an incredibly smart joke. For it is with these figures that Caron is almost certainly poking fun at the paralysis of the TV writers’ room behind the making of so many hit shows. It is a kind of happy purgatory.
The on-screen attraction between Maddie and David became so involving and plausible that viewers wondered whether it was matched with an off-screen love affair. But, behind the scenes, Shepherd and Willis became enemies as the series progressed. He realised that he was growing into a true star in his own right, and beyond the show. He had ambitions to break into film. She struggled with perfectionist Caron’s last-minute rewrites and the punishing hours of filming. Some believed that Willis was provoking her prior to key scenes, in order to make her reactive and to improve their engagement. If that is true, it appears to have worked.
As the tension in their relationship on- and off-set cranked up, the production team were faced with a dilemma: to give the audience what they seemed to want or to hold it back. They went with the former, and Maddie and David slept with each other towards the end of the third season. The next morning, Maddie has both doubts and post-coital tristesse. And so do we. In consummating their relationship, the producers delivered what is known as the Shipping Bed Death. Our interest waned and, as the show continued to be dogged by off-set tension between the stars and their respective circumstances, it limped on for a further two seasons and bled audience – and critical – ratings, before the light that had already gone out went out officially.
Bruce Willis, as we all know, went on to become a major star, although, with the exception of John McClane in the Die Hard film franchise, he has never occupied a greater role. Cybill Shepherd enjoyed some success with a sitcom, Cybill, loosely based on her own life, before that ended and she took to guest and cameo roles in other hit TV series, such as The L Word. Despite a less than glorious end to such a hitherto glorious series, Moonlighting spawned countless inheritors – of its self-consciousness, its hyper-cultural awareness, its breaking of the fourth wall, its dream sequences, fantasies and parodies. Much imitated, yes, but never bettered.