"...the main purpose of criticism...is not to make its readers agree, nice as that is, but to make them, by whatever orthodox or unorthodox method, think." - John Simon

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." - George Orwell

Thursday, September 14, 2017


BLOGGER'S NOTE: This post originally appeared on the Wonders in the Dark blog for their Top 80 Greatest Television Shows.

In a landscape dominated by the likes of Dynasty and Hill St. Blues, Moonlighting was a breath of fresh air when it debuted on American television in 1985. It was a detective show that provided a funny, witty alternative and ambitiously took the screwball comedy popular in the 1930s and 1940s and gave it a contemporary spin that has never been duplicated as successfully on mainstream T.V. since.

Al Jarreau’s memorably soulful theme song plays over opening credits that include stills of iconic Los Angeles culture setting the perfect tone for the show. Moonlighting features a fascinating premise: what does an aging supermodel do once she’s past her prime and can no longer live the lavish lifestyle to which she’s accustomed? Maddie Hayes (Cybill Shepherd) is an ex-model who wakes up one morning to realize that her accountant has run off with all of her money. She scrambles to try and reclaim her fortune. As luck would have it, she invested in several companies and decides to sell off her shares. The last one on the list is the Blue Moon Detective Agency, run by the fast-talking, wisecracking David Addison (Bruce Willis). On the surface, he doesn’t seem like much of a detective but rather more of a hustler on the make.

Maddie tells him that she is closing down the agency. After all, on her first day the staff are playing cards, receptionist Miss DiPesto (Allyce Beasley) is reading a romance novel and David is watching the Family Feud. No phones are ringing and no clients are in the waiting room. Desperate to maintain his cushy gig, David tries his hardest to change her mind. In the process, they stumble across a mystery – or rather, have one thrust upon them. Even though she would never admit it in public, David has chipped away at her defenses and begins to charm her. She holds off on closing down the agency because she is having too much fun running it with David.

Bruce Willis is perfectly cast as the smart-ass David Addison. There is a loose, improvisational feel to his performances as he gleefully gives Maddie grief at every opportunity. Cybill Shepherd is his ideal foil as the cold, no-nonsense Maddie Hayes. The best moments are when these two contrasting personalities clash – the epitome of a love-hate relationship. He is full of smarm and charm while she is the straight man that tries to keep him in check and on point during a given case.

The writing on the show is excellent. The dialogue is crisp with a snap and pop to it. In “Next Stop Murder,” an homage to Agatha Christie murder mysteries, Blue Moon’s chipper, rhyming receptionist, Miss DiPesto wins a contest to participate in famous mystery writer J.B. Harland’s murder mystery train. David and Maddie drive her to the station and accidentally get stranded on the train with a real murder to solve. Here is a memorable exchange in the episode:

Maddie: “I was not born yesterday!”

David: “It’s true. I had lunch with her yesterday. If she’d been born I’d a noticed.”

It isn’t only the words but how Willis delivers them that makes what he says so funny. And yet, the show isn’t wall-to-wall comedy. There are sober moments of drama and, of course, romance. The show even addresses David’s lack of maturity in “My Fair David,” where Maddie bets him that he can’t act like a mature professional for a full week. This episode features some of the funniest bits between Shepherd and Willis in the show’s entire run.

For all of the hilarious banter and hijinks David and Maddie get into, the show has plenty of poignant moments as well, like the episode entitled, “Gunfight at the So-So Corral,” where an aging hitman (Pat Corley) hires David and Maddie to find an up-and-coming killer (Gary Graham) gunning for him under the pretense that he’s his son. There’s the inevitable showdown between the two assassins with the elder one getting the upper hand. In a rare moment of mercy, he lets the younger guy live and delivers a moving speech about what being a killer has done to him over the years.

In some respects, Moonlighting is a clever update of The Thin Man series of movies with screwball comedy pacing complete with rapid-fire exchanges of witty dialogue as the characters banter and bicker furiously like a couple straight out of a Howard Hawks screwball comedy. It is not easy to recreate the fast-paced banter of this genre. It takes a certain skill set to deliver dialogue like that and Willis and Shepherd make it look easy. David infuriates Maddie with his unprofessional behavior that she secretly finds exciting and fun. She comes from the fashion world and is a fish out of water that is shown the ropes of the detective biz by David, an experienced investigator (maybe?) and consummate bullshit artist.

By season two, the show’s creator, Glenn Gordon Caron, parlayed the show’s success into making more ambitious episodes and having characters break the fourth wall. “The Dream Sequence Always Rings Twice” was shot in black and white as an homage to classic Hollywood musicals and film noir. It was even introduced by Orson Welles, a week before he died.

Each episode had David and Maddie confronted with and eventually solving a different mystery while the playful sexual tension continued to build, which, at the time, had fans anticipating if and when they would become romantically involved. The eventual consummation of their relationship would ultimately ruin the show. The sexual tension was gone, replaced by uncomfortable tension as the delicate balance between comedy and drama was upset with things getting too serious. The show became consumed by its own meteoric success and the off-screen tension between Willis and Shepherd spilled over to the episodes and the show never recovered, becoming a cautionary tale for future shows of its ilk not to make the same mistakes.

Moonlighting set a new standard for the bickering, romantic comedy that has influenced so many T.V. shows that came afterwards (even something as squeaky clean as Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman to the more recent Castle). In its prime, before things got too serious between David and Maddie, it was the funniest, smartest show on T.V. with the first two seasons in its purest form: sharp and focused. What made the show work so well was the chemistry between Willis and Shepherd, resurrecting her career and launching his (with the subsequent starring role in Die Hard making him a bonafide movie star). The show holds up remarkably well today (even with the dated clothes and hairstyles) and this is due large part to the writing and chemistry between the cast members.


  1. I so wish Amazon or Netflix or Hulu would pick this up to air. I guess there are rights issues holding it up, and it is a shame.

    1. Yeah, possibly. I am surprised that none of the streaming services have this.

  2. Blue Moon - Cybill Shepherd and Bruce Willis