Moonlighting: From Hit to Writers Strike Casualty
Thus began the final season of Moonlighting, the 1980s dramedy that rose to hit status only to crash and burn in the span of a scant 66 episodes spread out over five seasons. That fifth season was delayed until December 6, 1988, due to a strike by the Writers Guild of America, and the long hiatus is considered one of the primary reasons for the show’s quick ratings erosion and eventual cancellation six months later. At its prime, however, Moonlighting was the epitome of the “quality TV” renaissance of the 1980s, with densely-layered dialogue recited in a rapid-paced torrent by Cybill Shepherd and Bruce Willis, an old Hollywood stylistic approach containing a combination of comedy and drama, romance and sexual innuendo, slapstick and whimsy.
Loosely disguised as a detective series, the show centered on former fashion model Maddie Hayes (Shepherd), who finds herself teamed with wisecracking David Addison (Willis) at the Blue Moon Detective Agency when she loses her life’s savings in an embezzlement scam. In reality, however, it was the romantic tension between the two lead characters, played out in a sexual dance of verbal sparring and foreplay with the occasional slammed door thrown in for good measure, that drove the series. Creator Glenn Gordon Caron took that premise even further by adding a “Battle of the Sexes” element to the tension—Maddie Hayes was an intelligent, independent modern woman while David Addison was a smug, self-assured chauvinist. Moonlighting was able to walk the fine line between its romantic comedy tendencies and detective series roots by involving Blue Moon in cases that allowed for an exploration of those sexual differences.
The season two episode “The Bride of Tupperman” is a prime example. Alan Tupperman comes into Blue Moon under the pretext of hiring the agency to locate a missing person, but in actuality wants them to find the perfect would-be wife instead. Although Maddie Hayes is initially reluctant to take the case, David Addison—with visions of a large paycheck stuck in his head—eventually persuades her, but it’s not until Hayes reads Tupperman’s list of qualities (while Addison responds), that the real battle begins: “Hard worker” (“Someone to do the ironing”); “Good listener” (“Follows orders, that’s important”); “Doesn’t overdress” (“Wears just enough to keep out of jail”); “Has spent time serving others” (“Cocktail waitress, good, something to fall back on during hard times”).
Because of these interpretive differences, the two detectives decide to each find a mate for Tupperman on their own, and the results are predictable. Hayes picks a homely-looking Rhodes Scholar, while Addison’s choice is a tall, sexually-smoldering redhead. From there the episode evolves into a Preston Sturges-style screwball comedy, another Moonlighting staple. “Tupperman picked the redhead. No, he picked the scholar. No, he picked them both and already has a wife.” Hayes and Addison fly to Connecticut to confront their bigamist client, only to discover he is hospitalized from a car accident that has left his red-headed “wife” dead—it turns out that Tupperman invented a fictional spouse for himself years ago, took out an insurance policy on her and now needed a corpse in order to collect. Maddie Hayes and David Addison eventually capture the culprit in a slapstick-style wheelchair chase through a hospital that ends at the bottom of a stairwell.
“The Bride of Tupperman” contains one additional classic Moonlighting ingredient—the breaking down of the “fourth wall.” When Addison explains Tupperman’s murderous insurance scam, for example, he states he figured it out “during the commercial break.” Throughout its five-year run, the series continuously made such self-referential comments, even going so far as to have the characters talk directly to the camera (and thus the audience). It started out as a way to pad episodes that ran short, with opening sequences involving Cybill Shepherd and Bruce Willis, in character as Maddie Hayes and David Addison, answering viewer mail or discussing winning only one Emmy despite 12 nominations, and eventually evolved from there.
Moonlighting had a flair for experimentation, and some of its best episodes reflect this fact. In “The Dream Sequence Always Rings Twice,” the detective duo stumble across a murder from the 1940s, and both Hayes and Addison dream different versions of the crime in elaborately-produced, black-and-white homages to MGM and Warner Brothers. “Atomic Shakespeare,” arguably the greatest episode of any television series, is a whimsical re-telling of William Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew, spoken with a “hip” iambic pentameter. And in “The Straight Poop,” real-life Hollywood gossip columnist Rona Barrett visits Blue Moon in order to report on the headline-grabbing feud between Maddie Hayes and David Addison. The episode is also a veiled inside joke, however, as Cybill Shepherd and Bruce Willis were the true headline grabbers with their supposed on-and-off-set squabbling.
Although a typical television series consist of 22 episodes, Moonlighting was never able to deliver more than 18 in any of its five seasons, and the backstage bickering of Cybill Shepherd and Bruce Willis did indeed play a role. The series also had to overcome obstacles like Shepherd’s pregnancy and a Willis skiing accident that limited scenes for both actors. More significantly, the dialogue-heavy scripts and stylistic production demands meant that completing episodes often took longer than with typical shows, resulting in a large amount of repeats that tried its audience’s patience. The initial “will-they-or-won’t-they” hook lost steam when Maddie Hayes and David Addison “did” at the end of season three, and working Shepherd’s pregnancy into season four muddled the situation even further. The writers’ strike then eroded the show’s already shrinking ratings when it forced season four to end prematurely and delayed season five by months.
The final nail in the coffin, however, was Glenn Gordon Caron’s decision to leave the show at the start of what would be its final season. The creator had been such an instrumental part of the series, supervising every production detail and line of dialogue, that a season five without him fell flat, missing that special “zip” that Caron was able to provide. Moonlighting still went out on its own terms, however, using the last 10 minutes of the final episode to again break the “fourth wall” when Maddie Hayes and David Addison are confronted with their own demise. In an act of desperation, they approach a Hollywood producer for assistance in saving the show.
“Even I can’t get people to tune in to watch what they don’t want to watch anymore,” they are told. “Don’t get me wrong, I love you two guys. But can you really blame the audience? A case of poison ivy is more fun that watching you two lately. People fell in love with the two of you falling in love, but you couldn’t keep falling forever. Sooner or later you had to land someplace.”
For Moonlighting, that “place of landing” was in the pantheon of television history, as this all-too-short-lived series played a significant part in elevating the medium to higher levels than it had ever gone before. Thank the stars—and moon—for that.