Moonlighting is a show that doesn’t often enter the modern discourse on television, but I’m here to argue that it is a remarkable television achievement that opened up the door for other hour dramas to be comedies and to experiment with their format. Moonlighting allowed flights of fantasy to take over the show and engaged continuously in Fourth Wall-breaking and meta-conversation about being a television show.
The series was the brainchild of Glenn Gordon Caron, who came to prominence in the industry as a producer of Remington Steele, another detective series that played on the same Battle of the Sexes premises. Caron was only twenty-six years old when ABC approached him with a three pilot deal. The first two pilots fizzled, and then the network told Caron what they wanted, a detective show like his previous hit Remington Steele. The young producer had zero interest in doing another investigative program but knew he had to give them what they asked for. However, he made sure Moonlighting put less focus on the cases and more on the characters and having fun with their conflict. ABC executives were actually upset at how the show was a comedy and not a drama, but Caron assured them an hour-long detective series could be a comedy.
Moonlighting began Cybil Shephard being cast as Maddie Hayes, a former model whose money was running out due to her crooked accountant embezzling it all. He had invested in several failing businesses, and Maddie begins going around Los Angeles, shutting them down. It’s when she arrives at the City of Angels Detective Agency run by David Addison (Bruce Willis) that things change. David is desperate to keep his business open and, throughout the pilot, persuades Maddie into joining him as a partner. She renames the place the Blue Moon Detective Agency (Blue Moon being a shampoo brand she starred in commercials for). Thus began a five-season “will they, won’t they” style comedy-mystery show that ignored everything you expected to find in a show like this. I’ll be looking at ten of the best episodes of the series to see what made Moonlighting such a ground-breaking and influential program.
The Lady in the Iron Mask (Season 2, Episode 2)
Original airdate October 1st, 1985
Written by Roger Director
Directed by Christopher Leitch
The episode opens with ominous music and the images of a woman preparing for her day. The last thing we see is her placing a large veil that obscures her face. This woman arrives at the Blue Moon and hires Maddie and David to track down her former lover, the one who scarred her face with acid years earlier. She claims that now that the man is released from prison, she wants to reunite with him and leave her husband. Maddie doesn’t want to take the case, but David sees how much money is being offered and coerces into at least talking to the man. Things are not as they appear in this heavily Hitchcock inspired episode, which let the audience know Moonlighting was being made by film lovers, and they would slowly paint their show with those inspirations. The episode is capped off with a ridiculous chase sequence that has four people, all dressed up like the scarred woman running through a hotel, its kitchen, the ballroom in the middle of a dinner, and so on. Slapstick would be a recurring element in the show, further separating it from the other mystery fare on television at the time.
The Dream Sequence Always Rings Twice (Season 2, Episode 4)
Original airdate October 15th, 1985
Written by Debra Frank & Carl Sautter
Directed by Peter Werner
You know you are in for something special when the episode has an introduction by Orson Welles. This was a week before Welles would pass away, so it stands as one of his final performances. He plays himself and is warning the audience that twelve minutes into tonight’s episode, everything will switch to black and white. The viewer should not be alarmed, this is intended by the filmmakers. Apparently, ABC executives were nervous that Caron planned to do a black and white film noir episode and felt the audience needed to be cautioned. Instead of merely putting up a card for them to read, Caron did one better and got one of the great film legends of American cinema to start the episode.
Maddie and David meet with a businessman who suspects his wife of infidelity. The meeting location is a decaying jazz club that the businessman is thinking of buying, bulldozing, and putting a flea market on. It turns out the club was the site of a murder of a clarinetist done by the headlining singer (his wife) and her lover, a trumpet player. Without knowing the details, Maddie and David take the expected sides in arguing who was probably guilty. Then the rest of the episode is their individual dream sequences casting themselves as the singer and the trumpet player.
In Maddie’s version, she is attracted to him but coerced into the murder of her husband, which she has tons of regret over. In David’s version, he’s seduced by the femme fatale into killing her partner. This episode does such a fantastic job of playing with the Battle of the Sexes theme that ran throughout the show with a fresh and beautiful take. Caron got ahold of actual cameras and sound equipment from the 1940s and filmed the episode on them. The crew even differentiated the dream sequence by the style of studios at the time. Maddie’s is done like MGM with more production value and filmed with brighter lighting. David’s dream gets the Warner Brothers treatment and had a grittier feel to the sequence. This is a remarkable piece of television, even finding a place in TV Guide’s 100 Greatest Episodes of All-Time.
Camille (Season 2, Episode 18)
Original airdate May 13th, 1986
Written by Roger Director
Directed by Peter Werner
As Moonlighting grew in popularity due to its idiosyncratic style of storytelling, more and more celebrities wanted to guest star. Whoopi Goldberg and Judd Nelson were the guests for this season finale, which has Whoopi as a con-artist, Camille, on the run from Nelson’s pursuing crooked cop. Through a series of coincidences, Camille saves the life of a senator from a would-be assassin. This puts her out of the grasp of the police and onto the radar of David Addison, who is looking to drum up publicity for Blue Moon. Camille takes a job but uses it to hide out for a few weeks until the cop comes sniffing around.
What makes this particular episode so unique is that during the final showdown, the characters run off the set of the television series and through the backlots of the studio. When they get to the Blue Moon set, and the cop is about to fire his weapon, a bell rings, signaling that filming has wrapped for the season. The crew begins breaking down the set, and David and Maddie explain the endings we didn’t get to see for Camille and pursuer, the guest stars walk off stage confused. The episode concludes with David and Maddie getting their cars telling each other to have a good summer but letting a beat pass with some longing looks, hinting at the simmering attraction always present in the show. Moonlighting knew how to finish off a season and completely surprise the viewers.