Sunday, May 17, 2009

MOONLIGHTING: the complete series (Picture Maker/ABC 1985-89) Lionsgate Home Entertainment

In 1985 creator Glenn Gordon Caron debuted a two hour, made for television adventure/comedy/mystery entitled Moonlighting. Drawing on his wealth of admiration for the old Nick and Nora Charles, Thin Man film series made by MGM in the 1930s and 40s, Caron developed a witty repartee between a sultry ex-model and raucous gumshoe thrust together by unusual circumstances in a race against time.

In fact, Moonlighting was the third project in a 3 picture deal brokered by Caron with ABC television. While Caron’s previous two efforts had met with indifference and outright rejection, Moonlighting was decidedly different. Holding open auditions for the part of the gregarious P.I., David Addison, Caron easily found the embodiment of this character in then unemployed actor, Bruce Willis.

Unfortunately, executives at ABC could not see the merit in Caron’s choice. Given Hollywood’s penchant for ‘pretty boys’ it is perhaps understandable why ABC balked at Willis from the start. But what Willis lacked in conventional good looks he easily made up in raw charm and spirited charisma.

After shooting a screen test with Willis and costar Cybil Shepherd, ABC reluctantly agreed. The result: a most perfect blending of star talent conceived for the small screen. The chemistry between Willis and Shepherd cannot be overestimated, producing palpable sparks of raw sexual frustration that eventually became the backbone of the series and its lamentable undoing. So popular with audiences was Moonlighting’s pilot that ABC immediately informed Caron he would be making a TV series.

Caron, who openly admitted he never had any such intensions from the start now found himself at ABC's mercy to produce weekly episodes living up to the same high artistic standards as his original project. That Caron refused to sacrifice integrity for the sake of keeping up the pace gradually began to wear his creative talents down. In the 5 years that Moonlighting was a main staple on television it never remotely approached its quota of 32 episodes per annum and, in fact, totaled a scant 76 prior to its cancellation.

Season One and Two of Moonlighting easily represents one of the most outstanding – if quirky – romantic comedies ever to come to television. Like most of the series one hour mysteries, the two hour pilot’s narrative is flawed. It begins when former top model Maddie Hayes (Shepherd) discovers that her accountant has absconded with her life savings, leaving her penniless.

Determined to liquidate her tangible assets for some quick cash, Maddie arrives at the Blue Moon Detective Agency, overseen by the gregarious David Addison (Willis). Saying all the wrong things – but loveably so - David manages to incur Maddie’s wrath repeatedly until the two become embroiled in a crime in which the only clue is a stolen, broken watch.

In truth, Caron and his team of writers always placed their emphasis more on the double entendre between Willis and Shepherd than on successfully resolving many of the ‘who done its’ that serve as a very thin basis for what is essentially a ‘sex comedy’ with plenty of oomph! For a while, this shifting focus from sleuthing to seducing sustained the series; particularly throughout seasons one, two and part of season three.

Highlights from this first two years include The Next Murder You Hear – an episode where Maddie becomes obsessed with the disembodied voice of a lonely hearts radio jockey after he is supposedly murdered on air, and, The Lady in the Iron Mask; where a disfigured woman hires the duo to find the man who threw acid in her face twenty years earlier. There’s also The Bride of Tupperman; Maddie and David search for the ideal mate for a man who is plotting an insurance scheme.

Guest stars include Tim Robbins, as a career killer in Gunfight at the So-So Corral and Dana Delaney, cast as David’s conniving old flame, out to set him up for murder in My Fair David. But the truly outstanding episode of Season Two is undeniably The Dream Sequence Always Rings Twice: a homage to 40s film noir shot almost entirely in B&W in which David and Maddie separately contemplate how an unsolved crime at an upscale nightclub went down some 50 years before. As a big band chanteuse, Cybil Shepherd acquits herself nicely of the standards ‘Blue Moon’ and ‘Told You I Loved You, Now Get Out’.

To some extent, the series crests after the end of Season Two, with both Willis and Shepherd, curiously enough, looking considerably older at the start of Season Three. If in its third year Moonlighting doesn’t quite live up to the series reputation, it nevertheless provides some groundbreaking television programming, including Atomic Shakespeare – a lavishly appointed and upbeat take on The Taming of the Shrew – and Big Man on Mulberry Street, in which David and Maddie do a big scale musical production number/dream sequence reminiscent of the great MGM musicals from the 1950s. Mark Harmon makes his debut near the end of Season Three as Maddie’s old flame, Sam, forcing David to grapple with his true feelings toward Maddie too little too late.

But the big build up of having David Addison and Maddie Hayes fall into bed together could only last so long, and, at the end of Season Three the results of their great seduction are more a weak expulsion of the inevitable that proved a subsequent let down for viewers.

As a result, Season Four of Moonlighting separates the two lovers almost for the duration of the season, with David sexually frustrated and sleuthing in Los Angeles while Maddie convalesced privately at her parent’s home in Chicago, only to discover that she is in fact pregnant; quite possibly with either David or Sam’s baby.

To fill the void created by this separation, Caron and his writers bump up the importance of two subordinate characters in the series; Blue Moon’s dutiful but dumb secretary, Agnes DiPesto (Allyce Beasley) and pontificating operative with a short man’s complex, Herbert Quentin Viola (Curtis Armstrong).

At the end of Season Four Maddie returns to Blue Moon, pregnant and married to Walter Bishop (David Dugan); a man she has met on the train back to L.A. – leaving David deflated and vengeful. In fact, Maddie has married Walter to rid herself of the lingering passion she still harbors for David; a rouse that eventually crumbles when David vindictively forces the couple to renew their vows before God and their friends in a church.

Seemingly painted into a corner, Season Five begins with Maddie’s divorce from Walter and her miscarriage of what we come to learn was, in fact, David’s baby. However, instead of reconciliation between the two costars, the tragedy of losing a child reforms Maddie into a kinder, gentler woman; completely robbing the series of its electric banter. Maddie no longer wishes to reform David. In fact, she no longer has feelings for him at all, referring to David almost exclusively as her colleague, even when her cousin, Annie (Virginia Madsen) arrives for a visit.

Annie and David become lovers, but the move is short lived when Annie’s husband Mark arrives. David resigns himself to losing Annie, pretending to have an affair with a co-worker so that Annie will make the right choice and return to her husband. Agnes and Herbert marry and Maddie and David are informed by ABC that the network has decided to cancel their series.

All through the series, producer/director Glenn Gordon Caron had toyed with inserting ‘in jokes’ into the narrative; from having David periodically giving direct address to the viewing audience to both Maddie and David providing running commentary in constant quips about ABC’s lack of imagination and the rigors of producing a television series. Caron even spoofs the fact that the series could never keep up with the expected 32 episodes per season in The Straight Poop, where Hollywood gossip columnist Rona Barrett arrives on set to confront a supposedly standoffish Maddie and David. Tragically, the last year and a half of Moonlighting is a hodge-podge, more melodramatic and soapish than trendsetting good fun.

Lion’s Gate Home Entertainment has made Moonlighting’s five seasons available on DVD in four box sets. Season’s One and Two come packaged together. For the most part, image quality is about what one might expect from vintage television with a generally smooth image exhibiting dated colors and bright contrast levels. Occasionally however, the image falters with bizarre shortcomings.

Portions of Season Three's Atomic Shakespeare, for example, are riddled with grain and excessive age related artifacts, while much of Season Five's A Womb With A View exhibits a curious haloing effect that makes the image severely blurry in spots as though it were shot on old Technicolor film stock that has separated and/or shrunk. The audio in all cases is mono but adequately represented.
Extras on Season One and Two include three documentaries; Not Just A Day Job: The Story of Moonlighting; Inside The Blue Moon Detective Agency, and, The Moonlighting Phenomenon. Season Three also has a half hour documentary that reunites Caron with Shepherd and Willis. For the rest, audio commentary tracks are scattered throughout each season, at times offering an insightful backdrop to a series that had no equals during its brief reign.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
Season 1&2 - 4
Season 3 - 3
Season 4 - 2
Season 5 - 2


Season 1&2 - 3
Season 3 - 2
Season 4 - 1
Season 5 - 1

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