If there is ever a good time to watch old content, it’s during a pandemic. That’s what I’ve been doing — besides watching every game show on earth (Jeopardy!, Family Feud, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, Supermarket Sweep, The Chase [U.S.], and the Weakest Link remake, which has been great, to name a few).
When I’m not guessing what outer tunic medieval knights wore over their metal armor (What is a surcoat?, for the record), I have been watching Moonlighting (1985–1989), the hit ABC television series that starred Cybil Shepherd as Maddie Hayes, a former supermodel turned detective, and Bruce Willis as David Addison, her wisecracking partner. When you write it out like that, it seems terrible. It’s not.
But it’s about to be.
See, if you don’t know anything about Moonlighting, you should know this: its long-lasting legacy is that it helped coin the phrase The Moonlighting Curse. That’s what TV critics and fans say when they mean a show goes downhill after they put their two lead characters together (romantically speaking). Showrunners are scared of the Moonlighting Curse, sometimes leaning into the will-they-won’t-they chemistry for a few seasons too long. (I never watched Bones, but I feel like that happened to Bones based off what everyone has told me.) These days, with 532 TV shows on air, many airing eight- or 10-episode seasons, it’s less of a thing, though.
The point is this: I’m currently watching season three, and things are about to go south.
I can feel it, too, and it’s disappointing.
The Good Times (Foreshadow the Bad)
Let’s back up. I’ve been wanting to watch Moonlighting for years. It’s on many TV critics’ best-shows-of-all-time lists. The problem? You can only watch it by buying DVDs. (Some episodes are not-exactly-legally available on YouTube, but they’re in terrible quality and out of order.) The second problem? The DVDs are expensive. We’re talking $75 and up. I’ve even seen $100–200! A couple months ago, I saw someone was selling the first volume for $23 on Amazon — and I’ve never hit the purchase button faster in my life. I didn’t even read what quality the DVDs were in. Thankfully, they were good.
The first season is great. The pilot episode is easily in my top five best pilots of all time. The way it blends comedy and suspense together… well, I don’t think I’ve seen anything else do it better. It’s hilarious but also equally nerve-wracking, in somewhat exclusive ways. It’s hard to describe if you haven’t watched it, so please be my guest and watch it.
The show goes on like this for the first two seasons, a total of 25 episodes. It’s got that cool ’80s suspense movie sheen. Shepherd and Willis have great chemistry. I mean that as on-screen partners; as a romantic pairing, I’m not feeling it quite as strongly as everyone else did in the ’80s. The cases are intriguing, too, for the most part. But quickly, the show becomes less about the cases, and more about how many quips Maddie and David can yell at each other before they slam a door.
There’s something about it that’s exhilarating in that way. It’s like a cross between a 30 Rock-era NBC sitcom and a Basic Instinct-era thriller.
But those earlier episodes have cracks in their foundation. In season two episode 15, “Witness for the Execution,” a man with a fatal disease sets up his own murder and wants Maddie and David to witness it so that his family can collect the insurance money (they don’t if it’s a suicide). Spoiler alert: David becomes the number one suspect of the man’s murder, which prompts David to go on the lam. This is the first episode in which David and Maddie kiss, after a disheveled David meets Maddie in the parking garage of their office building to say goodbye forever. Never mind that they could simply tell the police the truth. Actually, never mind that the way in which David becomes the suspect is stupid. The show believes the connection between these two characters is so strong, you’ll forgive how they stumbled to get to the emotional peak of the episode. You don’t. At least, I didn’t. Maybe it worked in 1986, but in 2020 it doesn’t. (Okay, maybe it did a little. I was shocked at that moment.) I mean, David Addison is one helluva dramatic character, but this was over the top.
That was a preview of things to come.
Careening Toward a Cliff
It’s a gift and a curse to know you’re headed for bad times with a TV show. For one, it makes you appreciate the good episodes while you were watching them. That said, every slip is exacerbated by knowing where it’s headed.
I wanted to believe the critics were wrong, but with each new episode I watch, I can see they might’ve been generous.
The next episode for me to watch is season three episode 13, “Maddie’s Turn to Cry.” In the previous episode (“Sam & Dave”), David has just confessed to himself that he’s in love with Maddie and was about to tell her — but she starts going out with a guy named Sam. He crashes their date. Half the episode is David being drunk and Sam assisting him home. I’m not exaggerating; there is no plot to the episode but that.
The inklings of failed melodrama in seasons one and two are driving forces for season three, especially when the show takes a real turn during “Big Man on Mulberry Street” (season two episode six), in which David finds out his former brother-in-law died. He attends the funeral in New York, and Maddie chases after him. It’s all mood and almost no substance, including a very lengthy interpretive dance number. Very. Lengthy. The show does that sometimes, so you’re quick to shrug it off. But then comes a deluge of unique episodes.
“Atomic Shakespeare,” where they take the piss out of The Taming of the Shrew: funny, but what did it contribute to the storyline? One could argue in the previous episode, Maddie sees David much less of a brute, a product of pure machismo, which happens here in this alternate reality episode. But that seems like a stretch.
“It’s a Wonderful Job,” where they do a spin on It’s a Wonderful Life, and chastise Maddie for being all business and no fun (which they’ve done many times before, and from which she had evolved so this makes no sense). This episode ends in a kiss… which leads nowhere. It’s weird.
“The Straight Poop,” a parody episode where a TV reporter comes in to interview the two leads about why there have been no new episodes of the show.* I literally skipped this after watching a few minutes.
[*Moonlighting was notorious for its behind-the-scenes drama. The two actors fought constantly. The show had huge gaps between new episodes because the showrunner turned scripts in late, sometimes the day they were shooting the scene up to the final second. And so on. But they also made fun of themselves a lot for it, which happens in this episode where Maddie and David won’t talk to each other and thus are causing episode delays. Everyone seems fine and happy with each other now, for the record, based off the DVD bonus feature interviews.]
And then comes “Poltergeist III – Depesto Nothing,” which focuses on the two supporting characters, something I’ve read happens with great frequency in later seasons because of the, ahem, issues with the two leads.
When you get these episodes as one-offs, they can be exciting. Ooh, a Shakespeare parody! Oh, a funny Depesto-led episode! When they’re four in a row: you know something’s up. The mood has shifted.
That’s how they lead into what appears to be a four-parter in getting Maddie and David together. I can appreciate the care to build out four episodes to do it, but the show changed drastically in the interim. And one of the four episodes, so far, could’ve been three scenes total. (In fact, it might actually only have been three very long scenes total already. I’ll double check.)
It’s one thing to experience a shift in a television show, but it’s another to know it might not get back to the thing you loved because it already aired and it’s well-known for that shift. Do I continue anyway? Do I spend money on DVDs knowing it might not be good? Or is the experience worth it in a different way? It is one of the best shows of all time, according to many people.
It’s a unique feeling to me. Not a show going south. (The most potent experience I’ve had of that is The Vampire Diaries season three episode 10, “The New Deal.” It became even more apparent in the next episode, “Our Town,” in which they throw a funeral for Caroline.) But knowing it’s gonna get bad, hoping against all hope that it wouldn’t, and then it happening anyway. I should’ve known, you know? I should’ve!
I’ll continue to watch Moonlighting, especially after I’m so close to the infamous episode that made it all come crashing down, according to experts. Will I shell out another $20–25 for season four and then five? Probably. Moonlighting has made me appreciate so many buddy comedies that have come after it. In a lot of ways, it feels like a contemporary series. Don’t quote me on this, but Maddie Hayes might be the first main character on a TV series who was an atheist. It blends dramedy elements very well, probably better than its competition back in the day — but I can confidently say it’s better at that than many shows currently airing.
Do bees be? Do bears bear? Life’s unanswerable questions. I guess I gotta finish Moonlighting to find out.
If anyone’s reading this: How are you? How’s it going? Thanks for reading a TV blog post of mine. I’ll see you in another five years when I decide to update this site again.