Moonlighting: The Show That Broke All The Rules, Launched A Curse, And Made Bruce Willis A Superstar

When I mention the name Bruce Willis, what is the first thing that comes to mind? I’m guessing the Die Hard movie franchise, maybe Pulp Fiction, or one of the dozens of movies he has starred in, which have tallied over $2.5 BILLION at the box office worldwide.

But in the mid ‘80s he was a struggling actor, just like thousands of others in Hollywood. He went to a cattle call audition for the new ABC show Moonlighting, starring the big time model/movie star Cybill Shepherd. After auditioning literally hundreds of actors, ABC was so exasperated they offered creator Glenn Gordon Caron a strange proposal. Here is what he told Stuff about that offer:

“At one point ABC was going to pay me, Cybill and the Director Bob Butler not to make the show because they were convinced the part was uncastable.”

According to Cybill Shepherd’s recollections, Bruce Willis auditioned in military fatigues, with a punk haircut and earrings. And unlike many of the other men who tried out for the part, he didn’t compliment her, acting fairly aloof around her. This intrigued Shepherd, and she told Caron that Willis was the man for the role. ABC supposedly was “vigorously” against the casting of Willis, but Caron and Shepherd held their ground, and the show moved forward.

The Show that Broke All the Rules Became a Gigantic Hit, Then Collapsed Under Its Own Weight

The main thing people remember about Moonlighting is the live wire on-screen chemistry of Shepherd and Willis. Caron was commissioned by ABC to do a straight up detective show, but he bristled at the idea of something so bland and formulaic. As a result he decided to not only turn the detective genre on its head, but to blow up the whole idea of what a TV show was, and could be.

He injected romance into the plot, but not the kind you would expect. The sexually charged, smart aleck banter between Shepherd (Maddie) and Willis (David) was the primary currency of their fractious relationship, continually teasing the audience with a “will they/won’t they” vibe. Initially the audience ate up the relentless sexual tension. Willis, with his cocky attitude and trademark smirk, laid the groundwork for his most famous role of everyman John McClane in the Die Hard films.

Shepherd, on the other hand, spent most of the series in a constant state of aggravation, yelling at Willis and slamming doors.

The aspect that made the show groundbreaking for me was its total disregard for the “4th Wall,” the thing that separates a show from the audience watching it. Our suspension of disbelief is key to 99.9% of all shows, but Willis and other characters routinely spoke directly to the audience, often making fun of the shenanigans going on around them, letting us in on the joke.

The show skyrocketed to fame in season 2, but infighting soon ate away at its core. Shepherd and Willis had legendary fights offscreen, in addition to Shepherd and Caron butting heads over the creative process. Caron and Willis were new to the game, so the extremely dialog heavy scripts and over the top meta moments were invigorating to them, but Shepherd was a movie star and wanted no part of the chaotic atmosphere.

During the first couple of seasons, Willis hit the jackpot, landing the lead in the first Die Hard movie, catapulting him into the Hollywood stratosphere. Jealousy settled in, with Shepherd not wanting to be upstaged on HER show. This, coupled with Caron’s last minute style of working, lead to a very chaotic set to say the least. Most shows back then were expected to produce 22 episodes per season. Caron and his crew were barely able to get an episode count in the mid teens per season. Caron would labor very slowly on the script, which is unheard of today. Caron would waste practically the entire shooting day writing, and at the end he would dump 10 pages of insane dialog and setups for the cast and crew to deal with. As a result, ABC never knew until the last minute if there would be a new episode ready any given week. Caron put it this way in the same interview with Stuff:

“I was a bit of a perfectionist. We were very young and wildly ignorant and wildy arrogant.”

From the second season onward, Moonlighting was essentially a “No 4th Wall” show, portraying Maddie and David as “real” people who happen to be doing a TV show, routinely showing the crew and behind the scenes action. The show was not afraid to lampoon itself, doing sketches repeatedly poking fun at the now legendary production delays and complicated offscreen relationships of the cast and creators.

The “Moonlighting Curse”

The sexual tension also came to a head, with Maddie and David finally doing the nasty at the end of season 3. What followed has been coined the “Moonlighting Curse,” because the quality of the show, as well as the viewership, declined precipitously after the on screen coupling. This was really not the reason for the decline in my view, because other factors were in play. In Season 4, Willis and Shepherd were unavailable for large parts of the shooting schedule. Willis was off doing a Die Hard film, and Shepherd was pregnant with twins. As a result, there were barely any scenes with the two leads together onscreen for over half of Season 4. For a show built on chemistry, that was a killer. Added to that, the producers inexplicably had Maddie MARRY a total stranger in the aftermath of her coupling with David. The narrative stupidity of that move was unconscionable. It betrayed the very premise of the show.

From that point on, the show was a lost cause. ABC demanded episodes, and with the leads out of pocket, whole episodes with B players Agnes and Herbert out solving cases were filmed. The ratings cratered, and the show limped through an inept 5th season before ABC pulled the plug.

But true to Caron’s vision, Moonlighting continued to skewer TV conventions and itself. A big Season 5 production number was staged, with the cast and crew singing earnestly about filming “22 episodes before they die.” In the song they predicted they would complete 16, but that too was optimistic. They only managed 13.

The series finale was pure meta. The last 10 minutes of the episode has David walking into the Blue Moon Detective Agency, only to find workers emptying the office of all the furnishings. David demands to know that is going on, and a man in a suit tells him he is from ABC, and the show is cancelled, ending in 10 minutes.

David and Maddie scurry around the studio backlot, until they find a powerful producer. They beg for his help, but he tells them the fact that they screwed up the David/Maddie romance is why they are getting cancelled. They eventually find a preacher, thinking that a quickie marriage will save the show, but the preacher refuses. And scene.

I re-watched some episodes for this piece, and I’m sorry to report it didn’t hold up to my memories of watching it live in my younger days. Nostalgia is a bitch. The banter was silly in retrospect, but the meta “No 4th Wall” stuff was much funnier to me now than it was then. If you are interested in watching it, that is the reason I would recommend it.

Moonlighting was one of a kind, if for no other reason than its fearless self awareness.

Photo cover via The Red List

SocietyRon GilmerComment