'80s TV Classic: "Moonlighting" - OZY | A Modern Media Company

'80s TV Classic: "Moonlighting"

'80s TV Classic: "Moonlighting"

By Eugene S. Robinson



The fast-talking dialogue, quirky plots and teeming will they/won’t they tension created an overnight sensation.

By Eugene S. Robinson

Willis was one of many actors in the ’70s and ’80s — from Farrah Fawcett and Robin Williams to Gary Coleman and Michael J. Fox — who catapulted to instant stardom in an entertainment world with few launch opportunities and even fewer network boosters to propel them. But Willis’ launch vehicle, Moonlighting , was not your ordinary offering.

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Moonlighting, suddenly and in a sustained burst of creativity, fulfilled the promise of what television could be. The key ingredients were a failing detective agency, a former model, Maddie Hayes, who had seen better days, and a fast-talking, wise-cracking partner, David Addison. Together they set the scene for five TV seasons of a show that not only featured Orson Welles’ last on-camera performance but also one of Willis’ first, after he beat out over 3,000 other performers for the job. And for real-life former model Cybill Shepherd, playing Maddie was a shot at reviving a slowing career with a performance aimed at being as sexy and wised-up as a 1940s Bogart-Bacall flick.

And it was. With actors sometimes stepping on each other’s lines, overlapping dialogue and sped-up chatter, Moonlighting felt smarter, hipper and edgier than everything else on TV. Director Glenn Gordon Caron filmed using movie cameras, eliminated zoom shots in favor of more filmic crosscuts and got rid of the “fourth wall” to let the actors sometime slip from character and address the audience directly. Early in season two audiences jumped onboard in an upswell of support and interest that was nothing short of meteoric. The show earned multiple Emmy and Golden Globe Awards, launched Willis’ movie career as a Die Hard hero and Seagram’s wine cooler pitchman extraordinaire.

Moonlighting fell back to earth with what is known as one of the biggest plot missteps in the annals of television.

But the candle that burns twice as brightly burns out more quickly, and Moonlighting fell back to earth with what is known as one of the biggest plot missteps in the annals of television: After years of flirtatious, tension-filled banter and sexy close calls, in season three David and Maddie consummated their relationship. The move seemed to deflate the dramedy, and the ratings response was swift and hard. Behind the scenes, Willis found himself pulled to the big screen, and Shepherd had new twin babies she was trying to raise while working 14- to 20-hour days. 

The show was cancelled in season five, but true to form, even that was done with self-aware panache. David and Maddie arrive at their offices one day to find the “sets” being dismantled as an ABC “executive” explains why.

Bravura with a capital B.


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