Tuesday, March 3, 2015
Thirty Years ago today, "Moonlighting" premiered on ABC.
Starring an unknown actor/bartender named Bruce Willis and an ex-movie star diva Cybil Shepherd, this light romantic comedy/mystery took television in a completely new direction. Occasionally, the fourth wall was broken (hadn't happened since "Green Acres.") Humor was dark as it was mixed up with light-hearted moments and slapstick. Witty banter ensued, pages per minute had to have been written, spawning a generation of television viewers weaned on jam-packed dialogue filled with topical, even obscure references. Unattractive nerds were supporting characters, but given non-supporting story lines and a real relationship. Music was an integral part of the proceedings: an extravagant song and dance number may break out at any moment.
Is it too much to say that without "Moonlighting" there would be no "Ally McBeal," no "Gilmore Girls," no "West Wing," "Lois and Clark," no "Scrubs," no "Six Feet Under," no "Cop Rock," (that's right, forgot?) and no "Game of Thrones." OK, that last one is a stretch, forget it.
The 80's, the Age of Reagan, was a decade bereft of television viewing after a decade under the influence (the 70's) when I devoured television--mostly sitcoms, Saturday morning shows, CBS's Tiffany lineups, ABC's T and A revolution, NBC's failed big events (all three under Fred Silverman's successive helms.).
During my first college years (before I learned the art of "partying), it was mostly NBC: Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere, Fame, Cheers, David Letterman, and SCTV. All the sitcoms were in their waning years and--with the exception of Taxi, Barney Miller, and WKRP--nothing was worth watching. CBS allowed the surging 60 Minutes and a new version of Newhart. ABC provided the nightly news. During the mid-80's starting a working life, apartment living, alumni affairs and a new pursuit of acting kept my social calendar pretty full except for an occasional foray into the beginnings of NBC Must See TV (let's call it Convenient See TV): Cosby, Family Ties, Cheers, Golden Girls--I never got into Night Court for some reason.
Some of my friends, fellow alumni from my business fraternity, turned me on to "Moonlighting" during it's second season. And I was hooked. The only reason I turned to ABC in the 80's. I'm so lucky I discovered it. It's possible that as I had the new freedom to pursue creativity in theater and acting classes, delving into the frothy misadventures of David and Maddie were just the tonic I needed as I was juggling my identity as an up and coming "Yuppie." Actually, that may have been the magic, the spark for that intoxicating leap into whimsy and unrequited love (up to the last season of course) which fueled so much of the passion for great writing and character development in the 90's. And that, in turn, led to the new Golden Age of Television, first on cable's premium channels and now on pretty much any and all delivery systems.
During this decade, I spent most of my "me" time in the movie theater, like most of America. The 80's saw a resurgence of the box office after the quality TV of the 70's kept people at home, muffling the pop vibrations of the golden age of 70's cinema. By 1981, Spielberg and Lucas laid claim to the world with their franchises. Summer and Christmas tent poles became the standard of exhibition. Saturday Night Live (pretty dead during the early 80's except for Mr. Murphy) gave us an entire new cast of comedy legends for film-dom. Even musicals made a gritty comeback ("Flashdance," "Fame," "Footloose'). John Hughes ushered in the literate and lightly crude romantic angst that would become the godfather of the "indie" sensibility. "Moonlighting" fit very well with this new dynamic.
Well, "Rambo" and "Terminator" are a different story. But then Mr. Willis became the third leg of the Planet Hollywood stool with his new career as a worldwide action hero (thanks to "Diehard" among others) so I guess it all comes around.
"Moonlighting" was appointment television and that didn't occur again until "Twin Peaks" in 1990. And then NBC started the whole shebang over again with "Seinfeld," "Frasier," "Mad About You," "Friends," "Newsradio" etc etc--all well-written sitcoms in the mold of the best seventies product (see MTM). But the "will they--won't they" aspect of "Moonlighting" (and Sam and Diane of "Cheers") became a long-running gag in many of these sitcoms: Niles and Daphne, Rachel and Ross--even "Caroline in the City" used it for it's entire four year run. Cue "Ally McBeal."
I was fortunate to meet creator Glen Gordon Caron at the Austin Film Festival one year. He was screening a pilot he did. I told him he gave me reason to watch TV in the 80's. He smiled.
I have the first seasons on DVD and I'm afraid to revisit them. Quite often I am disappointed as time works it's evil on many fine memories of TV and film. I may find it too precious, too cute, too forced, tired and stale. Or I may remember that older has-been actress had lit a fire in my heart with her sexy dismissiveness; or how that smart ass guy gave me hope that I, too, may make it on chutzpah and fast-talking patter. Sometimes, the opposite happens: it's even better. But the point is--what "Moonlighting" brought to me at that time in my life was priceless and influential.