With so many new series popping up on streaming services and DVD, it gets harder and harder to keep up with recent shows, much less the all-time classics. With TV Club 10, we point you toward the 10 episodes that best represent a TV series, classic or modern. They might not be the 10 best episodes, but they’re the 10 episodes that’ll help you understand what the show’s all about—without having to watch the whole thing.
Glenn Gordon Caron’s metafictional Moonlighting didn’t just break the fourth wall; it flipped the camera around and showed viewers the stage hands and boom mics behind the wall. Musing on its own existence as if it were the René Descartes of the Reagan era, Moonlighting winks at the audience, letting us know it’s in on the joke, jabbing itself in the side as it knowingly adheres to television’s trappings with irreverence (and irrelevance). Starring Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd as a pair of really bad detectives who solve more cases than they have any right to, Moonlighting riffs on the “amateur sleuth” and “bickering couple” tropes of Hart To Hart and Remington Steele, on which Caron was a writer. The insolent, often insulated show bends boundaries into bow ties with its solipsistic tendencies (the characters discussing their own artifice) and insolence toward network TV standards (the creative ways the characters conveyed vulgarities, such as “I don’t give a flying fig,” “Holy shiiiii…p wreck,” and “That’s a crock of what this coffee tastes like”).
The show got off to a shaky start but corrected itself with impressive alacrity. The two-slot pilot originally aired in March 1985 as an ABC Sunday Night Movie, and it feels like an ABC Sunday Night Movie. It’s one of the strangest pilots in network TV history insofar as it’s an utterly banal episode that only vaguely resembles the brilliant, format-gerrymandering show that followed. It introduces Maddie Hayes (Shepherd), a wealthy former model whose sleazy accountant pilfers her funds and leaves her broke, and David Addison (Willis), a motor-mouthed trickster whose predilection for pop-culture references comes pouring out in fire-hose fulminations. The episode lurches along, with little of the show’s singular wit, as Maddie and David become entangled in a middling jewel-theft caper. The episode culminates in a clock tower set piece that hints at the movie-derived hijinks that would follow. The Harold Lloyd influence may have been lost on casual viewers; for them, Caron threw in a Star Trek reference.
In subsequent episodes, the show establishes the dynamic between Maddie and David, an unlikely pair of polar-opposites who only ever agree that they disagree—and they can’t even do that, most of the time. The characters don’t sound so complex or deep on paper: Maddie is beautiful and decent, her icy exterior belying her romantic heart; David is crude and crass and has, as Maddie puts it, “The morals of a rabbit, the character of a slug, and the brain of a platypus.” But in execution, they’re two of the most colorful characters network television has ever produced. They don’t have particularly good chemistry (Willis and Shepherd fought vehemently on and off set) as much as they each fuel the other’s mania. Maddie spends more time slamming doors and yelling at David than she does detecting, while David throws office parties, sets up dating hotlines, and expounds on his profound life observations (Do bees be? Do flies fly?). He’s frequently chauvinistic, his salacious, juvenile mind able to turn anything into an innuendo or come-on, yet he’s inexplicably lovable. Chalk that up to Willis’ ability to go from tactless to tactful on a dime, and then pocket the dime.
The show begged, borrowed, and stole from Hollywood, from the diffused way Shepherd was filmed to look like a flaxen-haired Hollywood vixen (using two-shots to keep Willis appearing more modern) to Alf Clausen’s flair for turning Bernard Herrmann and Paul Donaggio themes on their head and spinning them like a sidewalk breakdancer. But whereas Remington Steele (which Caron wrote for in its first season) openly cites the movies that inspired each episode (“Have you ever seen The Third Man, Laura?”), Moonlighting embeds its allusions, suturing the sleuth stories with the ideas and aesthetics of Alfred Hitchcock, Brian De Palma, Billy Wilder, or Fritz Lang. The overlapping dialogue feels akin to the pleated wordplay of Howard Hawks, and Gerald Finnerman’s photography imbues the show with a classic mood. Orson Welles even introduced an episode, which aired just five days after his death, and was his last appearance on camera.
Admittedly, American TV watchers weren’t necessarily glued to their screens each week to anatomize and study Caron’s body of cultural references: The will-they/won’t-they romantic tension between Willis and Shepherd galvanized viewers besotted by the Sam-and-Diane dynamic. Shelley Long didn’t leave Cheers until 1987, so that show’s first season without Diane aired during Moonlighting’s third, in which the romance is teased so hard it suffers from friction burn. David and Maddie finally consummate their romance at the end of the season. The next two seasons featured less and less of David and Maddie, as the stars became increasingly busy off screen (Willis doing Die Hard, Shepherd having kids), and the viewership dwindled.
At least one person benefited greatly from the show. Bruce Willis was a Hollywood nobody in 1985. Thirty years old, a former security guard and private investigator with a few stage credits on his resume, and a distinctive Jersey accent that compensated for a childhood stutter, Willis wasn’t leading man material. By 1986, he was a heartthrob whose face prettified 19 million television screens. Two years later, Willis was a certifiable A-list action star, and he abandoned television shortly thereafter to pursue a career of big budgets and killing bad guys. But in that brief interim between obscurity and ubiquity, Willis had what remains one of his best roles, using his motor-mouthed delivery, somehow articulate and rhythmic even as it goes on like a verbal deluge, to create a character who’s as funny as he is frustrating. Oh, and that laugh—that high-pitched chortle that cuts through even the noisiest scene—is something that’s sorely lacking from most of his grumpy-bald-man Hollywood roles.
The show’s on-set discord is now the stuff of legend for TV buffs, interrupting production and seeping into the fabric of the show’s overarching narrative. The actors bickered and Caron couldn’t keep to a schedule; while he furiously tried to write the day’s dialogue, he had the crew film arbitrary shots of Maddie’s feet leaving the elevator just to buy an extra couple of hours to write as they set up and dismantled cameras and lights. And not everyone appreciated his lofty artistic ambitions. As Caron puts it:
Cybill was always fond of saying that she and Bruce would fight before scenes in which Maddie and David fought. That’s a nice idea. The truth is they always fought. And sometimes I was in the middle of those fights. It was just the nature of the beast. I think Cybill was hoping for an easier gig. She’s sort of saying, “Why are we doing iambic pentameter? Why are we singing? Why are we boxing? Why can’t we do a [regular] show?”
These 10 episodes explain why Moonlighting couldn’t be a regular show. It had to be a brilliant show.
Moonlighting’s first season is by no means bad, but it looks and feels ordinary compared to subsequent seasons. Containing only five episodes, four of which are good (ugh, that pilot), it takes a cue from Remington Steele and works the word “murder” into several titles. Season two eschews such cute gimmicks. The second episode, a gleefully smitten homage to Wrong Man movies (in this case Wrong Woman), layers allusions on top of allusions. While most detective shows riff on Hitchcock at some point, Moonlighting riffs on Brian De Palma, the guy who riffs on Hitchcock the best. A woman in a mask shows up at Blue Moon Detective Agency, saying her face has been horribly disfigured by acid. The man who did this, her former lover, has just been released from jail, and she’s still in love with him. David and Maddie end up entangled in a murder mystery whodunit that’s strikingly well shot for network TV circa 1986. There’s an extended scene culled from De Palma’s book in which David and Maddie follow the woman in the mask, unbeknownst to her, and see her throwing a gun into a lake. But is it really the woman in the mask in that mask? The plot twists and turns from there, culminating in David, Maddie, the woman, and her husband all wearing identical outfits, an uproarious final chase that mocks the climactic chase scenes in so many Hitchcock and De Palma movies.
Moonlighting often offers intriguing queries regarding gender and working relationships between men and women. David and Maddie’s discussions on sexism and sexual politics may sometimes feel dated now (which is to be expected, since the show is 30 years old), but for the 1980s, this was innovative stuff. Maddie and David hear a story about an unsolved 50-year-old murder that took place in a famous jazz club; a lounge singer and her male lover kill the singer’s husband, and each goes to the electric chair insisting the other did it. Maddie promptly assumes the man goaded the woman into murder. David calls her sexist, they bicker, and both go to bed (different beds) angry. Slipping into Maddie’s dream, then David’s, the show purges its color and becomes a full-fledged, black-and-white noir, rife with jazz, infidelity, treachery, murder—the works. Maddie’s dream depicts the man, a trumpeter who looks an awful lot like David, as the killer, and the woman, a singer who looks an awful lot like Maddie, as his victim. David’s dream varies slightly. The murder is never solved. If Raymond Chandler and Howard Hawks didn’t need to solve their murder, why should Moonlighting? In his final onscreen appearance, Orson Welles introduces the “monochromatic, monophonic” episode, warning viewers accustomed to the “age of living color and stereophonic sound” not to worry when their TVs go black and white.
Featuring Whoopi Goldberg as the titular con-artist-turned-faux-hero and Judd Nelson as an inexplicably young crooked cop, the second-season finale rans the gamut of Moonlighting motifs. It borrows a cue from the Christmas episode, “Twas The Episode Before Christmas” and ends with the characters wandering off the set onto the studio lot. As Nelson’s villain is about to plug Maddie, David, and Camille, a prop manager walks by and takes the gun from his hands. The crew begins to dismantle the walls around the characters, and David explains how the dénouement (though not the climax) would have gone had they not run out of time to finish filming. Also of note is the sustained look of longing between Maddie and David at the very end, as they say goodbye for the summer, get into their respective cars, and drive off.
While Maddie chastises David for his continued lack of professionalism and aloof attitude toward work, David receives a phone call that his ex-wife’s brother, a friend from David’s Greenwich Village days, has died in a car accident. It’s the first time Moonlighting has ever let on about this marriage. Maddie is perturbed by the information, not understanding why David would keep it from her, consequently offering an intimate glimpse of Maddie’s feelings toward her partner. Moonlighting always revels in the banter and sexual tension between its leads, but this episode bears unprecedented earnestness. It slips into Maddie’s dream, in which her anxieties over David’s ex-wife and his life in New York manifest as a Technicolor musical set to an extended take of Billy Joel’s “Big Man On Mulberry Street” directed by no less than Singin’ In The Rain’s Stanley Donen. The cinematography and choreography are so far beyond anything else network TV had done at this point, but the episode’s real profundity lies in the quiet moments in which David divulges his insecurities, and Maddie tries to articulate her feelings. The New York scenes—a squalid Village dive bar, a heart-to-heart on a fire escape—are Moonlighting at its most humane.
Maybe the most uproarious episode of an uproarious show, “Atomic Shakespeare” opens with a young boy being scolded by his mother for watching Moonlighting (“Sounds like trash to me.”) instead of studying for his Shakespeare test. So, of course, the episode presents Moonlighting’s version of The Taming Of The Shrew, credited to Glenn Gordon Caron and William “Budd” Shakespeare. Written in iambic pentameter, the episode condenses and castrates the Bard’s controversial play on men-as-men and wives-as-servants into a 45-minute sexy satire rife with wordplay and pop-culture allusions. The rhythm and pacing of the episode, which incorporates an extravagant musical wedding, is astounding. Even the fleeting jokes pack a wallop: Willis hacking a door apart with an axe and then howling, “Here’s Petruchio!” is better than any other movie or show’s parody of the same cinematic moment because it happens quickly and unexpectedly and is then forgotten. The show doesn’t break stride while slipping in the joke. The episode’s greatest import, however, is how it sort of validates Moonlighting’s constant commingling of crude humor and highbrow art by directly comparing the show to Shakespeare, the master of innuendos.
As what should be another episode of Moonlighting begins, viewers are greeted by Rona Barrett, eminent gossip columnist and a member of Frank Sinatra’s notorious enemies list. “No new episode again,” she says. The show’s production problems—on-set spats and Caron’s last-minute script tinkering—had been severe encumbrances for the show, stalling several episodes; viewers didn’t know whether they would get a new episode on Tuesdays or a rerun. (There would later be a 29-day gap between season three’s 14th and 15th episodes.) In this clip show, which features new scenes of Barrett, who has considerable sway over Maddie and David due to the power of the tabloid press circa 1986, interviewing the employees of Blue Moon. While there are few revelations in the episode, Caron and company display considerable gall turning their production follies into a self-filleting highlight reel that vivisects not only the show’s on-set trouble, but the onscreen trouble between Maddie and David. Pierce Brosnan’s Remington Steele even pops up briefly, divulging that he may have once had a thing with Maddie.
In which Hayes and Addison finally consummate their love and engender the myth of the Moonlighting curse, an erroneous idea that still has unfortunate credence today. The episode’s title suggests not only the sexual aspects of the episode, but the direction in which this ill-fated relationship will go, though the arthouse reference was likely lost on ’80s TV viewers. “I Am Curious… Maddie” is a vital moment for Moonlighting and network television. It depicts a TV series following its natural path—Maddie and David sleeping together, and the relationship not working out because it could never work out without shattering the show’s credibility and continuity—while also rejecting that path, trying to keep the story alive while Willis’ and Shepherd’s diminishing presence desiccates the show. It also marks Caron giving in to what the fans wanted, and the fans are almost never right.
After four years and one date, David and Maddie have finally acknowledged their romance, alleviating the audience’s proverbial blue balls. But there’s trouble in paradise, and Maddie jumps on a plane to Chicago to figure out her conflicted feelings. David can’t handle this, as he doesn’t understand why a relationship has to be difficult. They have a fight on the phone, which is nothing new, but the context is different now; the fight has a bitter sting, their barbs serrated, puncturing deeper. There are no jokes strewn about their fight. It’s just a couple’s fight, which is new territory for them both. She asks him not to call her until she returns to Los Angeles, which irks David. Toward the end of the episode, he has a dream (“You’d think I’d get used to these dream sequences by now,” he quips.) in which his phone becomes Maddie via the Claymation process of Oscar- and Emmy-winner Will Vinton. The sequence ends with Maddie subverting David’s control of his own fantasy by turning him into a frog, signifying his control issues and inability to let Maddie be her own person, a motif that stipples their relationship from the beginning.
“A Womb With A View” (season five, episode one)
The final season’s opener, in which Bruce Willis plays a baby who doesn’t want to be born, is the only episode of the season written by Caron. The plot about a baby so disturbed by his parents fighting and the evils of the world that he tries to make his mother miscarry him is one of the series’ darkest jokes. There’s a dream sequence that spills off the set and behind the camera as the players sing about needing to make 22 episodes before they all die. They predict the season will have 16 episodes; they overestimate by three.
Moonlighting was always its own harshest critic. It slapped itself harder and dug into itself deeper than any writer or fan ever could. The series finale pulls no punches; it ends with the characters wondering why their show is being canceled, and a producer explaining to them that they’re no longer popular. It chastises the five-year tease that was David and Maddie’s relationship. As the set is torn down from around them, they lament the good ol’ days while wondering nervously about their future. What happens to the characters when the show goes off the air? Blue Moon receptionist Miss DiPesto (Allyce Beasley) leaves these existentialist parting words for herself and Curtis Armstrong’s junior detective, Herbert Viola: “If there’s a God in heaven, he’ll spin Herbert and me off in our own series.” To date, no such show exists.