Moonlighting: Seasons 1 & 2 (1985-86)
1.33:1 (Full Frame)
Dolby Digital 2.0
Lions Gate Home Entertainment, $49.98

In the mid-1980s, after Glenn Gordon Caron’s first two pilots for ABC had failed, the network, anxious for the third to work, gave the young writer/producer an order: “Do a boy-girl detective show, something with a blonde and a guy who looks good in a tuxedo. We don’t care what you do with it.” Caron was initially horrified — he believed that detective shows of the day were as absurd as they were ubiquitous — but then he decided to take ABC at its word: if the network didn’t care what he did with it, he would do what he wanted.

The result was Moonlighting, an incandescent romantic comedy that premiered in March 1985 and scorched through a thicket of prime-time soap operas to prove time and again how creative television could be. Still impressed by a vigorous, sexually charged production of The Taming of the Shrew that he’d seen in Central Park in the ’70s (with Meryl Streep and Raul Julia in the lead roles), Caron focused on the “boy-girl” aspect of ABC’s request and treated the detective angle as a mere plot device. “It occurred to me,” he explains, “that no one in television was really doing men and women.” The requisite blonde became Maddie Hayes (Cybill Shepherd), a newly bankrupt former model, and the guy with tuxedo potential became David Addison (Bruce Willis), an irrepressible wiseass who’s been running one of Maddie’s tax write-offs, a detective agency, into the ground. Instant antagonists, Maddie and David are forced into each other’s company when she decides to make a go of the agency, her last remaining asset. Sparks fly, doors slam, and in very short order, “appointment television” is born.

After ABC picked up the pilot (shot by Michael D. Margulies, ASC), Caron and producer Jay Daniel tapped Gerald Perry Finnerman, ASC (Star Trek) to film the series. Finnerman’s Emmy-winning work on Ziegfeld: The Man and His Women had caught Caron’s eye, and Daniel had worked with the cinematographer on that and other projects. By that time, Finnerman had tired of the episodic grind and was focusing on long-form TV projects, but he was intrigued by Caron’s concept and impressed by the pilot, so he signed on, thereby stepping into what one colleague later described as “a creative caldron.”

At full boil, that caldron yielded some extraordinary hours of television, among them a black-and-white noir introduced by Orson Welles and actually shot on black-and-white (“The Dream Sequence Always Rings Twice,” which earned Finnerman his first ASC Award nomination); a parody of The Taming of the Shrew written in iambic pentameter and played in full Elizabethan dress (“Atomic Shakespeare”); an ode to jealousy and desire expressed through dance, choreographed by Stanley Donen (“Big Man on Mulberry Street”); a behind-the-scenes exposé of the show’s highly publicized conflicts (“The Straight Poop”); and an episode that worked around Shepherd’s pregnancy-induced absence by rendering Maddie and David in stop-motion animation, courtesy of Will Vinton (“Come Back Little Shiksa”). Caron and his team never ran out of ideas, and the show’s reputation was such that they never ran out of eager collaborators either — an episode in the works when Caron left the series (at the end of its fourth season) would have matted Willis and Shepherd into Godzilla vs. Mothra, and was to be directed by James Cameron.

Thanks to Lions Gate Home Entertainment, Moonlighting’s first two sterling seasons are now available on DVD. This six-disc set includes the pilot and 23 episodes, and although the supplements aren’t extensive, they are unusually generous for a television release and do a commendable job of surveying the show’s key personnel. Sprinkled throughout the 14-minute featurette “Not Just A Day Job,” the 15-minute featurette “Inside the Blue Moon Detective Agency,” and the 11-minute featurette “The Moonlighting Phenomenon” are interviews with not only producers, directors, writers and actors, but also first ADs, script and post supervisors, editors, the casting director, the costume designer and the composer.

Also featured are five audio commentaries whose participants generally do an excellent job of dissecting the episode at hand and the series as a whole. Caron, Daniel, editor/associate producer Artie Mandelberg and pilot director Robert Butler share a commentary on the pilot that is both scene-specific and rich with anecdotes; Caron, director Peter Werner and co-writer Debra Frank discuss the thematic and visual layers of “The Dream Sequence Always Rings Twice”; Daniel, Werner and supporting actor Allyce Beasley illuminate the production of “’Twas the Episode Before Christmas”; a loquacious Shepherd joins Caron to discuss “Every Daughter’s Father Is a Virgin”; and, in a sporadic dialogue, Willis and director Will MacKenzie reminisce about making “My Fair David.”

Despite advertising to the contrary, this boxed set does not include bloopers or gag reels. The only other bonus material comprises ABC’s promos for the pilot, a collection of clips that show their age. Watching them, it’s easy to understand why Caron later insisted on filming his own original promos. Unfortunately, none of that very funny material appears in this set. (In a curious anomaly, however, the brief ABC teaser that preceded the original broadcast of “Somewhere Under the Rainbow” is included with that episode.)

Overall, the picture transfers of the pilot and episodes are very good. Low-light scenes pervade the series — so much so that Caron routinely stationed a staffer next to the ABC transmitter to prevent the network’s engineer from brightening Finnerman’s images — and a few such shots exhibit noticeable grain. The monaural soundtrack is clean, and hearing once again how imaginatively Caron used well-known popular and classical music to add layers to the action may make you wish ABC had granted his wish to do the show in stereo. Caron notes that Moonlighting took so long to come to DVD because the music clearances were prohibitively expensive, and it seems they were impossible to obtain for The William Tell Overture, which originally underscored a hilarious chase scene in “The Lady in the Iron Mask.” What accompanies the action instead sounds like background music that was never intended for the foreground.

This set will be cherished by every Moonlighting fan and will make clear to the uninitiated what all the fuss was about 20 years ago. Even those deep in the pressure-cooker of the production understood that their efforts were in the service of something unique. “If you’re going to put yourself through the long, hard hours of episodic work, you might as well do something you can be proud of,” Finnerman told AC in July 1986. “I look forward to coming to work every day. I couldn’t be happier if I’d just shot Out of Africa.”

— Rachael K. Bosley

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© 2005 American Cinematographer.