Friday, December 7, 2007

why my favorite TV show died

A radio station in Charleston, South Carolina, claimed that Moonlighting, my favorite show when I was younger, never recovered after the writers' strike that delayed the beginning of the 1988 fall season. Or so my friend Beau told me, as his wife, Kristen, had told him. But those Charleston DJs were only half right. Here's what I wrote to Beau and Kristen ...

Moonlighting was hurt by a lot of things. As one person who worked on the show said, the show's slow demise came about because "Cybill Shepherd got pregnant and Bruce Willis got rich." Shepherd got pregnant in early '87, I think, during the show's third season, although her pregnancy wasn't worked into the show until that fall, during the fourth season. Glenn Gordon Caron, the show's creator, said he couldn't see any way around the pregnancyavoiding the issue would've prevented Shepherd from being shot below chest level, and that would've made scenes with her very static and confined to desks or tables.

Long story short, the first part of the fourth season involved Maddie in Chicago staying with her parents while trying to figure out whether she should go back to David and the detective agency and let him know she was pregnant (the audience, not to mention David, didn't know if it was his baby or third-season guest star Mark Harmon's). Because Maddie was in Chicago, David solved cases with Herbert Viola, a.k.a. "Booger" from Revenge of the Nerds. Not as much fun as Maddie and David solving crimes together, but by that point they'd "done it," which took all of the sexual tension away. It's a slippery slope once the romantic leads on a TV show get together, of course, and unlike Cheers, Moonlighting didn't have a bunch of supporting characters to fall back on in case viewers got sick of the main characters bickering back and forth. All you had were Herbert and Ms. DiPesto, who were only funny in small doses, yet they ended up having two episodes to themselves during the fourth season while Willis and Shepherd were indisposed. Two full episodes, and only 14 were produced that season.

Now, the fourth season was cut short due to the writers' strike, but during the previous season
Moonlighting had only produced 15 episodes, and the one before that produced only 18. It was supposed to deliver 22 episodes a season just like any other show, but it never did, partly due to Glenn Gordon Caron being such a perfectionist and delivering script rewrites at the last minute. (I've read that production on his current show, NBC's Medium, is disorganized too, but he has managed to produce 22 episodes per season so far.)

I do like Ms. DiPesto and Herbert Viola more now that I'm older. But when I was in grade school I just wanted to see Maddie and David flirt and watch Bruce Willis be cool and funny. He hasn't been funny since Moonlighting, and he wasn't all that funny during the last two seasons. It's a fact. Look it up.

By the way, I lied when I said "long story short." 

Willis was in those early fourth-season episodes much more than Shepherd, and he was reportedly angry that he had to carry the show even while shooting Die Hard at the same time. By the tail end of the season Maddie had returned to Los Angeles, but she got married to a stranger on a train on her way back from Chicago, which made almost every fan groan (the grade-school ones anyway). She called it off the day of the "official" wedding, realizing she still loved David, and then the season ended one episode later, with the quickie annulment of Maddie's quickie marriage and a comment on the writers' strike in the last segment. Like other Moonlighting episodes, this one had ended up a few minutes short, so an extra scene was filmed with Maddie and David talking to the audience about how the writers were on strike and they didn't know how to fill the extra time. They ended up making Herbert dance to "Wooly Bully." It wasn't that funny.

When the show returned in December of '88 along with other network shows, Maddie had a miscarriage, which made more fans groan, but at least that concluded the show's soap-opera aspects for the most part. Then it was back to Maddie and David solving crimes together, which I was happy to see when I was in seventh grade, but once I got older I realized it was ridiculous—as Willis said in an interview after the show ended, there was no way those two would've continued to work together after having gone through such a long, stormy affair.

Moonlighting was put on hiatus in February of '89 because its ratings had fallen so far (those ratings probably wouldn't look so bad today, though, compared to what a normal low-ranking network show generates in 2007); it returned two months later, but on Sundays at 8 instead of Tuesdays at 9. The fifth season produced 13 episodes, and the last six were cranked out quickly in order to get Moonlighting up to the bare minimum needed for syndication on a cable network—Lifetime showed it in the early '90s, and Bravo aired it earlier this decade, but it never reached regular syndication like, say, Magnum, P.I. or NYPD Blue, which produced more episodes per season over longer runs.

So yeah, the writers' strike didn't help Moonlighting get its momentum back, but it was already in serious trouble before that.


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