Once in a blue moon comes along a black humor television show where the guy is the last of the fast talkers, the woman is the ultimate cover girl -- and the script is what makes it all orbit.
Glenn Caron, producer of "Moonlighting," deserves his weight in MacGuffins for coming up with the first television mystery show since the reruns of Ben Hecht's "The Front Page" where the plots are occasionally believable, never predictable and always amusing. The plots have more twists and turns than "Magnum P.I.'s" Hawaiian highways, more hilarious suspects than "Murder, She Wrote," and more heart than a video store full of "Hart to Hart" episodes.
Caron, who is said to be a good writer himself, is remarkable among television producers because he actually knows the play's the thing. "Moonlighting" is surely one of the few shows where a big part of the budget goes to the scriptwriter.
Because he has chosen writers who can read, the show is full of wonderful devices (seemingly a new one every week) stolen fron the best sources -- literature instead of reruns.
They are adroit practitioners of the clown-as-Hamlet rule: The laughable should be lovable and the best laughs are on the flip side of crying.
Take, for instance, the episode titled "Gunfight at the So-So Corral." It concerns the number-one hit man in the business, played by Pat Corley, who's supposed to be wasted (I may not have the terminology just right, because I read the English mysteries where the butler, not the hit man, did it). The story opens with Corley rising from his hospital bed, pushing along his intravenous-feeding rack and chasing his would-be assassin down the hospital corridor, ultimately disposing of him down a laundry chute. And yet the end of the show, where Corley tries to reform an upstart hit man (Gary Graham), has a depth you would not expect of farce. Michael Petryni, the episode's writer, knows something about being horrible, ridiculous and poignant, all at the same time.
"Moonlighting" often guest-stars Diane Arbus-like people -- for instance in "Next Stop Murder," the man on the murder train who looks like Frankenstein (and is, of course, an electrical engineer with a chemistry set).
The show's own Ms. Dipesto's undoubtedly stunning looks are hidden under a bushel -- and many other strange devices -- to give her the chance to do what she does best: look plaintive. Ms. Dipesto's admirers include the sandwich man, the Frankenstein murderer and a nameless secret agent, but she still believes in romance. (I am comforted to hear that in real life, Ms. Dipesto, nee Allyce Beasley, does not pine alone. She is married to the neo -- Frankenstein, aka Vincent Schiavelli.) That episode is by Kerry Ehrin and Ali Marie Matheson, two scriptwriters with a delicate understanding of unrequited love as well as a fine eduction in the conventions of the classic mystery story.
Cybill Shepherd is far too beautiful for any woman to like or any man to dare love. Bruce Willis should have his mouth scrubbed out with soap and his perpetual sneer-leer fixed by plastic surgery. But they are great inheritors of the Cary Grant-Rosalind Russell, Spencer Tracy-Katharine Hepburn school of wisecrackers who manage to redeem their pawn tickets after hocking their hearts of gold.
In "Every Daughter's Father Is a Version," written by Bruce Singer, Willis, to help out Shepherd, follows her father to see if he is having an affair. The story is full of universal truths and tears.
"Moonlighting" is one of the very few shows -- the late lamented "WKRP in Cincinnati" springs to mind as another -- aimed at grownups who like farce better than force and ingenuity better than injury.
Too many television shows today seem to take up where wrestling leaves off, pandering to people who get their kicks watching people getting kicked, and beaten up and bashed and brained. "Moonlighting" has its pratfalls, but at least you can watch it without ending the hour feeling as though you should head for the emergency ward.
"Moonlighting" shines brightly in using fantasy to reveal truth. And when the show uses fantasy to reveal the fantastic, as in "The Dream Sequence Always Rings Twice," who would not rather dance with Willis and Shepherd in the starlight ballroom than hunt vice in Miami? This episode has probably attracted more attention than any other in the series, with its black and white sequences. Shepherd dreams she's a torch-singer and Willis dreams he's a horn-player in the Flamingo Cove Club. They each dream different versions of an old murder, their divergent views of the killing shaped by their sex differences (a continuing preoccupation of the show). Debra Frank and Carl Sautter are the writers who can be proud of this one.
The play-within-a-play conceit (a la "Six Characters in Search of an Author"), the actor who knows he's only flickering light and will vanish if you aim your remote control at him, is a running joke on the show. The device works well to take the pomp out of circumstance. In "Moonlighting's" bravo season's finale, "Camille," Shepherd, Willis and guest star Whoopi Goldberg are rescued from the bad guys by the show's stage hands. Screenwriter Roger Director -- that's actually his name -- has the workmen interrupt the scene, snatch the villain's revolver from his hand and then proceed to dismantle the set. The stars walk out of the studio, get into their respective cars and leave for the summer.
When they return this fall, bring on the fur coats for Shepherd, more funny hats for Willis, kisses for all and many more seasons of never-failing inspiration for Glenn Caron and his trusty scriptwriters.