On the night of March 31, 1987, director Allan Arkush and his wife, Joanne, went to a local restaurant. When the waitress approached, he waved off the menu and said they wanted a pizza, but they were in a rush. “Because you have to get home and see Moonlighting,” she interrupted. How did she know that? “That table, that table and that table said the same thing,” she said.
That night’s installment, “I Am Curious…Maddie,” was, in the parlance of ’80s television, a Very Special Episode. After more than two seasons of foreplay, David Addison (Bruce Willis) and Maddie Hayes (Cybill Shepherd) were going to stop with the banter and bickering and finally get horizontal. Or, as the show’s ads not so subtly teased, “No more between the lines. Tonight’s between the sheets.”
Arkush had a vested interest in this particular episode: He directed it. (He is officially credited on 12 of Moonlighting’s 67 episodes.) An estimated 60 million viewers would reportedly tune in, a series high and certainly the largest audience ever for the director of the cult classics Rock ’n’ Roll High School and Get Crazy.
On the occasion of Moonlighting’s long-awaited streaming debut on Hulu, Arkush revisits some of TV’s most memorable moments.
Created by Glenn Gordon Caron, Moonlighting was an era-defining phenomenon. Shepherd’s Hayes was a former top model left financially bereft by an unscrupulous business manager. Rather than liquidate one of her last remaining assets, the low-rent Blue Moon Detective Agency, she partners with Willis’s Addison, hipster detective and hyper-verbal wise guy whose patron saint seemed to be Curly from the Three Stooges.
Moonlighting revived Shepherd’s career, stalled by such cinematic misfires as Daisy Miller, and made the then unknown Willis a star (Die Hard was three years away). Together or separately, they graced covers of magazines ranging from TV Guide and People to Teen Beat. A Newsweek cover story hailed the show as TV’s “sassiest, snappiest, hottest comedy.” It won six Emmys and was nominated for 41.
David and Maddie weren’t so much a will-they-or-won’t-they couple—they were more of a come-on-already couple. This deliciously drawn-out tease was hot-wired into the show. They broke hearts and the fourth wall. In the cold open to the second season episode “Every Daughter’s Father Is a Virgin,” David and Maddie, in character, read viewer mail imploring the couple to finally “get it on.” “Not tonight,” David confirms. “I read the script.”
Which brings us to the third season’s four-episode arc in which Mark Harmon guest stars as Sam, a serious rival for Maddie’s affections, forcing David to acknowledge his feelings for her. The couple subsequently consummate their relationship to the banging tune of the Ronettes’ classic “Be My Baby.”
Arkush came to Moonlighting after successful stints with Fame and St. Elsewhere. He and the cheeky meta-dramedy were made for each other. Mentored by B-movie king Roger Corman, he had a knack for shooting fast and furious, and a film buff’s extensive knowledge (he watches hundreds of movies a year) to enhance the series’ screwball-noir sensibility. In the first episode he directed, “Funeral for a Door Nail,” he staged a scene in which David elusively shadows Maddie as she looks for him in his office in homage to the mirror routine in the Marx brothers’ classic Duck Soup.
By the third season, Moonlighting hysteria was “in full bloom,” Arkush says, “It put a huge magnifying glass on what we were doing. The previous episode [‘Maddie’s Turn to Cry’] concluded with a chase in a bowling alley, and then it’s supposed to be dawn. David and Maddie walk down the street for a walk and talk. The street was lined with paparazzi…. People were honking their horns and yelling shit at Bruce and Cybill. We were desperate to get this take. In the middle of a real good take, somebody yelled something, and Cybill was so mad she started to give someone the finger. Bruce grabbed her arm and said, ‘You want this on the front page of every tabloid?’”
Two episodes in particular (not directed by Arkush), black-and-white noir homage “The Dream Sequence Always Rings Twice” and “Atomic Shakespeare,” a parody performed in iambic pentameter, established the series as one with “the courage of its offbeat goofiness,” said The New York Times.
But by season three, gratification could no longer be delayed. “There wasn’t discussion on how it should happen,” Arkush says. That said, “there was a big fear it would kill the show. That sexual tension would be gone. But on the other hand, the writing staff and Glenn felt it was just too coy to keep it going. The thing about television is if you have a good idea, go with it. Don’t worry about it, because next season you’ll think of a better one.”
(Spoiler alert: That did not happen with Moonlighting.)