Mediamatic Magazine 2#4 Philip Hayward 1 Jan 1988

The Moonlighting Story

How ABC capitalised on cultural logic

By virtue of developing a series of bold formal precedents within mainstream television drama, the American romantic cop show Moonlighting has become one of the most significantly innovative examples of popular television to be produced over the last twenty years. While it is too soon to tell how its example will effect subsequent television drama production, its multiple violations of the established tenets of naturalism (within a successful and whole-heartedly populist format) look likely, at the very least, to have set a precedent for the development of further non-naturalist styles of drama wit hi n mainstream programming.

Following on the heels of the self consciously quality commercial programming style pioneered by the MTM company with series such as Lou Grant and Hill Street Blues (and subsequently developed by the producers of series such as Cagney and Lacey and LA Law); Moonlighting has succeeded in going further than simply proving that popular television drama can be made with intelligence and style. By drawing on audiences' familiarity with such contemporary forms as the fractured narrative and collage styles of Pop videos and television adverts, Moonlighting has gone against the standard rhetoric of television bosses the (Western) world over and proved that that supposedly inert and conservative mass the TV audience can take (and even warm to) elements of anti-naturalism in mainstream drama.

To Delight

The series' innovatory significance derives from both its regular inclusion of markedly anti -naturalist sequences and the purpose for which they are deployed. Instead of featuring as neo-Brechtian Verfremdungen (alienation effects) in the manner of radical theatre and Counter-Cinema, they are employed as Besonderheiten (features or treats) intended to delight their audiences rather than estrange them.
This use of formal devices usually exclusively employed by the avant garde places the show not only distinctly outside of the vanguard of experimental media practice (as would be expected of popular T V drama), but also at odds with it. Despite superficial similarities, the series can not be said to embrace any traditions of avant garde practice but rather offers a threat to them. In adopting many of the formal devices of the (once) avant garde, the show has actually both justified the literal meaning of that term (by leading the cultural mainstream into anti-naturalist territory) and showed that the original ground rules of the cultural conflict have changed beyond recognition. Instead of dreams of radical, analytically deconstructive television the media mutation of the late Eighties has followed hot on the prophecy of theory and witnessed an eclectic pillaging of once esoteric formal devices, pressing them into forms of popular cultural bricolage glacially unconcerned with niceties of radical schools or purist debates.
Moonlighting's strength, originality and challenge to aspects of avant garde (and or
alternative) media practice is in its subtle inter-textualities an d formal devices being produced for a popular TV audience, within its own paradigms and with none of the cares of the avant- garde and no allegiance to any movement or practice beyond that of populism.
Despite their undisputed achievements, the work of individual television mavericks such as WIM SCHIPPERS and JAAP DRUPSTEEN or recent Video Art packages such as Time Code and Ghosts in the Machine have stayed resolutely marginal to popular broad cast television. Similarly, acclaimed anti-naturalist television drama productions such as JOH MACKE ZIE and JOH MCGRATH's The Cheviot, the Stag and The Black Black Oil or JEAN CHRISTOPHE AVERTY's Ubu Roi have remained remarkable causes celèbres for their singularity (rather than example).
Moonlighting is therefore both significantly different and paradoxical , having achieved its qui et coup from a resolutely mainstream position. In order to understand the nature of this paradox and the origins and success of the series itself, it is necessary to understand the specific background of the American television industry from which it emerged. The structure of the American television system differs from that of most Western European systems due to its minimal regulation. In direct contrast to the sort of systems prevailing in countries such as Britain and the Netherlands, American television has a group of commercial networks directly competing against each other with very similar styles of programming. This leads to a highly formulaic approach which has channels often scheduling similar shows against each other at the same times - networks will for example have a cop show scheduled against a rival network's cop show, a sitcom scheduled against a sitcom, a games show against a games show etc. ABC's Moonlighting springs from just such a scheduling battle.
During the Seventies ABC (overall America' s third most popular network) managed to get top national ratings on Tuesday nights across America with a programme mix that included shows like Happy Days and Hart to Hart, but lost out in the early Eighties when a succession of new programmes flopped and BC took their place with a Tuesday night mix that included The A-Team and Remington Steele. In 1985 in another bid to try an d recapture the Tuesday night audience they introduced a new show called Moonlighting for a short six week run as a direct competitor to Remington Steele (based around a similar male/female detective duo ). While it didn't beat Remington Steele in the ratings, it did take a bite out of its audience. Encouraged by this ABC made a further series of the programme and moved it back an hour to compete with the key prime time NBC show the action-adventure Riptide, calculating that Riptide had a largely male audience and could be beaten with a show with a mixed gender appeal. The calculations proved correct, Moonlighting won the ratings battle and reestablished ABC as the Tuesday night network.
It not only achieved best overall viewing figures, analysis also showed that it also attracted a large proportion of the high income bracket 25-50year old audience (a section of the television audience particularly attractive to advertisers); and proved so popular that it acted as an anchor for the rest of the channel over the evening (pulling viewers to ABC). But this success was not without its pressures - the particular sort of audience that the show appealed to was notoriously fickle, not having the strong programme allegiances of other age and class groups. So in order to maintain an audience for the show it had to keep introducing new tricks and surprises into the basic format. The area it successfully identified and exploited was the media literacy of its viewers, the conversance of its audience with the conventions of both established television genres and contemporary and vintage Hollywood cinema. Drawing on this the series self-consciously played with these conventions in a Way that its (largely college educated audience) would both recognise as witty and clever and recognise as being premised on their own conversance. In clear contradiction to perceptions of American television and its production line basis as innately conservative, the series prioritised experimentation, innovation and about all surprise as key elements of its appeal; clearly locating the series ' aesthetic within what FREDRIC JAMESON saw as the fundamental characteristic of cultural production under Late Capitalism, where: //...aesthetic production today has become integrated into commodity production generally: the frantic economic urgency of
producing fresh waves of ever more novel-seeming goods ...//
At ever greater rates of turnover, now assigns an increasingly essential structural function and position to aesthetic innovation and experimentation'.
Due to the importance of Moonlighting for the network and the emphasis on experiment and surprise (unusual elements in successful popular programming ), ABC allowed the show's creative team (headed by producer /writer GLENN CARO ) a substantially greater degree of creative license than that normally allowed for series production. The basic production agreements were exceptional in themselves (allowing them nine days to shoot a fifty minute episode rather than the standard seven days) but he show was additionally granted the almost unheard of licence of being allowed to go significantly over-budget (and over-schedule) on individual episodes if they were felt to artistically merit it. In addition, its creative team were given carte blanche to experiment with themes, styles, design, etc. no matter how odd or offbeat any of their approaches might appear.
As a result the Moonlighting series established a series of highly distinctive formal trademarks (such as the combination of quick-fire verbal repartee and fast crosscutting which became a virtual Leitmotiv of the series ), developed a wide variety of foregrounded violations of naturalist conventions (of the sort usually only used within the avant garde or Art Cinema) and exploited the budgetary flexibility which allowed for occasional lavish big budget episodes (if offset by corresponding low budget ones ). This allowed the series a notable variability which during the peak of its third and fourth series encompassed an unpredictable variety of episodes which ranged from relatively conventional attempts at issue drama such as Every Daughter's Father A Virgin through to such stylistically experimental episodes as those discussed below. Though subjective preferences as to personal favorites obviously differ, three individual episodes exemplify the combination of sophisticated intertextuality, formal innovation and sheer audacious style that the series managed to produce at its peak: the highly crafted mode retro of The Dream Sequence Always Rings Twice, the sublimely eclectic Atomic Shakespeare// and the self referential
bricolage of The Straight Poop.

The Dream Sequence Always Rings Twice

Of all the episodes in the series to date , The Dream Sequence Always Rings Twice is the
most studiedly elaborate in terms of both its construction of visual style and conscious
reference to a single specific aspect of media practice. Built around two sustained monochrome dream sequences and framed by a slender plot line, the episode is both a successful and noticably lavish piece of popular television and a finely honed example of that mode retro practice characterised by JAMESO as distinctly Postmodern'. While none of the episode 's formal devices are neither significantly contemporary nor particularly innovative in themselves (dream sequences being staple elements of cinema since the early days; use of monochrome/colour switches to indicate transitions between dual diegeses being previously used in films such as POWELL and PRESSBURGER's
A Matter of Life and Death; and pseudo period-piece costume episodes being used in a variety of popular television shows from Star Trek to Bewitched; they are notable for being used as a framework to construct two particularly pronounced mode retro sequences which go beyond any representative approach to an actual past and instead concern themself with conveying pastness by the glossy qualities of the image, and 1930s-ness or 1950s ness by the attributes of fashion.
Indeed so perfectly do the sequences exemplify the tendency identified by JAMESON that they seem almost a programmatic application of theory to practice. The original idea for the programme was substantially less ambitious than the final version. After making an episode which used the distinctive lighting and colour styles of Hammer horror films for a scenario based around a funeral parlour; the production team decided to make an episode which recreated the feel of classic 1940's Hollywood cinema. The initial idea was to shoot an episode which featured two black and white 'dream sequence' inserts, with these being shot in colour and processed into black and white at the laboratories; but director of photography GERALD FINNERMAN proposed a more ambitious approach. FINNERMAN successfully argued for the sequences to be both shot on monochrome film stock and filmed in different styles based on the contrasting 'house styles' of MGM and WARNER BROTHERS during the 1940s. Since this required each dream sequence to be shot with different lighting set-ups and required additional work to get visual effect s not usually attempted in standard television colour production, the episode proved significantly more expensive than usual. The additional outlay on shooting and the construction of the Flamingo Club set necessitated a budget which eventually rose to $2 million. As a result ABC decided to capitalise on their expenditure by promoting the episode as a one-off special (prestige) production and even hired Orson Welles to record a celebrity prologue. The publicity campaign and and effectiveness of the black and white sequences secured high viewing figures for the episode and critical response was similarly positive, getting FINNERMA 's cinematography nominated for an Emmy (the American television equivalent of an Oscar), ensuring still further publicity for the series.
The programme itself is by an y standards (filmic or televisual) a highly crafted and inventive piece of work; both playing self reflexively on Noir conventions (particularly in the voice -over sequences) and also creating distinctly different visual styles for the two dream sequences (MADDIE's Dream lit and shot in the bright glittery MGM style typified by A Streetcar Named Desire and DAVID's Dream modelled on the low key gritty Warner Brothers style typified by Casablanca). But what marks the episode and its dream sequences out from such meticulous hommages as ROBERT BENTO's Hitchcockian Still of the Night is their sense of supplementary excess, their emphasis on being a simulacra in the sense meant by BAUDRILLARD, a more perfect copy. It is this aspect which locates The Dream Sequence... within mode retro rather than simply period recreation. The sequences do not attempt to either recreate or even evoke a specific past style but rat her work in a manner akin to that of MADONN A's appropriation of MARILY MONROE imagery for her True Blue album cover design and title track video - overtly signalling themselves as selectively intensified stylisations.
This excessive amplified stylisation is perhaps most perfectly crystallised by SHEPHERD's performance in MADDIE's Dream, where her on-stage rendition of Now Get Out attempts to condense key motifs from RITA HAYWORTH's sexually charged performance in the title role of KING VIDOR's 1946 film Gilda. While SHEPHERD does not attempt the mock-striptease sequence from the original, her stage act both feature s her wearing a dress modelled on the legendary black strapless outfit worn by HAYWORTH for her film performance of Put the Blame on Mame (but significantly exposing far more of SHEPHERD's cleavage than the original did of HAYWORTH's- playing on the selective intensification of memory of the part of its audience); and recreates HAYWORTH's celebrated introduction into Gilda's narrative, where she bursts into the picture frame throwing back her head in an erotic cascade of hair.

Atomic Shakespeare

If the hyper-stylised mode retro of the The Dream Sequence Always Rings Twice episode typifies one distinctive aspect of Postmodernism, the vertiginously eclectic narrative of Atomic Shakespeare represents another. Based loosely around SHAKESPEARE's Taming Of The Shrew, Atomic Shakespeare deviates markedly from all the other episodes of series made to date by having a script written in iambic pentameters, being performed as a period piece in a set designated Medieval Padua and having such incidental sequences as a mock Chinese martial arts fightand a rousing version of True Love sung by WILLIS to a bride trussed in bondage at the altar. Aside from its evident delight in disorientating its audience by framing its highly unexpected diegesis with only the briefest of (and least explanatory) of introductory sequences; its heady comic rush exhibits a pronounced irreverence and playfulness in its cultural reference which both parallels and transcends the practice of that contemporary school of architecture which incorporates motifs drawn from the suburban vernacular into even the most rush exhibits a pronounced irreverence and playfulness in its cultural reference which both parallels and transcends the practice of approach first advocated by ROBERT VENTURI in his manifesto Learning from Las Vegas ).
But while The Dream Sequence... episode is significant for its precise realisation of a tendency identified by JAMESO , Atomic Shakespeare is significant for its deviation from his analysis; its textual style and approach emphasising the further development of cultural tendencies which have taken play since JAMESO first formulated his study in 1983. Whereas JAMESON 's seminal work charted the broad stylistic shifts evident in a range of cultural production du ring the Seventies and early Eighties (asserting themas evidence of the emergence of a new cultural episteme complementary to the development of late multi-national capitalism); Moonlighting's Atomic Shakespeare episode is chiefly significant for being more a product of an existing rather than emergent culture. It rep resents an area of media production which has recognised, utilised and assimilated bricolage (defined by JAMESON as a textual style which proceeds by differentiation rather than unification) and moved on to a distinctive style of its own .
Instead of simply pastiching its principal referent (The Taming of the Shrew) via bricolage, Atomic Shakespeare incorporates aspects of it in a more integrated fashion , wrenching it from its traditional cultural context, commodifying it as (popular) entertainment, fragmenting it and using it as a framework for a profusion of other styles an d emphases. This approach effectively samples its referent in a manner more closely akin to that sampling technique used in recent popular dance records (such as M/A/R/R/S' Pump Up the Volume and BOMB THE BASS's Beat This) than conventional bricolage . Eschewing both parody and pastiche the episode affects a straight-forward modification of its referent which utilises the surface of SHAKESPEARE's linguistic style (its iambic pentameters), its traditional period visualisation (in costumes, sets etc.), its gender sparring and broad characterisation (a parallel to the series' own ) as a loose (ready -made) referent whose more complex structures an d meanings are not drawn upon to significantly reinforce its own meaning. There is for instance nothing about the episode an d its relation to its Shakespearean referent which attempts a radical cultural statement in the manner of MARCEL DUCHAMP's drawing of a moustache on Th e Mona Lisa for L.H.O.O.Q. nor a pastiche in the blankly parodic sense indicated by JAMESON.
It is perhaps the novel (and thereby elusive) nature of its referential or interpretative mode which marks its contemporaneity (and which makes it resistant to conventional critical analysis - operating outside the paradigms of both 'High' and popular culture rather than simply blur ring them). The ambiguous nature of its mode of address to its referent text was for instance tellingly reflected in the semantic confusion evident in a review of the, episode which appeared in the Shakespeare on Film Newsletter (a publication concerned with monitoring the transition between the august literary-theatrical tradition and the profane media of contemporary film and television).
Rather surprisingly, the review is somewhat disconcertingly positive, both praising the programme for its wit (in the traditional as well as contemporary sense ) and noting its successful interpretation of the key character interaction of its referent. But while the positivity of the review is in itself evidence of a suprisingly open-minded critical approach, it is the combination of this with the reviewer' s fumbling attempts to classify its referential mode which most precisely indicates its unusual address; reviewer JACK ORUCH tacitly aknowledging the irrecognisable tone and stance of the Atomic Shakespeare episode by labelling it as both a radically altered adaptation and a parody , praising aspects such as characterisation, and general production and only referring to features such as horses bedecked with BMW ornaments and sunglasses as anachronistic and farcical details, commenting overall that the episode: freely departs from Shakespeare's text, honouring it only with parody.
The slippage in use of adaptation and parody (where neither seem to actually signify the concept the reviewer is seeking to articulate) ably indicate both the novel nature of the mode of textual interpretation and the difficulties involved in considering distinct contemporary modes and forms within the framework of conventional critical paradigms.

The Straight Poop

Despite the various degrees of complementarity and divergence between JAMESON 's analysis and the two episodes discussed above , it is perhaps The Straight Poop episode which best exemplifies just how far Moonlighting has managed to deviate from the standard format of
naturalist television drama whilst retaining its audience.
Unlike other episodes in the series, The Straight Poop primarily re-works material from earlier episodes rather than developing a new one. Like The Dream Sequence... and Atomic Shakespeare it uses a skeletal naturalist framework in order to
contain and contextualise its non-naturalist elements and (in this case) its non-linear
narrative sequences. Its specific framework is a (fictional) investigative news report looking into the reasons behind the non-arrival of a new episode of the show. Using real life report RONNA BARRETT, this strand of the programme imitates a location News recording (complete with shakey camera work, re-focusing on subjects during shooting etc.) to investigate the reasons for the dispute between the MADDIE HAYES and DAVID ADDISON characters which has lead to the halt in production.
ANDERSON questions the two protagonists about their grievances in two separate sequences which edit together incidents and action from previous episodes. But while the rapidity and rhythmic qualities of some of these montages (such as the door slamming, simultaneous conversation and screaming sequences) are so pronounced that they resemble the Scratch styles of video-makers such as GEORGE BARBER; the episode draws on the conventions of forms such as the Pop Video, the on-air (and cinematic) preview trailer and the fragmented nature of American TV itself (with its frequent interruptions of narrative flow through commercial breaks) rather than any experimental schools of work. Its highly fragmented style and token over-arching syntagmatic is not then an example of any attempt at programmatic postmodernism but rather a result of the programme's self commodification and evident delight in its own textuality (leading it to even incorporate a succession of its own blooper out-takes as a final sequence).
Along with this use of extended sequences of fractured non-linear narrative, the episode is also noteworthy for its complex play upon another key aspect of naturalist drama; the difference between the actor as real life individual and as character in fiction and the suspension of the audience's knowledge of actors' real identities during the period of the fiction. The narrative of The Straight Poop involves a major dismantling of this onscreen/ off-screen, role /actor division and employs a labyrinthine doubling to score its narrative points. In doing this, the show involves itself in a process of commodification which goes one stage beyond the classic Hollywood process of manufacturing stars and star status and effectively contrives to produce a star status for the show itself.
The construction of star status in the classic Hollywood sys em consisted of creating a glamorous identity for the star as a celebrity in addition to their on-screen roles and lead to a fictionalisation of the stars in their off-screen existence (creating a triple role system - star in role - star in role as star - star as real (private) person (as much as the latter was possible)). But within the overall series logic of Moonlighting however, the series effectively tries to construct off-screen roles for the DAVID and MADDIE characters through the representation of their on-screen characters as having a direct (though un-theorised and untenable existence) as the performing artists of their own roles.
The The Straight Poop's scenario was inspired by Press publicity about the alleged
(real-life) friction between SHEPHERD and WILLIS during production of the series. The episode therefore constitutes an attempt to represent this within the series; but significantly, in attempting to refer out to this off-screen publicity, had to abandon the traditional representational role and further complicate matters by a logical slippage where the DAVID/MADDIE characters were represented as responsible for the dispute which prevented filming of the show (which is of course an extra-textual function fulfilled by the 'real life' SHEPERD and WILLIS characters). Thus DAVID and MADDIE effectively acted WILLIS and SHEPHERD acting DAVID andMADDIE as themselves (!) - this being further compounded by the appearance of the real hie former husband of SHEPHERD (director PETER BOGDA OVITCH) appearing in the narrative as a former lover of the fictional MADDIE character but also referring to another ex-romance of his with a modelfrom Memphis- SHEPHERD in her real hie role. This slippage within the episode affects a clearly identifiable transgression of both conventional representation (the separation of signifier/signified) and a collapse in the surface-depth model; which both testifies to the accuity of JAMESON 's analysis of the advanced commodification of cultural artefacts and demonstrates how audience's perceptions and understandings have undergone a quiet and complementary shift symmetrical with that of cultural production.

Media Literacy

At time of writing (March 1988) it looks as if the formal innovations (and pronounced budgetary flexibility) which marked the second and third series of the show have been largely dispensed with, perhaps never to return as the series continues to slip in the ratings. SHEPHERD's enforced absence through pregnancy was undoubtedly a serious destabilising factor, depriving the series of the key chemistry between the DAVID and MADDIE characters; but the producers' decision to experiment with in-series pilots for a comic format based on the DIPEST/VIOLA characters and produce a group of episodes (directed by ALLA ARKUSH) which comprised little more than uninspired re runs of ideas and sequences from earlier episodes, looks to have been a mistake with potentially terminal implications. There is of course no guarantee that an outbreak of anti -naturalist experimentation will sweep through either American or international television drama in
Moonlighting's wake (although the success of programmes such as the BBC's The Ritz seems to indicate its influential precedent); but the show has proved beyond any doubt that high ratings are not exclusively dependent on bankable cliches and that programme makers can exploit the hitherto unrecognised media literacy of their audiences. At its best , in for instance the three episodes described above, the series has created not only examples of stylish drama for a tele-literate audience but also showed the potential for escaping the restrictive dogma of naturalism and opening up television drama to wider influences. This in turn offers hope that those programme makers interested in formal innovation can escape from the marginal ghetto slots of TV Arts
programming and move into the prime time.