Moonlighting: An Oral History (Scott Ryan) – Book Review

Once in a Blue Moon, a television programme comes along which sweeps the legs out from beneath the medium, and changes the game. In the case of Moonlighting, over a four year period during the 1980s it kicked down the fourth wall with gleeful abandon, and helped alter the landscape of TV for good, whether it meant to or not.

Ostensibly a romantic comedy drama series based around a detective agency headed up by an ‘opposites attract’ pairing, it harnessed the energy of screwball comedies, with all their rapid fire crosstalk; however, Moonlighting went far beyond the norm, with characters increasingly acknowledging their fictional status to the viewers. One episode was set in utero; another was written in iambic pentameter, as a highly stylised version of The Taming Of The Shrew, with all of the regular cast playing Shakespeare’s characters.

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It also gave rise to the phenomenon popularly known as the ‘Moonlighting Curse’, where a show heavily featuring a ‘will they, won’t they’ scenario is felt to jump the shark once that flirty – and often tempestuous – relationship ends up being consummated. Examples of this include programmes such as Lois & Clark:The New Adventures Of Superman, Castle, Bones, and Friends. The whipsmart banter and underlying sexual chemistry cast a long shadow over many other shows, such as Steven Moffat’s Press Gang, where Dexter Fletcher’s Spike seems to emulate Moonlighting’s male lead.

Perhaps most notably of all, Moonlighting just happened to relaunch Cybill Shepherd’s career, giving her top billing at a time when female-led series were still something of a rarity, and also gave Bruce Willis his big break, bringing him to the public’s attention and starting him off on the path to movie stardom. While Moonlighting was on air, tales of increasing professional tension and acrimony between the pair behind the scenes were grist to the tabloid mill, with gossip columns full of innuendo and tittle-tattle about them.

For kids of Generation X, the series remains a fond memory, as does Al Jarreau’s iconic theme song. However, for such a well-regarded show, Moonlighting appears conspicuously absent from the landscape, as the DVDs have all been long-since deleted and go for silly money online, and none of the streaming services have it amongst their content offerings. While not completely forgotten, it seems to languish in the realms of relative obscurity now, with no real scope for it to attract a whole new audience.

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What seems equally surprising is the realisation that there has never been a book about the show, even when it was at the height of its creative powers. Beyond all of the terrible gossipmongering in the gutter press, you cannot help but feel there is a compelling story to be told about what really went on behind the scenes on what was one of television’s biggest hits of the time. Thankfully, Scott Ryan agrees with that sentiment, and has taken it upon himself up plug that inexplicable gap in the market, with Moonlighting: An Oral History.

It could have been a case of merely piecing things together from existing interviews with cast and crew, and that alone would have given us something more than we already had. If you just look at the list of participants listed in Ryan’s book, however, you cannot help but be impressed by the breadth of talent from both sides of the camera whom he has spoken with especially for the purpose of getting down to the nitty-gritty, and cutting away all of the urban myths and fallacies which surround the show’s production.

Plaudits have to be given for Ryan being able to interview Cybill Shepherd, although it really is a shame that he was unable to have Bruce Willis’ involvement, sadly due to the obvious difficulties of trying to coordinate schedules in the middle of a global pandemic. Being a fan of the programme has not stopped Ryan from being honest about some of the more controversial and contentious things which went on, and there are absolutely no efforts made to shy away from discussion of these areas, or gloss over events.

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While you can tell these wounds are still raw for some more than others, the candour of everybody involved really has to be admired, even when there are some uncomfortable truths raised. It would seem that enough water has flowed under a sufficient number of bridges during the last three decades that this distance from events has given everyone involved a real clarity and sense of perspective they might have lacked if we were relying upon purely contemporaneous accounts of what took place during the show’s making.

Of course, the memory can also cheat, and a significant part of the fun here comes from Ryan’s picking apart of people’s remembrances, showing just where these conflict, without ever being judgmental or taking sides. The Rashomon-style presentation of inconsistencies is sometimes deployed to a rather hilarious effect, such as when Ryan presents a cascade of different recollections of a particular episode’s budget, as each contributor gives an alternate figure, with the number rapidly spiralling higher and higher, showing how unreliable the ‘truth’ can sometimes be.

Oral histories can sometimes be rather dry affairs, with one chunk of interview following another without any structure evident, nor any sign of judicious trimming. Here, however, Ryan has managed to make things flow perfectly, retaining the salient points without any sense of padding or bloat. He also manages to offer plenty of narrative context, taking us right through from the show’s inception to its final demise. Ryan’s handling of the trickier, more emotive subjects avoids any salaciousness in the telling, and is actually done matter-of-factly instead, which is refreshing.

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The depth of Ryan’s affection for the subject matter is clear, and you can tell that he wants to do the show and its makers proud, while still shedding light on the real story behind the series, no matter how uncomfortable that may be at times. However, there are no real villains of the piece unveiled here, and nobody ends up being cast in an irredeemably poor light at the end of the day; the people involved tend, for the most part, to be rather forgiving of the failings not only of others, but also themselves where appropriate, although it seems a few scars are still yet to fully heal.

The book is also presented in full colour throughout, which is a lovely little bonus, making the finished product visually far more vibrant as a result. Moonlighting: An Oral History will hopefully – and deservedly – be well-received by fans, but it is also a must-read for anyone interested in getting a candid peek under the veil of American television, being a textbook example of how to deliver an incisive and in-depth look into the making of a true classic. Some walk by night, some fly by day; Scott Ryan captures their stories perfectly, and he sheds new (moon)light on them all.

Moonlighting: An Oral History is out on 1st June from Fayetteville Mafia Press.

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