When ‘Moonlighting’ Turned Itself Into a Perfect Film Noir to Solve an Aging Crime
‘Structurally Sound’ is a recurring feature where each week a different structurally unusual, rule-breaking anomaly of an episode from a comedy series is examined.
“That night was the beginning. We would see more of each other, then all of each other. But this is television, so we won’t get into that.”
Moonlighting is the sort of television show that gave a reason to write about television. The smoldering will they/won’t they chemistry that fueled David Addison (a pre-Die Hard, pre-action star Bruce Willis) and Maddie Hayes’ (Cybill Shepherd) exploits at the Blue Moon Detective Agency became appointment television for the five years that it ran on ABC, beginning in ’85. It might just have seemed like a charming detective show, but Moonlighting was breaking the fourth wall constantly, reinventing the medium, and just oozing style. There were a wealth of concept episodes, with many being hearty qualifiers for future “Structurally Sounds.” The series very much felt like Community before Community existed, right down to the tumultuous relationship the network shared with the showrunner, Glenn Gordon Caron.
Behind-the-scenes issues that increasingly plagued production also stirred up a lot of discussion. A frayed relationship between Shepherd and Willis combined with frequently ambitious episodes (Moonlighting scripts were often close to one hundred pages due to the shows rapid-fire dialogue) would lead to constant complications. The series would regularly turn to reruns, clip shows, or alternatives to accommodate Shepherd and Willis’ exhaustion. In the show’s later seasons, episodes would operate solely with David or Maddie rather than the both of them. Other entries focused entirely on side characters, even if such a dynamic was counter to what the series had carefully cultivated so far.
Problems aside, Moonlighting is still a powerful piece of television that was never afraid to do things differently. Their season two episode “The Dream Sequence Always Rings Twice” is particularly exemplary of this. The installment sees David and Maddie investigating an unsolved crime from 1948. As the two of them daydream on the matter, the episode turns into a glowing black-and-white love letter to 1940s noir cinema. The entry is smart to employ the idea of pairing dream sequences together with film noir rather than going with one or the other. This even calls back to the roots of the genre, and the way in which beleaguered private investigators would solve cases by retreating into their minds.
Noir and dream sequences should have a symbiotic relationship together. This is thoroughly made clear and perpetuated by the fact that David and Maddie’s case is from the ’40s, when this romanticized sort of structure was commonplace. This isn’t them just watching a bunch of old movies during an afternoon and passing out with their subconscious running wild, or Maddie and David turning to noir romances to fix their own fractured relationship. No, instead the focus here is the cause and effect relationship of many factors that decree that a film noir structure is necessary to get the point of this story across. For example, the varied dreams that invade David and Maddie reflect their own biases while stressing different aspects of the crime that they’re investigating. The episode’s bifurcated dream structure acts as another way to explore these characters’ constant feuding. Generally a verbose show in its own right, “The Dream Sequence” becomes even more lyrical than usual by flawlessly engaging in the longstanding noir trope of the interior monologue voiceover. Not a single piece of this show remains untransformed.
To further convey the episode’s structure and the archetypes that it sends up, it’s shot in noir-y black-and-white. It’s also worth noting that the episode was only shot in black-and-white, rather than filming it normally and decolorizing it afterwards. The reasoning here being that Caron and company knew that the network would just air the color version if they had the opportunity to do so. However, the backlash from this ended up working in the episode’s favor. ABC forced the stylistic entry to have an introduction explaining the black-and-white look of the episode, so viewers would not be confused. Never ones to do anything half-assed, Moonlighting ended up procuring Orson Welles to deliver the episode’s forced intro. Welles ended up dying several days later, making it his final appearance in anything.
Now, this sort of black-and-white homage is an idea that’s seen increasing popularity through the years. Shows like Pretty Little Liars and even Bones have recently taken the structural trope under their wing. This device might have become one of the most common formats to turn to, but that doesn’t mean that everyone is pulling it off successfully. This is especially the case when these other shows skew towards drama, curbing their comedic sensibilities much more than Moonlighting’s incredibly tongue-in-cheek nature. The episode is very much a celebration of this. Maddie and David become perfect heroes from right out of classic cinema, yet the episode doesn’t hesitate from highlighting the silly core that fuels them.
Gerald Finnerman was instrumental to the show’s look, style, and why this episode was able to come together so well. Finnerman was the show’s director of photography, but came from a deep pedigree of talent, acting as camera operator on big pictures like My Fair Lady and The Picture of Dorian Gray. Finnerman was particularly adept with black-and-white lighting technique, which is why “The Dream Sequence” not only looks so gorgeous and pops more than other episodes of the series, but it’s why he also earned an Emmy nomination for the feat (not to mention the episode receiving further nominations for writing, directing, art direction, costume design, musical score, cinematography, and editing — which it won). This isn’t just the show flipping their color gradient to black-and-white. It’s an entire, meticulous process designed specifically to look better under this style.
This meticulous attention to minutiae goes one step further with Finnerman’s eye. Not only does the episode resort to black-and-white photography to carry the film noir structure, but subtle differences occur in both Maddie and David’s dreams. The elements of Maddie’s dream intentionally ape the more polished, glossier look of MGM films from the ’40s (mainly, A Streetcar Named Desire), with David’s dream resembling the grittier look of a Warner Brothers picture from the era (such as Casablanca). Finnerman knocks it out of the park on both accounts, pushing the episode’s drive for authenticity to unheard of levels. As one might expect, this attention to detail and embracing of black-and-white film aesthetic not only led to the episode taking a lengthier 16 days to finish, but also ballooning the episode’s budget to an unheard-of-for-the-time amount of two million dollars.
Moonlighting is a show that was constantly going over budget, but this is a clear example of how its style specifically encumbered production. Ambitious episodes like this frequently made life more difficult for the crew, yet everyone remained vigilant (drawing even more Community and perfectionist Dan Harmon parallels…). Back then two million dollars was crazy for an episode of television, especially when the vastly cheaper option of decolorizing existed. Furthermore, can you even tell the difference in Maddie and David’s dream sequences without having a finely tuned eye to the medium?
Lavish musical numbers are also representative of the classical genre that’s on trial here, with this episode embracing them wholeheartedly. While Moonlighting had a perfectly sound musical team in place, the decision to use musical bigwig Alf Clausen to pen David and Maddie’s numbers gave the pieces even further validity and pomp. Once again, it really feels like you’re watching a movie here, with Clausen’s vast music conveying the tone elegantly.
Even though Moonlighting would have a shaky future ahead of itself, “The Dream Sequence Always Rings Twice” is one of many examples of the magic that this show was capable of tapping into. Even with all the ire and egos colliding behind the scenes, the result was television that truly ascended the medium. While still early in the show’s run, “The Dream Sequence” helped open people’s eyes to this winner of a series, as well as helped cement its place as “one of the greats.”