Inside ‘Moonlighting’ and ‘How I Met Your Mother’s Tributes to Shakespeare

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‘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.

“I hate iambic pentameter.”

Moonlighting and How I Met Your Mother are two shows that exhibited wanton disregard for the rules that governed their realities. Each week when the opening credits started you had no idea if you were going to be transported into a noir homage, an ode to classic Hollywood, or even an episode that takes place over the span of a slap. And language is a television show’s greatest tool — while there are your Aaron Sorkins known for their dialogue, this elastic idea of language is largely wasted in the medium. That’s why it’s so exciting when two shows can decide to spice up language in such comparable, ornate ways. It becomes even more interesting when one example goes down as a classic piece of television, with the other being looked at as the nadir of its series.

Glenn Gordon Caron’s Moonlighting was television at its most ambitious, with the series not only taking many detours in style and format, but also pushing the limits of what’s allowed in a meta sense. The show increasingly found ways to work its behind-the-scenes drama into its scripts. Arguably Moonlighting’s greatest triumph is “Atomic Shakespeare,” an episode that acts as a modern retelling of Taming of the Shrew, with the episode going as far as being entirely written in iambic pentameter. The script, courtesy of Ron Osborn and Jeff Reno, has David and Maddie filling the Petruchio and Kate roles perfectly, with their trademark bickering being a snug fit for the Shakespearean pair. Even Miss DiPesto and Bert act as a more than fitting Bianca and Lucentio, with the episode truly trying to illustrate how close a match all of this is.

In fact, seeing David and Maddie inhabiting Taming of the Shrew works so well (not to mention it echoing Willis and Shepherd’s own relationship perfectly), it’s a little surprising that this experiment was first envisioned with Hamlet. Writer Jeff Reno’s initial inclination was to adapt the more murder-heavy text since it was a natural extrapolation for a show about detectives. However, Osborn thought that Taming of the Shrew would work better, not for any detective reasons, but more so because of the relationships present which were always more of Moonlighting’s core focus anyway.

While the real magic trick of “Atomic Shakespeare” is the impossibly clever script, this thing is also a real force visually. Extensive period costumes and wardrobes are in full effect to further sell the Shakespearean atmosphere. The episode would go on to win Emmys for costuming, hairstyling, and editing (with nominations for writing, directing, and heaps more, to boot), which is no surprise when you look at just how thorough this thing is. “Atomic Shakespeare” cost $3.5 million (which would be more like $7.5 million now), effectively being the most expensive hour of TV that had ever been made at the time, but it absolutely shows.

With the ambition displayed in “Atomic Shakespeare” it’s a little surprising that a stylistic deviation of this scope wouldn’t really be seen again until over twenty years later (although it’s an eerie coincidence that they would both air on November 25th). Granted, plenty of shows have played with form and scripting, but it’s How I Met Your Mother’s final season installment, “Bedtime Stories,” that is really the next show to carry the torch that Moonlighting ignited here.

How I Met Your Mother was one of the more experimental sitcoms out there, and in its final season they pushed it to its limit. In a bold move, the season essentially played out in real-time, with it all being condensed to a single weekend of a wedding. This particular entry has a bus-bound Marshall trying to get his son to fall asleep, resorting to bedtime stories in the process, all of which happen to rhyme. As a result, the entire episode is presented in iambic heptameter, with the entry split into three stories due to the storytelling construct. This complicated idea was something that creators Carter Bays and Craig Thomas had been itching to do for a while, with the show’s final season finally seeming like the opportunity to pull the trigger on the idea.

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The three stories that break up the episode work reasonably well and they mesh with the series in an appropriate way, much like in “Atomic Shakespeare.” The first story tells a tale about Ted with a girl and him being unsure as to whether he’s on a date or not. The next shows Robin dealing with a break up and a particularly embarrassing situation. The final, which is the most worthwhile — as well as the most ridiculous — sees Barney going to the High Council of Players regarding dating jurisdiction. It’s here that we see basically each borough of New York has their own “Barney”, with Neil Patrick Harris seamlessly playing each one. “Bedtime Stories” has good intentions, the problem is that it just feels so low stakes. The entry is the definition of a filler episode, in a season that’s already spread thin, even if it is being told in a highly impressive manner. In spite of the pomp and extravagance involved here (and even a fun, well placed Lin-Manuel Miranda rap cameo before Hamilton was a thing), the episode is essentially the lowest rated How I Met Your Mother episode, giving you an idea of its reception.  For a show that created such good will off of its innovation, this was a stark reminder that such creativity has to have something to fall back on. Like say, one of the most famous playwrights of all time being behind it.

What’s so brilliant about “Atomic Shakespeare” is it is effectively a perfect piece of Shakespeare, as well as the perfect Moonlighting entry. The story is even wryly credited as being “from an idea by William ‘Budd’ Shakespeare.” Right from the episode’s introduction you’re treated to some delightful fourth-wall breaking snark. A child wants to watch an episode of Moonlighting instead of doing his Shakespeare homework, with his mother scolding him accordingly (“Sounds like trash to me!”). As a result, Moonlighting is warped into this mish-mash in the process, as this child tries to avoid procrastinating. Not only is the series’ usual wit present, the episode is full of anachronistic delights, like Willis’ Petruchio showing up on his horse (which has a BMW logo on it) with both of them sporting shades, his rocking performance of “Good Lovin’”, or that brilliant “Here’s Petruchio” Shining riff that must be seen to be believed.

A great running gag in the episode sees Petruchio constantly confidently quoting Shakesperare lines until characters shout at him, “Wrong play!” and completely derail him. The show is just showing off its Shakespeare passion at this point. The experiment would prove to be so successful in fact, that many English teachers began using “Atomic Shakespeare” as a teaching tool, with it being a more than palatable example of how to serve up the text in a modern sense. The icing on the cake is that the final words of this writing feat are appropriately enough, “I hate iambic pentameter.” There’s not much more of a mic drop than that.

ABC was such a fan of this sort of departure that they went as far as approaching Osborn and Reno about spinning this idea off into its own series of anachronistic retellings of classics. Such a gesture is deeply flattering, and a testament to how well this came together, but ultimately Osborn and Reno turned down the offer due to how limiting a premise like this would end up being. Needless to say, no one was approaching Bays and Thomas for a rhyming HIMYM spin-off after their installment had aired.

In spite of this, some modern series attempting to run with this premise wouldn’t be the worst idea. I still attest that it’s surprising that so few television series have tried to do rhyming episodes — especially when both of these examples execute the concept in completely different, yet both challenging ways. Even if both of these examples have fallen on the opposite ends of the critical spectrum, they’re still amazing glimpses into what can be achieved. Both installments might make self-deprecating jokes about their formats, but you’re more than likely to find yourself saying, “I love iambic pentameter” at the end of these, rather than the opposite.

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