Monday, June 06, 2005

The Theme-Com

As I think I said in a previous post, I have mixed feelings about Moonlighting. There are two reasons for my lack of wholehearted enthusiasm for the show. One is the vaguely self-congratulatory style of the show's creator/showrunner, Glenn Gordon Caron, which results in a lack of respect for the rules of good storytelling: it's like he's so proud of rule-breaking that he doesn't feel the need to create mystery stories with plausible conclusions (indeed, you get the feeling, borne out in his interviews, that he just despises detective stories), and if we in the audience complain about that, we're unhip. Remington Steele, which Caron wrote for, not particularly well, tried to be a good mystery show; Moonlighting couldn't have cared less, and that tone of contempt for its own genre is off-putting.

The other problem, of course, is Cybill Shepherd: she was never much of an actress, and she's constantly photographed through about 97 layers of Vaseline. (The show eventually poked fun at this, as it poked fun at all its own problems.) On the other hand, because she'd watched all those old black-and-white movies with Peter Bogdanovich, she knew enough about Howard Hawks and Preston Sturges to give Moonlighting's dialogue delivery the old-movie flavor that was part of its appeal; Caron was not initially going for that style when he wrote the pilot. And even though she's not much of an actress, she can look good -- even without the Vaseline on the camera -- and have chemistry with her co-star, which, on a TV series, is probably more important than being able to act.

And after watching some episodes of the show recently, I'm more favorably disposed to it than before. It's certainly an important show in the sense that it was the model for a particular type of show: the genre show where the genre elements of the story are secondary to the character conflicts. Not that other genre shows hadn't depended on character; The Rockford Files and Magnum P.I., to name two, were shows with strong characters whose reactions to the story developments were a central part of the episodes. But those shows usually put the detective story at the forefront of each episode: the focus was on the case and how the detective was going to solve it, and the character issues were mixed in with that. Moonlighting, because Caron didn't like detective shows and was essentially forced to create one, basically gave up the mystery elements for lost and didn't spend much time on actually working out the mechanics of how the case got solved. Instead the central conflict of each episode was some kind of emotional conflict between the characters -- David and Maddie disagree over whether God exists; Maddie challenges David to act more mature; David sympathizes with the man in a murder case while Maddie takes the woman's side -- and the resolution of the episode came when they resolved that conflict. The cases they solved existed only to bring out the emotional conflict or to parallel it; they weren't intended to be very important in and of themselves.

A show like Buffy the Vampire Slayer is hard to imagine if there hadn't been a Moonlighting, because Buffy works on the same principle: the question in any episode is not whether Buffy will defeat the monster (yes) or how she will defeat the monster (she and her friends will come up with some last-minute solution by reading some old book), but whether and how she will resolve the emotional conflict that the monster parallels. Of course, Buffy, at least at first, had more respect for the horror genre than Moonlighting had for the detective genre; it made at least a token effort to come up with satisfying monster stories, even if they weren't the really important part of the episodes.

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