Given that Moonlighting became television's gold standard for sexual chemistry, it's remarkable just how few sparks fly between Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd in the pilot episode. It's worth noting, however, that not much worked on the show's pilot, which is included along with 23 hourlong episodes on the recently released DVD set compiling the pop-culture sensation's first two seasons. In the pilot, Willis' street-smart gumshoe comes off as a glib, sentient smirk, his one-liners are miss and miss, and Shepherd's model-turned-detective seems cold and unappealing. As for the show's mystery aspect, Encyclopedia Brown regularly tackled more challenging cases, and Shepherd and Willis didn't even have to deal with a nemesis on the level of Brown's hated Bugs Meany.
Then again, Moonlighting's success had as much to do with the drama behind the scenes as the mayhem in front of the camera. Willis and Shepherd's are-they-or-aren't-they dynamic mirrored the offscreen sexual tension between the two tabloid fixtures, just as Willis and Shepherd's characters reflected their offscreen personas. Fading former model Shepherd plays a down-on-her-luck ex-model who heads up a failing detective agency after her accountant absconds with millions, while brash, cocky upstart Bruce Willis plays a brash, cocky upstart brimming with seemingly unearned confidence. After thousands of smirks and one-liners, Willis' shtick grows tired, but his persona was pretty one-note to begin with. In one of the behind-the-scenes features, it emerges that Bill Murray was the model for Willis' character, and while there are similarities between the two actors, there are crucial differences as well. Murray's trademark sarcasm is the sigh of an underdog acutely aware of life's absurdities, while Willis' sarcasm comes off as fundamentally aggressive, the belligerent badgering of a motormouth alpha male.
Thankfully, Willis' character becomes much more complex and engaging as Moonlighting develops, as does the show itself. By the time Willis pops up in a gorgeous black-and-white fantasy episode, looking like a brooding, charismatic contemporary Humphrey Bogart, it's clear that the wine-cooler pitchman is destined for stardom. It didn't take Nostradamus to predict that Willis had a future as a movie star, just as it's apparent that Shepherd's glory days were behind her, a fact underlined by her Barbra Streisand-style Vaseline-smeared glamour-shot lighting. Nevertheless, the show hits its stride in the second season. Shepherd's performance softens to reveal a winning vulnerability and daffy idealism, while Willis skillfully conveys a soberer, more complicated side. Creator Glenn Gordon Caron has a weakness for David E. Kelley-level cuteness: rhyming, dream sequences, postmodern tomfoolery, broad slapstick, and repetition, repetition, repetition. Still, as it charges along, the show develops a pleasing velocity that makes the eye-roll-inducing one-liners and random quirkiness forgivable.
Part of Moonlighting's mildly inflated historical reputation seems attributable to its boundless ambition; it was, after all, a show that once devoted an hour of prime-time real estate to a black-and-white noir-stylized fantasy sequence introduced by Orson Welles. Compared to its TV contemporaries, Moonlighting's risqué machine-gun banter represented the height of sophistication, but when compared to the effervescent screwball comedies beloved by Shepherd's intellectual mentor Peter Bogdanovich, it doesn't seem quite as formidable. It's not quite the real thing, just a clever, briskly entertaining facsimile.