Everybody's talking about Bruce Willis, so why can't we watch Moonlighting?
David Addison, where art thou?
With the news that Bruce Willis is retiring from acting due to an aphasia diagnosis, everyone has been talking about the remarkable body of work he's produced over his 40-plus-year career. But there's one key project on his CV that is still absurdly difficult to watch.
That's Moonlighting, the Emmy-winning ABC detective dramedy that introduced Willis to the world. He starred as smart-aleck private investigator David Addison, opposite Cybill Shepherd as model-turned-detective-agency-manager Maddie. The series, which ran from 1985 to 1989, was noted for its cinematic approach to television. Moonlighting took wild swings during its five-season run, with a black-and-white noir-inspired episode, an episode written entirely in iambic pentameter that drew on the show's roots in The Taming of the Shrew, and a nine-minute musical dream sequence set to Billy Joel and directed by Stanley Donen, of Singin' in the Rain fame.
In addition to expanding the medium in ways that still resonate in today's landscape of "prestige TV," Moonlighting also set a gold standard for sexual tension and the will-they-won't-they conundrum of TV pairings. It became so famous that it spawned the notion of the "Moonlighting curse," which states that once a couple gets together on a TV show, it kills the series' momentum.
Somehow this incredibly influential TV show is glaringly absent from streaming platforms, and home video options aren't much better. Lionsgate released all five seasons on DVD between 2005 and 2007, but they've since gone out of print and fetch well over $100 per season on the resale market.
Series creator Glenn Gordon Caron tells EW that it's largely the issue of music licensing that has prevented any streamer from picking up the rights. "When we made Moonlighting, television shows didn't typically use pop music," he says. "It was really just us and Miami Vice at that time. So when deals were made for the music, no one anticipated streaming. In order to exhibit the show [on streaming], the owner of the shows, which is the Walt Disney Company, has to go back and make deals for all that music — and they've resisted doing that for six or seven years now."
ABC confirmed to EW that it still holds the rights to Moonlighting but didn't respond to request for comment on whether there have been any internal conversations about releasing the series on streaming in the time since Willis' retirement was announced.
Caron says the network hasn't reached out to him about anything of that nature, but he's optimistic that the recent flurry of interest in Willis' career might be a catalyst for making Moonlighting available at last. "With all the attention that Bruce has been getting, hopefully one good thing that might come out of it is we can reinitiate the conversation with Disney about releasing the streaming rights," he muses. "It's hard for me to understand why we can't find a way to make it work. Peacock is now streaming Miami Vice, so clearly somebody has figured it out."
Caron has been so desperate to get Moonlighting back in front of audiences that he's contemplated reaching out to the Criterion Collection about releasing it on Blu-ray, though he hasn't yet worked up the courage yet.
The writer, director, and producer is still close with Willis, and points to the actor's verbal acuity and musicality as major reasons for casting him all those years ago. Regarding Willis' aphasia, which impacts a person's language and ability to speak, Caron says, "It's like watching a great piano player lose their hands."
He also notes that Willis almost missed out on Moonlighting altogether. Caron and his casting team chose him from more than 3,000 actors who auditioned. "When Bruce walked in, he had this thing that I realized was missing from most television," Caron recalls. "Most of the men on television I didn't relate to. They just weren't men that I'd encountered in my life. Bruce walked in and I instantly felt like, 'Oh, that's a guy from around the block.'" But it took Caron bringing Willis in to meet with ABC brass 11 times before they finally relented to his casting.
In those days, Caron says he and Willis "worshipped at the temple of movies." So did leading lady Cybill Shepherd, who had previously been romantically attached to film historian and director Peter Bogdanovich, who reportedly showed her a movie every night. It was Shepherd who pointed to Moonlighting's similarities to Howard Hawks' screwball comedies, and Willis who introduced Caron to the work of writer-director Preston Sturges. In short, it was a cadre of cinephiles making a TV show.
There is one part of Moonlighting's legacy Caron would like to correct, and he's hopeful that putting the show on streaming might help: the so-called Moonlighting curse. "When that decision was made for them to get together, it was because I felt there was an inevitability to it that couldn't be denied," he says. "I truly felt there were great stories to tell on the other side of that. Unfortunately, a bunch of forces came together that we had no control over."
Those forces included Shepherd getting pregnant, Willis breaking his shoulder, a writers' strike, and a host of scheduling challenges (including maternity leave and Willis' contracts to make movies). "The stories that we crafted after that were the stories that we could craft given the people we had to work with at any given moment," Caron says. "And let's be honest, the heart of the show was seeing the two of them together — and there was a long period of time where the audience didn't see them together."
Real or not, the curse has been used in reference to will-they-won't-they TV romances ever since, from The X-Files to Castle and beyond. In television parlance, it's the romantic equivalent of "jumping the shark." But is the "curse" really fair? It's long past time for ABC to negotiate those music rights and make Moonlighting more readily available so viewers can judge for themselves.
It's not as if ABC doesn't have a natural home for Moonlighting, with both Disney+ and Hulu being corporate siblings. While one can imagine the music-licensing budget is pricey, it can't possibly cost more than producing a nonstop litany of new Star Wars and Marvel content. "It would just be wonderful to have it back," Caron concludes. "People ask me all the time how they can see it, and I'm embarrassed to say it's hard to get to."
The reappraisal and celebration of Willis' career elevates the need for access to Moonlighting from ideal to absolutely essential. How can we truly point to what makes him iconic as an actor without this foundational text? Willis without Moonlighting is like George Clooney without ER.
When streaming platforms seem plenty willing to greenlight expensive series and shell out millions for cast reunions, shouldn't they be able to secure Blue Moon Detective Agency on retainer and bring the crackling sexual tension of David Addison and Maddie Hayes back into our lives?