It began four years ago as a humble mid-season replacement, rose quickly in the ratings and blossomed into a sophisticated prototype for hip TV programming. It took more risks and struck more sparks of wit than anything else in prime time. It made a new star out of Bruce Willis
and a born-again star out of Cybill Shepherd. But by the end of last year, ABC's Moonlighting had begun to lose its magic as viewers lost patience with constant reruns and unlikely plot twists. Earlier this month. Moonlighting plummeted out of sight, and its Blue Moon Detective Agency closed its doors for good. Innovatively written to the end, the show's final episode addressed its own demise. "Can you really blame the audience?" David and Maddie were asked by a silhouetted producer. "A case of poison ivy's more fun than watching you two lately."
The show's once loyal fans might not quibble with that assessment, but they might ask why the stars didn't fight harder to save their show. Why the once glorious Moonlighting expired might be the one case the Blue Moon agency never solved. However, some sleuthing into the program's disappearance—based on interviews with producers and writers who worked on the show—did produce some theories. As in any delicate investigation, key informants insisted on anonymity.
The most commonly accepted cause is bickering—bickering between Shepherd and Willis, between Shepherd and Moonlighting creator Glenn Gordon Caron, between Shepherd and Willis and Caron. There was high tension on-set from the start. "Bruce and Cybill got antsy because the atmosphere was volatile," says an ABC spokesperson. "They were working in a pressure cooker." For example, Caron was writing every word then, which meant the scripts were always late and the actors had to do some very quick studies. Still, the writing was brilliant, and the cast attacked scripts with enthusiasm during the first two seasons.
The real turnaround, says a high-placed source, came with Shepherd's 1987 pregnancy. Sick from the early stages, she couldn't work the show's regular 12-hour days and, with her burgeoning girth, "couldn't do the sexy, snappy repartee that made the show work," says the ABC spokesperson. The pregnancy also forced writers to compromise on spontaneity. With pregnancy involved, story lines became predictable and the sexual tension between the leads sagged into squabblesome boredom.
Shepherd's half-year maternity leave left Willis angry. According to one of the show's executives, he was stewing because he was working three times longer than she was. He was openly infuriated by her tardiness and by the long periods of time she spent in her trailer with the twins. By this time, Willis had also found success with 1988's Die Hard and wanted to continue making movies. Willis, says a well-placed source, suddenly cared a lot "about not working, about getting out of work, leaving work early." When filming once threatened to cut into a planned afternoon getaway, says the source, "Bruce began fuming. Suddenly the whole set reverberated—boom, boom, boom. Bruce was pounding the walls of a partition, throwing a tantrum. The sound went right to the bone."
In a way, the booming was the death knell for Moonlighting. As one writer says, "Cybill may have been erratic, but Bruce had always been the motor that drove the show. Once Bruce stopped caring, it became very hard on everyone." In the end, even most viewers didn't care anymore. When Moonlighting took the final bow, it was watched by only 10 percent of the TV audience. "The end was a huge relief," says writer-producer Charles Eglee. "It was like having a 97-year-old person who had lived a rich and wonderful life, but now every part of their metabolism was in failure. It's a blessing if they go quietly."
—Margot Dougherty, Lois Armstrong and Jack Kelley in Los Angeles