Ahoy there mateys! The First Mate and I have very different reading tastes. However I love reading reviews of books I don’t necessarily want to read meself. Here be one such review by the First Mate for a nonfiction book about the making of a tv show which was received from NetGalley for honest musings . . .
Title: moonlighting: an oral history
Author: Ryan Scott
Publisher: Fayetteville Mafia Press
Publication Date: Available Now!!! (hardcover/e-book)
From the First Mate:
Full disclosure: prior to reading Moonlighting: An Oral History, I had never watched a single second of Moonlighting. Though vaguely aware of it having been a popular television show from my youth, it was mostly fixed in my mind as the antecedent of the “Moonlighting curse” often mentioned in snarky articles about the downfalls of “will-they-won’t-they” driven entertainments. During the period of Moonlighting’s height I was more into cozy mystery series like Murder, She Wrote and action/adventure series like MacGyver and Airwolf. Just wasn’t in my wheelhouse at the time.
So, why read a book about a show I’ve never watched? One, after reading and loving Cary Elwes’ incomparably awesome As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride, I’ve found a love for the background stories of how television and film are made. And two, I was a huge fan of the cancelled-too-soon Now and Again, which was created by Moonlighting’s showrunner, Glenn Gordon Caron. It wasn’t until after I read this book that I became aware of the recent controversy around Caron, the show Bull, and actor Eliza Dushku. Had I known I might have passed.
Regardless, Moonlighting: An Oral History turns out to be a truly fascinating glimpse in the creative chaos that resulted in a show that many cite as one of the peaks of 80s television. Writer Ryan Scott sets the stage for us, explaining what television was like at the time and where the major players were at that point in their careers. Being an oral history, the vast majority of the book is told directly through the words of the people who were involved. The show runner, producers, writers, editors, assistants, directors, stars and guest stars. The only major person missing is Bruce Willis, which doesn’t quite come across as the glaring omission that one would expect.
In the book’s introduction, Scott lays out his thesis for the book. His perspective is that the traditional narrative about the show (that the audience abandoned the show after the sexual tension was resolved in season 3) is incorrect and that many other factors contributed to the show’s decline in season 4. The result of this thesis is that the book is kind of structured in two parts. The first part details the good times of how the show was created, the rise in popularity, and how happy everyone was with the work that was being created (even if the work was incredibly stressful). The second part then details how it all fell apart, points fingers at where responsibility lay, and carries us through the aftermath of the final season.
Overall it makes for a very entertaining read. Reading about groundbreaking television as told by the people who made it was pretty cool. All involved were still enthusiastic about what they viewed as quality work they’d done. Reading the kinda gossipy finger pointing about what went wrong was a bit less interesting, though. Ultimately, most of the credit for the show’s quality is heaped at the feet of Glenn Gordon Caron and Bruce Willis, while most of the criticism lands on Cybil Shepherd. At the very end of the book there is also some suggestion that widespread use of cocaine may have played a factor, too.
The oral history format comes with positives and negatives. On the plus side, it certainly seems like everyone gets their chance to have their say about the various topics covered. Individuals get criticized and then get to respond to said criticism. We also get to experience multiple voices and perspectives on some of the pivotal moments of the show. On the negative side, memories are fickle things and often the details don’t agree between the stories. For example, everyone present at Bruce Willis’ audition agrees he got up onto a piece of furniture but they disagree on what piece (a table or filing cabinet) and when (at the beginning, or punctuating a moment at the end) and what he was wearing (camo or khakis). Or whether Orson Welles showed up in a limo or a friend’s old beat-up car. These inconsistencies just tend to jump out in the format.
As said, the only thing really missing from the book is Bruce Willis being interviewed. But everyone is effusive in their praise of him being a professional that consistently elevated the material he was given. Not really sure how much his perspective would’ve added. Nice to have, but the amount of people interviewed here does seem to give a pretty good picture of what was going on while the show was being made. Did Scott succeed in proving his thesis? I think so. From what we’re told by virtually everyone involved, season 4 and 5 of Moonlighting were a practically different show from the first 3 seasons. It’s kind of hard to believe a show could be radically changed and not lose some of its audience. That said, I was not watching at the time, so I can only go by what I’ve read and what is available online today.
Intrigued by the descriptions of this groundbreaking television, I went online to watch some of what I had just read about. I really quite liked the seven minute Sandahl Bergman/Bruce Willis dance sequence from “Big Man on Mulberry Street.” The “Atomic Shakespeare” appealed a bit less. And I have to admit that I was unable to finish the pilot, despite it featuring one of my favorites, Brian Thompson, as a villain. Moonlighting the show may not have been for me, but I found this book fascinating.
Recommended to fans of Moonlighting who want the inside story and anyone else who likes reading about the behind the scenes goings on of television. Avoid if gossipy finger pointing isn’t your thing, or if you don’t like knowing the dirty details of how entertainment is made.
Side Note from The Captain: While I enjoyed reading this review, I certainly never plan on reading the book or watching the show. Though I stole a peek at the dance dream sequence and very much enjoyed that. Arrrr!
Goodreads has this to say about the book (shortened by me):
Once upon a time ABC-TV’s Moonlighting was among the most buzzed-about shows in the country, thanks largely to the bravado of creator Glenn Gordon Caron, who never met a television convention he didn’t want to break, and the sizzling on-screen chemistry between glamorous erstwhile film star Cybill Shepherd and a New Jersey bartender nobody had ever heard of before named Bruce Willis, who bickered and flirted ceaselessly on screen and engaged in epic off-screen battles that all these years later remain the stuff of Hollywood legend . . . The real story of this pioneering television series and the extraordinary behind-the-scenes challenges, battles, and rewards has never been told — until now . . .
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