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As a Christmas entertainment writer (and blogger), the focus on my subject matter is typically limited to individual episodes, TV specials, and movies. Some TV series create several Christmas episodes during the run of the show--some series create none. One of my disappointments occurs when a much-beloved series or even a critically-acclaimed series makes a mediocre (or worse) Christmas episode. However that's not the situation with the 1985 Christmas episode of Moonlighting. Not only is "Twas the Episode Before Christmas" an extraordinary holiday story but the episode is as good as any other in the innovative series.
|Several days before Christmas, Miss DiPesto is busy doing her laundry and singing along to The Crystals' "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" from the classic 1960s Phil Spector Christmas album.
Indulge me while I review the episode's plot. The Blue Moon Detective Agency's quirky secretary, Miss Agnes DiPesto (played by Allyce Beasley), unexpectedly finds herself in the care of an abandoned baby. Leaving her apartment door ajar while she strolls down the hall to do her laundry, Miss DiPesto returns to find a surprise waiting for her. What she doesn't know is that a neighbor upstairs in her apartment building has been murdered. Joseph was in the witness protection program after he testified against a dangerous racketeer. Now that Joseph has been located by the thugs, his murder has been made to look like a suicide. And, Joseph's wife has escaped the apartment with their baby. Running for her life, the wife has left her baby in Miss DiPesto's open apartment hoping the baby's anonymity will help to save his life. Miss DiPesto brings the baby into work with her the next day and Maddie and David set out to investigate who has abandoned this adorable baby.
|Maddie & David. Despite the constant bickering, viewers just want them to get together.
Of course, the detective series Moonlighting was never really about the cases or the investigations. The plot was always secondary to the relationships, especially between detectives David Addison and Maddie Hayes, played by Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd. The rapid-fire banter between them should remind you of Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant in the 1940 movie His Girl Friday--as should the sexual tension. The defining characteristics of this TV series include self-reflection--the characters never seem to forget that they are starring in a TV series--and an overload of dialogue filled with pop culture references, jokes, misdirections, aside comments, and yes--resistance to the inevitable romance. So the joy in watching Moonlighting is always in the details and not really the plot.
|Smirky David Addison (Willis) is running a 1-900 telephone business out of the offices at Blue Moon. He's turned the holiday season into a commercial enterprise with a Santa Claus hotline, much to the dismay of his partner Maddie.
|Miss DiPesto is able to convince Maddie that sharing Christmas with a baby helps one to forget all the bad stuff happening in the world.
The conceit of the plot is that Hayes and Addison's investigation reveals that the elements of the original Christmas story are present here as well. The three agents from the Department of Justice all share the same surname of King. Joseph's wife's name is Mary and their focus this Christmas is on a baby. And when Miss DiPesto and the baby go missing, David is inclined to look for a star in the Christmas Eve sky to locate them. David is convinced he's trapped in an allegory!
|Agents Reuben King, Jim King, and Saul King. The three Kings from the Dept. of Justice.
|In this Christmas story, Joseph's wife is named Mary. Addison's allegory complex is further triggered when Mary offers him a Camel cigarette, completing the Middle Eastern reference.
The running gag is made funnier when no one besides David seems to recognize or place any weight on the details adding up to the familiar Nativity story. Recreating familiar elements from the first Christmas story has been overdone before on television shows but here it is played for the lightweight gag that it is. And since it matters to no one except David, the joke is stretched even farther. These plot points take place within an episode that has other strong ties as well--David and Maddie share not one but at least three solid scenes of their bantering, and Maddie fears Mary may be her husband's murderer for much of the episode helps to balance the episode's story throughout the hour.
|David Addison ends up coming down a chimney dressed as Santa Claus to confront and confuse the bad guys at the end.
|Another fun detail is that the dangerous bad guy Leonard is played by comedian/actor Richard Belzer.
For me, the highlight of this already strong episode occurs in the last five minutes of the episode. David finally thinks he's put all the elements together from this story--it must be the Christmas episode!--except there's no snow. Just then snow begins to fall on Maddie and David in the agency offices and they hear people singing.
|Where's the celebrating coming from?
Following the sound of voices' caroling, David and Maddie push through the agency's doors and exit the room. They walk behind set walls, camera equipment, lighting stands, etc. to find an open sound stage full of the Moonlighting cast, crew, staff, and their families singing "The First Noel." As many as perhaps one hundred voices are raised in celebration as fake fluffy snow continues to fall on all the participants and the camera raises on a crane to capture it all. For four minutes, we watch the group sing several verses of the poignant Christmas song.
|"...Noel, noel, noel, noel. Born is the King of Israel..."
TV viewers get a behind-the-camera glimpse at a more intimate yet self-reflexive Christmas greeting from those who help create their holiday entertainment. The stars of the show join the carolers and the camera continues to pan the crowd of singers as the children can’t help but begin to play in the snow as it piles in their hair and gathers on the floor around them.
|Most of the children in the group seem to be having fun.
|The camera even finds someone in the crowd who brought their four-legged member of the family!
If you’re fortunate enough to watch this episode on the second season DVD, you can also listen to the commentary track with actress Allyce Beasley (Agnes DiPesto), episode director Peter Werner, and producer Jay Daniel identifying their own family members and some of the other cast and crew appearing on camera in the crowd.
|In the end, Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd give their greetings and wave, "Merry Christmas, everybody!"
This musical Christmas moment is a very personal touch of the holiday spirit from a large group of people. It’s so touching, I’m surprised this hasn’t been repeated by other TV series’ casts and crews in the years since. While other series have memorably broken the fourth wall to express their holiday greetings, this one is certainly the most elaborate and the most memorable.
I know the 1955 Christmas episode of The Honeymooners includes a scene at the end when the cast breaks the fourth wall to talk to the audience and express their Christmas greetings. So do Christmas installments of The Beverly Hillbillies, Full House, Family Matters, Home Improvement, and many more. Do you have a favorite example?