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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?
Glen Gordon Caron was one of the best writers working in television in the 1980s. I think he wrote this excellent episode (and even if not, well, I bet he had his hand in most of the scripts anyway). MOONLIGHTING was a smart, intelligent series for all the reasons you described so well. I think there was a "life span" to the relationship between David and Maddie and it ended prior to the last season. But for most of its run, I never missed MOONLIGHTING. While Bruce and Cybill were never better, some of my favorite episodes centered around Allyce Beasley and Curtis Armstrong. And, by the way, I typically don't like when a movie or TV series breaks the "fourth wall" (e.g., Blazing Saddles), but--as you noted in your terrific post--it was perfect for this holiday episode.ReplyDelete
Yes Rick--Glenn Gordon Caron did indeed write this one! Breaking the fourth wall can be seen as a tradition in Christmas stories. Here I think they did it in spectacular fashion. Thanks for your comments.Delete
Good episode BUT I prefer the Maddie "It's a Wonderful Life" Christmas episode.ReplyDelete
Makes me want to revisit the entire series, which is exactly what a wonderful blog post is so good at! Terrific write-up on a series that has sort of been not exactly *forgotten* but certainly has not been elevated to its proper status as a charming true classic of TV!ReplyDelete
It's lost at this point, but the "Feast of Steven" episode from the _Doctor Who_ serial "The Daleks Master Plan" has the Doctor breaking the fourth wall to wish viewers a Happy Christmas.ReplyDelete
Like Lisa said above, your blog provides great incentive to revisit this wonderful show. I haven't watched an episode in years. And you're right about the 'fourth wall' ending - it's always great around the holidays. My favorite example is when The Monkees did it on their Christmas show.ReplyDelete
Thanks for your comments everyone!ReplyDelete
I know I watched this series and enjoyed it when it first aired, but I haven't seen it since. At this point it would be "new" television all over again. Charming.ReplyDelete
Similar to what others have said, I liked Moonlighting during its run, but haven't seen it in years. But I see several episodes on YouTube, so thank you for providing incentive to check it out again. The "breaking the fourth wall" concept is intriguing - one of many reasons why the Bugs Bunny cartoons were so great.ReplyDelete
I remember watching this episode when it first aired and how much I enjoyed it. Breaking the fourth wall was such an unusual and fresh concept at the time. Sometimes I think Moonlighting played that card too often, but it worked perfectly in this Christmas episode.ReplyDelete
(For many years, starting in the late '80s or early '90s, the soap opera Guiding Light would end its Christmas Eve episode with cast, crew, and families singing--maybe some Moonlighting influence there? I enjoyed the concept so much that I would tune in every year, even after I stopped watching soaps regularly.)
I'm a fan of holiday episodes of TV shows, even OTR, old radio shows. This is one I never saw and this Christmas Moonlighting episode sounds really clever and fun. I'd like to see it after reading your article. Love the reference to the 1955 Honeymooners Christmas show. That walk on at the end always struck me, Art Carney especially. For that second you see him, he no longer looked like Ed Norton.ReplyDelete
Also reminds me of The Closer, one of their Christmas episodes where they looked at the camera (it was done as if they were making a home movie IIRC?) and said Merry Christmas -- y'all.
How fun!! I got the DVD set of seasons one & two of Moonlighting as a gift, but haven't watched it yet. Now I can't wait. I was a huge fan of the show for the reasons you mention - the great banter between the show's stars. I also love Allyse Beasley so this was particularly fun to read. Great choice!ReplyDelete
Boy, that show could be good when it was firing on all cylinders. It was witty, original, and really had something going for it - I'd kind of forgotten about that until reading this. Great job, Joanna!ReplyDelete
This is such a clever blog focusing on Christmas episodes! I especially enjoyed this entry on "Moonlighing" because the chemistry of Bruce and Cybill is palpable.This episode had an enormous amount of fun with its Christmas references plus the incorporating of everyone behind the scenes, too. You made an awesome post and a wonderful addition to the Classic TV Detectives Blogathon. Well done, Joanna!ReplyDelete
Great post! I was a teenager when Moonlighting aired, but I loved it and hated that it seemed to burn out too quickly. I would love to rewatch the show now, see how it holds up as an adult.ReplyDelete
This episode seems to be not only a great Christmas episode, but also a great episode to show people just what made Moonlighting so different. :)
I loved reading this. I haven't seen this episode since it aired; your post reminded me how much I enjoyed it. I remember a Christmas episode of Remington Steele where Laura, Remington and Mildred broke the 4th wall at the end to say Merry Christmas in different languages.ReplyDelete
Was the baby in that episode either Willis' or Cybils?Delete