PRINT May 1986


Private eyes and their parts: prime-time sex crimes.

GIRL/BOY CRIME-BUSTING DUOS have sleuthed their way through decades of black-and-white mystery films and color caper movies and are now a staple of prime-time TV programming. From Mr. and Mrs. North in the ’50s to Moonlighting, the genre has functioned not only as a pleasurable mix of sneaking and sexing, but also as a succinct barometer of the dispensations of the duo: of what is shared and who is slighted and how all this defines the division of labor. Early examples of the genre required the couple to be hitched, exceptionally solvent, and unusually susceptible to the scenes of crimes. In this way, Mr. and Mrs. North is clearly the antecedent of television’s Hart to Hart, in which Jennifer and Jonathan Hart (Stephanie Powers and Robert Wagner) mate matrimony with material witnesses and seem to attract ulterior motives like crawlies to a roach motel Swathed in glamorous expenditure and showering one another with “dahlings,” they crime-bust their way from continent to continent via private jet, just one of the perks supplied by Hart Industries, a corporation of whose manufacture and services we know nothing Consisting of plush offices and far-flung subsidiaries, the company is evacuated [rom the site of actual labor and appears as a model of today’s nearly intangible service industries. We never see Jonathan “on the job,” and although Jennifer floats through her various hobbies with grace and virtuosity, she (along with Max the butler and Freeway the dog) is seen as just another corporate perk, a reward that Jonathan treats with respect and humor.

The generically structured corporation whose nonspecificity seems suspect also surfaces in Scarecrow and Mrs. King. Our suspicions are confirmed when we discover that Lee Stetson (Bruce Boxleitner) and Amanda King (Kate Jackson), who are ostensibly employed by Federal Films, are actually Federal agents pitted against the various evil empires that threaten the American government. If all this weren’t enough of a throwback to the ’50s, Amanda is ensconced in a little white-picket-fenced number in the D.C. suburbs which she inhabits with her mom and two kids, who have no idea that she lives a vicarious double life. And although she handles her assignments with decisiveness, she is generally sketched as an able but befuddled puritan, a ditzy housewife with weird hours. And, of course, she and Lee barely brush up against one another.

If Hart to Hart and Scarecrow and Mrs. King suggest that Jennifer and Amanda’s deductive prowess exists only through the largess of corporate and government sanction, the more recent examples of the genre focus on independent women who make it their business to own their own business. But regardless of their investigative acumen, they still rely upon and enjoy the company of men as both partners and “fronts.” In Remington Steele, Laura Holt (Stephanie Zimbalist) uses the name and body of Steele (Pierce Brosnan) to establish the credibility of her sleuthing venture (which once again is housed in the omnipresent plush offices). Though she engineers much of the goings-on, she frequently defers to Steele in order to perpetuate her fabulation of noncontrol The series also suffers the affliction that strikes all current examples of the genre: the postponement of the couple’s sexual pleasure in order to fan the viewer’s desire. This season Laura and Steele actually do embrace and kiss, but their relationship remains one of conversational seductions and competitive prowess. Pitting Steele’s smooth demeanor and lightning command of movie trivia against Laura’s entrepreneurship and enlightened bachelorettehood, the series renders a “battle of the sexes” in which the warriors seem to be driven to distraction by their attempts to pelt each other to death with candy kisses.

But this battle of the bon mots reaches truly pleasurable new heights in Moonlighting, in which Maddie Hayes (Cybil Shepherd) and David Addison (Bruce Willis) enter hand-to-hand combat in the war of the words. As in Remington Steele, the woman runs the shop (once again the proverbial plush offices) and takes on David as a partner in the Blue Moon detective agency, which is overstaffed with a flock of loitering misfits. Although these peripheral characterizations are witty and well drawn, the real pleasures of the show are the intricate idiosyncracies of its scenario and the wonderfully smart rapid-fire repartee that runs relays between David and Maddie’s mouths. Willis’ David is that charming kind of fast-talking gorilla to whom many women spend their entire lives trying to build up an immunity, while Shepherd’s Maddie is effective in a wonderfully played and constantly perturbed but ladylike sort of way. But although capable of silencing David’s rants with haughty aplomb, she all too frequently is scripted to appear at a loss for words, responding instead with adorable gruntlike musings and grimaces which dishevel her lovely visage just enough. Aside from this very unfortunate convention, Moonlighting is chock-full of cute minitransgressions: smallish formal innovations which define its difference from the usual hack products that dominate prime-time TV. A recent episode sported a pretitle sequence in which Maddie and David addressed the audience and acknowledged that they had received a great deal of mail questioning when they were going to get it on or at least kiss. David wanted to do it right then and there but Maddie insisted that it wasn’t in that week’s script and she could n’t possibly indulge in such unscripted pleasures. This portrayal of a female character as unable to proceed without the sanctions of the usually male-manufactured text was excruciatingly on the mark but was depicted in a painfully uncritical manner. Nevertheless, the extension out of the narrative was a nice formal device and served to foreground the abstinence that stalks the genre. Some episodes of Moonlighting hopscotch from color to black-and-white and back, while others raise the meandering delights of the detective saga to new levels of lovable silliness.

The changes that the crime-busting mode has undergone over the past forty years show us how visual and literary forms develop in little fits and stops and starts. These alterations are both the impetuses for and the results of the times in which they were produced. If Maddie and David are the current “state of the art,” then hopefully we can look forward to a future where the pleasures of verbal and sexual reciprocity flood prime-time television; where the role of the sexy, devil-may-care, fast-talking but affectionate asshole can be filled by either sex; and where it is easily understood that two equally gregarious assholes are not only better than one but can solve the crime in half the time.

Barbara Kruger is an artist who writes. Her column on television appears regularly in Artforum.