Moonlighting, Season 3 Episode 11: Blonde on Blonde

written by Kerry Ehrin
directed by Jay Daniel
series created by Glenn Gordon Caron

(i had decided long ago that i wouldn't write reviews. but, hell, this deserves something as excessively overwrought as everything that follows. if you have a low tolerance for bad puns, melodrama and cliche, steer clear of this post.)

ever since the show went off the air, i always assumed that when i ever found my way back to the Blue Moon Detective Agency, my fave episode would be Atomic Shakespeare, Maddie (Cybill Shepherd, in full-on Cybill Shepherd mode) and David (Bruce Willis as we'll never see him again: with a full head of hair at the start of the series--which, btw, he lost progressively with each ep) taking on the roles of The Bard's Kate and Petruchio. ('Didn't think I could pull it off, did you?') but four episodes later (with, admittedly, a couple low-fizzlers in the mix), they knock my socks off with Blonde on Blonde, and a better summary of the show's conceit i have yet to find (or only rediscover).

we start off with what looks to be a pretty straightforward pea-in-a-cup mixer: a couple hot blondes playing off each other in alternating scenes to Janet Jackson's Nasty, both of 'em drop-dead gorgeous lookers. remember when MTV was edgy? already we have an idea where this is all headed: by the end of the show, both bombshells will have dropped killer secrets, but only one of them will have dealt Dave a fatal blow. (see?!? melodrama!)

the show always excelled in subverting all the cliches of hardboiled detective fiction (and other genres besides), and this ep does it better than most. in one scene, after having tailed Maddie to the neighborhood grocer's, we get an extreme close-up of Dave: almost flush with the slightly fisheyed lens, almost filling the screen, his cold, damaged eyes looming in the foreground. the perspective further diminishes Herbert Viola (Revenge of the Nerds' Booger, Curtis Armstrong) who stands earnestly behind him. Bert tells him some people in the office think there may be a 'personal thing' between their two bosses. does that have anything to do with what they're doing here?

'You have been laboring under a severe delusion, my friend,' Dave tells Bert in a pitch-perfect Bogeyesque deadpan. 'What we're doing is simply covering a fellow operative without said operative knowing what we're doing here.'

who does he think he's fooling? but he pulls a spook story about some terrorist escaped from a jail in Cairo who's heading out to La-La Land, pulls it right out his ass, fully formed like, as if he had Borges' library somewhere deep inside his bowels, and reels poor Bert in.

nevermind that Herbert 'Smaller than a cello, bigger than a violin' Viola eventually gets left behind and forgotten by Kerry Ehrin when, almost exactly halfway through the ep (if not halfway exactly) the switcheroo is pulled, and Dave ends up tailing the wrong blonde.

we saw this coming, we see this sort of thing pulled all the time, and if you don't take too kindly to knowing jabs in the ribs from the off-camera crew (even from castmembers throwing winks across the fourth wall), the whole thing will no doubt seem, well, laborious. as per the requirements of any ubermensch of the hardboiled genre, Dave has one of the worst nights of his life, waking up next to a dead body, jumping down two stories into a garbage bin, even landing himself in the joint. and in the end he'll be left standing in the rain.

for those of you who haven't seen the show, well, i'm not spoiling any more of it for you. but even for those like me who know how it will all end, there's a lot more to be found on a second, maybe even a third viewing. Glenn Gordon Caron hated detective shows, once even had his characters say there were too many of the kind on TV those days, but you wouldn't know it from the way everything is done here. the show is the perfect homage to the genre, taking the most familiar, most facile elements of hardboiled detective fiction, of pulp, using cinematography that harks back to the heyday of noir...takes it all and uses it as nifty packaging--that's right, damn pretty gift wrapping is what it all is--and it somehow isn't insulting at all. despite the pastiche/parody treatment, the genre is somehow elevated, and in the end the show uses those kitschy and cliched elements to tell an almost excessively romantic (despite always keeping its head down, low-key and, unlike this post, anti-melodramatic), startlingly humane--and yes, still somehow immediate--Story.

but maybe that's just me. i've been in love with Maddie and Dave since the first time i laid eyes on 'em, one dark and stormy Sunday* night.

*the show aired Tuesdays in the US, but i remember it was past bedtime Sunday nights back home.


Caitlin Kiernan's Alabaster

Ms Kiernan's writing sits comfortably on the shelf between Poe and Lovecraft, perhaps leaning with her ear held close to Lovecraft; albeit the stories she tells are character-driven, with non-kitschy prose and sans unpronounceable horrors with not enough vowels or too many consonants or both (or have i got it the wrong way round?) and without a hint of the word 'eldritch'. (i don't think i've encountered it yet, but you never know.) on a table (the sideboard loaded with sweetbreads and cornbread and raw fish and foie gras and tarts and gorey puddings and jellybeans--and is that a bottle of absinthe?) with Neil Gaiman seated at one end and M. John Harrison at the other, Ms Kiernan sits beside Neil, waving, perhaps, at Edward Gorey leaning in to say 'Halloo'; Elizabeth Hand is also at the table--she sits closer to Mr Harrison. the two ladies seem to be somewhere between the two, but that might only be a trick of perspective. they might be holding hands beneath the table one moment, or arguing over matters of natural history the next. Ms Kiernan might also have a place at Angela Carter's knee--Ms Carter's very modern, very hip teenage daughter, who just so happened to be raised in that strange land across the Atlantic. Michael Moorcock creates a whole other tangent with her work, though who sits on the other end of that particular line it's hard to say; maybe it's only Moorcock again, in Mother London rather than Eternal Champion mode. William Gibson, in Goth drag after listening to Robert Smith and Tom Waits all night, coated with the dust of paleontology rather than the junk of technophile sociology, might also be peering from some tenebrous corner.

of course, Ms Kiernan's voice is also very much her own; this taxonomy, or genealogy, is all mine (and, probably, subconsciously stolen from the literature map though i haven't been there in a while): a lazy way to describe what should better be experienced. i could drop quotes, but, like i said, i'm lazy, and while one line seems as good as another spoken in Ms Kiernan's beautiful voice, i'd rather you went and found them yourself.


Mike Carey's Hellblazer: The Gift

i may have mentioned this before, and anyone who has been following the adventures of John Constantine doesn't need me to repeat it, but here it is again anyway: every writer brings his own brilliance to John Constantine. i've never read Alan Moore's original, but there is an identifiable essence that ties each incarnation to the others.

still, each version is distinctive: in Neil Gaiman's hands, Constantine was always the Laughing Magician, a man of undeniable charm, unflappable humor and salty if obscure power, wielding a magic that seemed hardly typical of the word in fantastic fiction; in Jamie Delano's hands, he was a working class mystic, with a handyman's approach to magic, though his manipulations of synchronicity were more recognizable as the stuff of occult fantasy; Garth Ennis gave Constantine a harder edge by making his desperate entanglement in the war between Heaven and Hell more personal, more intimate, more visceral. Ennis also revealed the secret to Constantine's power: more than your typical magician, he is a confidence artist, and a bastard; Ennis' Constantine rarely cast spells, unless it were to bluff, preferring less occult means of deception. Warren Ellis portrayed a more typical hardboiled character with his almost stereotypically noirish story arcs; Azarello--i hear, not having read his run--made Constantine almost unlikeably ruthless.

i may have mentioned this before: Mike Carey struck a fine balance between Delano's mystic and Ennis' bastard confidence trickster. it is almost redundant to say that each time we run into Constantine, he is at the end of his tether, but while it may seem Ennis had done the ultimate 'John-at-the-end-of-his-tether' story with Dangerous Habits, it seems to me we feel it more acutely with Carey: while Ennis practically ground Constantine into dust during the course of his almost sadistic run in the comic, Carey's Constantine seemed ground from the get go: Carey's Constantine had already gone through everything Ennis and the other writers had thrown at him, seemed barely emergent from that dust--and he goes on to live through much more.

Carey's Constantine fit perfectly into the past--the life story--other writers had built for him. while he seemed to follow most naturally from Ennis' Constantine, it is easy to see this JC as the end result of everything he had gone through throughout the comic's life.

Carey's first Hellblazer story, All His Engines, seemed to me almost pitch-perfect in its portrayal of John Constantine and his world. from the very beginning, Carey had made the comic his own, as if he had been writing Hellblazer all his life. it doesn't seem surprising, then, that in the course of his run, it seemed at times almost as though he were only rushing through it all, racing through issues fast as he could to hit certain beats in the narrative, or only beat his deadlines and ultimately get to the end. almost as if he were bored with the comic, and only wanted to get it done so he could move on to other things--Lucifer, presumably, or his Felix Castor books. still, it pays to stick it through; if there's one thing Carey's good at from the narrative standpoint, it's in giving his readers a jolly good pay-off at the end of each story.

exemplifying this apparent impatience, Reasons to be Cheerful often read to me like a laundry-list of old characters, as John Constantine's children eliminated everyone who had ever known or only just met him--no matter how fleetingly. but more than this, as Carey approached the end of his run, he seemed almost hellbent on wiping the slate clean--in fact, he seemed headed in that direction even earlier, with Staring at the Wall, which ended with Constantine's memory wiped, the man wandering aimlessly through London without even his name.

in his final story arc, R.S.V.P., Carey even dealt a fatal blow to John Constantine's relationship with his one remaining friend, the one person who'd stuck through everything with him.

but Carey, thankfully, did more than simply 'wipe the slate clean'; with The Gift he laid down the bare bones of John Constantine the character, presenting a template for future writers; here is the 'identifiable essence' that comes through with each successful incarnation of the character. The story is now one of my three fave Hellblazer short stories--the other two being Gaiman's Hold Me and Ennis' Forty. in The Gift, Carey shows us just how well he understands John Constantine as a character, and, more than just a beautifully dark, darkly subtle coda to the tragic Down in the Ground Where the Dead Men Go, it is also a good place to begin for someone who has only just met the man both Heaven and Hell love to hate.

The Gift also shows us what magic is all about, what Constantine has always known magic to be all about, what--one suspects, one hopes, given the the subtelties of his Voice of the Fire--Alan Moore had always intended the character to say about magic: it isn't about casting spells, throwing bones or cheating the devil. ultimately, magic is legerdemain, sleight of hand; smoke, mirrors, turning tricks--perceptions. magic is about revealing the truth in the world by what appears to be the only truly effective means: deception.

in the end, we must face the fact that Constantine's talent for magic doesn't come from studying spellbooks, old religions, apocryphal texts, etc.; nor does it come from the blood of Nergal coursing through his veins; in the end, Constantine's good at magic for one reason: he's a right bloody bastard, innit? and the best bloody liar you're ever likely to meet.


INTERSTITIUM: this life, reimagined, revivified

i wouldn't have admitted it then, but when i dubbed this blog my 'other life', i had been rather obviously acknowledging what reading was for me back then: escape. while the aesthetic i frequently vocalized elsewhere never directly condemned reading as escapism, i had always consciously struggled to make more of my reading than there really was to it.

when i first decided i was probably a writer, it was because i kept finding myself dissatisfied with what i thought was all there was to read. Neil Gaiman's stories weren't as ubiquitous then as they are now, Michael Moorcock was near mythical, legendary in his abscence in our bookstores in spite of all i'd hear about Elric and all the other incarnations of the Eternal Champion; i hadn't yet even heard of either Mervyn Peake or M. John Harrison. and i'd grown tired of Tolkien and Lewis, the legion of clones they raised in their collective wake, no matter how brilliant i knew the originals were--and still are, for all that they are dead and constantly being reanimated and plundered.

like many of the decisions i've made in my life, the impulse behind the one that 'made' me a writer was at heart one of rebellion. a refusal to simply accept what i was being served.

to put it less dramatically, being dissatisfied with the great bulk of fiction i was being presented with at the time, i wanted to write things of my own, things i knew *i* would *want* to read.

as Banzai Cat once put it, i spent too much time wishing for a certain kind of fiction.

occasionally, i *would* get my wish. hence Peake in my library; hence Harrison, hence Mieville, hence VanderMeer, and Moorcock and Moore. hence even Eco, hence Ondaatje and Greene, hence Thomson and Durrell. hence James Salter, hence Jose Eduardo Agualusa, hence Anais Nin. but even then, i suppose, it's been true all along: that aesthetic, deliberately constructed though i thought it was, went deeper after all. reading wasn't all escape for me.

it was research.

it isn't that i was directly stealing ideas, though in some ways, it really *is* as bad as that. when i created, for instance, St Etienne-vaux-Grumm and Ruttage, sister cities to Troll's Vespertine from Troll's Doll--and Vespertine as well--i wasn't just re-inventing New Crobuzon, or Ambergris, or Gormenghast, or Viriconium. rather, from those cities--those writers, i should say, i.e., Mieville, VanderMeer, Peake and Harrison, respectively--i learned how i might craft my own fiction of place, structured and individualized on the most familiar landscape for a functioning autist: my own closeted imagination.

i am not, therefore, your conventional bibliophile. i cannot simply be told a story. i must be able to take more away from it than that; i must also in some way learn how to tell it the way you did, without necessarily making me a mere mimic--that must mean i must also somehow see myself in it. else there must be something in it i can twist, defile, corrupt, make my own. is it ideas i'm after? is it style? i'm not too sure, but i believe it's something subtler than that, more subliminal. in some ways, to the reader and writer who are fortunate enough to be 'purer at heart', more sinister.

blame it on growing up with Choose Your Own Adventure, if you like.

i am not, however, completely unaware that this in itself is a kind of escapism; the artist's desire for expression is in some ways another way of showing a failure to cope with--to confront and to ultimately accept--external reality. yes, of this i'm all too aware.

nevertheless, this, i've come to realize, particularly with my more recent choices, is why i read: i read for research. which is probably why it's a good thing i finished the first draft of spukhafte ferwirkungen, Sehnsucht, vom Geist der Schwere (pretentious title, ennit?) before i found Alison MacLeod's The Wave Theory of Angels, before I found Janna Levin's A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines.

it is, however, also quite probably a good thing that i found them when i did. what an embarrassment it would have been if i'd actually tried to get the shitty thing published, the state it's in!

i knew there was a lot yet to be done with the thing, but now i have a more solid idea of what i need to do, and what i've gotten myself into. sigh.

more on Ms MacLeod's and Ms Levin's books later. when i get my head around talking about them. rest assured, i *am* reading them, and though i make no promises, i *do* plan on attempting to semi-real-time review them--though it's a bit late for Wave Theory.

yup. it would appear that this other life is just about set for a revivification.