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Atomic Shakespeare


As it is with most "Moonlighting" fans, this episode succeeds on so many levels that I hardly know where to begin.

First, there's the writing by Ron Osborn and Jeff Reno. "Moonlighting" creator Glenn Gordon Caron's usual procedure, if he had not written a particular episode himself, was to take the writers' final work and re-do it himself, if only to remove out-of-character moments or references. Caron has gone on record many times as stating that "Atomic Shakespeare" (written at his request -- in iambic pentameter, no less) came out so wonderfully that he did little-to-nothing to revise the final script.

As this is probably the series' most talked-about episode (at the time of its first broadcast and forever after), this is an easy claim to believe. Take away the ep's obligatory but few self-references -- as when Baptista reads aloud the scroll of Petruchio's demands, including "your own Winnebago and a chance to direct," at which point Bruce Willis snatches the list away and says, "Er, wrong scroll" -- and the script functions perfectly well on its own. (At least one website confirms that the script provided the basis for a high-school theatrical production.)

Then there's the acting. Bruce Willis' self-reference -- "Didn't think I could pull it off, did ya?" -- holds true for his entire performance. Even now, years after Willis' superstardom is a fact of cinema history, it's eye-popping to watch him sincerely recite acres of dialogue and duel convincingly in a sword fight -- but darned if he doesn't pull it off. And his final speech, which could have sounded like a mewling cop-out in lesser hands, is downright touching, as he convinces us that Petruchio hath -- excuse me, has learned the error of his ways.

Curtis Armstrong, usually the male dweeb in the often-overdone romance of Bert and Agnes, is thoroughly believable here as a peer of Petruchio's. When he recites his first Shakespearesque epigram -- "School and studies may one day bring home the bacon/But no profit grows where is no pleasure taken" -- you want to ask yourself, where did this mellifluous man come from? And why didn't "Moonlighting" take better advantage of him?

Cybill Shepherd is nothing to overlook, either. Her initially feisty Katharina is a terrific counterpart to the series' icy Maddie (not to mention a jibe at Shepherd's rep at the time of being a creator of disharmony on the "Moonlighting" set). As overpowering as she might have been in other instances, one has to give Shepherd her props for completely handing over the spotlight to Willis during his big "Good Lovin'" number (at which point she spends much of her time bound and motionless, with her behind to the camera). And she does Katharina's turnabout speech wonderfully.

Finally, Kenneth McMillan as Baptista is terrific. Prior to this episode, I had remembered McMillan best as Valerie Harper's feisty boss on "Rhoda," and as the inflammatory racist whom James Cagney puts in his place in the movie version of the novel Ragtime. Here, McMillan turns what could have been a jokey role into a character vivid with subtext -- blustery and macho one minute, cowering from his daughter the next. It's a fine performance.

Even what is considered the ep's "incidental" music -- by Alf Clausen, who has scored for "The Simpsons" and countless other projects -- is catchy and memorable. Listen for the recurring theme that plays during Petruchio's dashing heroics. This episode might be a parody, but Clausen's music plays it perfectly straight, and as a result, it's a television score that could probably hold its own with any movie music.

This was the seventh episode of "Moonlighting's" third season -- which, in my humble opinion, was the series' finest. (To cite just one piece of evidence, the episode just prior to this one was "Big Man on Mulberry Street," featuring the amazing musical number written and sung by Billy Joel, and directed by Stanley Donen of Singin' in the Rain fame. What TV series wouldn't have been proud to have either of these episodes in its history? And both of them appeared within the same season.)

When this ep was first broadcast, "Moonlighting" fans were anxiously waiting to see if David and Maddie "would or wouldn't." This episode temporarily resolved that tension (Petruchio and Katharina obviously enjoy connubial bliss) while "not really" doing so; in fact, in many ways, this ep's sexual resolution was more satisfactory than the one that ended up on the "real" series.

Fans (myself included) of comedians such as The Marx Brothers or Laurel & Hardy can pinpoint definite peaks in their careers -- before, to use modern cadence, they "jumped the shark" and the quality of their comedy dipped considerably. Similarly, "Atomic Shakespeare" has to represent some kind of peak for "Moonlighting." After that came the main characters' inevitable "bedding," the fourth season that Cybill Shepherd mostly deserted because of her pregnancy, and the quick downhill spiral that followed. I'll go so far as to say that if "Atomic Shakespeare" had been the series' final episode, it would surely have gone out on more of a bang than it eventually did.

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