On a recent episode of Thirst Aid Kit, Bim Adewunmi and Nichole Perkins explored the potent trope of Unresolved Sexual Tension. In this excerpt, they focus on a classic case of UST: Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd’s bickering detectives from the 1980s TV show Moonlighting. This transcript has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Nichole Perkins: Bim, why don’t you tell us about Moonlighting, since you are our resident expert and you can tell us why it is the definitive text when it comes to UST?
Bim Adewunmi: All right. So Nichole, picture the scene. It’s the late ’80s. I’m living in Lagos, Nigeria, with my family. And then one evening, I hear the smooth tones of Mr. Al Jarreau. I stop in my tracks. I turn around. I say: “What the hell is that? What is this music of the gods?”
Listen, Al really put his foot into that theme tune. I was hooked directly from the theme tune. And then I started watching that and being completely pulled in by it.
Moonlighting is a TV show that stars Cybill Shepherd and Bruce Willis, back when Bruce Willis had hair, back when Cybill Shepherd was one of the biggest stars in the world. It’s about this detective agency called the Blue Moon Detective Agency, and they are two partners. Cybill plays Maddie Hayes, and Bruce plays David Addison, aka bae. And it’s basically about how Maddie has fallen a little bit on hard times. She used to be a model, which, fair enough, in the ’80s, that was really what white women looked like. She goes bankrupt because her accountant embezzles a whole bunch, so a TV show that was telling you of the shit to come in the financial markets—I just want to say, what a legend, what an icon this show is. Anyway, she takes over this failing business, this detective agency. Then she meets David, and he is the one who is essentially heading that up. And they clash because they are so different in every way. And of course, in the clash comes the tension.
Perkins: This is very much an opposites-attract kind of thing, right?
Adewunmi: Nailed it. Listen, Nichole, I’m telling you stuff you already know because you also are a fan of Moonlighting.
Perkins: Yes, yes. I loved this show when I was young. Like you said, you heard the music, you immediately turned to see what was going on, on the screen, and then you have these two white people who are just like—clearly, they needed to fuck. They just needed to get together, and they would not get together.
Adewunmi: To the point where even as a kid—again, I can’t stress enough this was the late ’80s, early ’90s I was watching this. So I was clearly a child, and I didn’t really have a concept of what UST was. But I remember watching and kind of going, “Hmm, there’s something about these two.” And it’s only when you look back and you’re like, “Oh, my God. They wanted to do it so bad.”
Perkins: Right. It was very much like this playground situation that you tell your mom or whoever, “This boy pushed me down,” and then they say, “Oh. Well, that’s just because he likes you,” which is really fucked up. But Moonlighting very much had that, where they were constantly bickering. It was very early Hollywood. It was very golden age of Hollywood. When you go back and look at it, you can see the influence of those old Katharine Hepburn movies and things like that, where people would just, in order to flirt, be mean to each other and very sharp and kind of witty. But it was still, “Y’all clearly like each other, so why don’t you just kiss?”
Adewunmi: Yes. This is it. And you’ve nailed that thing about the wittiness of it. There was so much sharp, really smart writing. And it was so clear to me, even as a kid, that David was an idealized version of the 1940s guy. The modern update of these tough-talking hard-boiled detectives, people who would take risks, but they respected women and they had hearts of gold. It was kind of like an update of those gumshoe kind of detectives.
And the thing I really loved about it is it never felt to me like the writing on the show was talking down to anybody. It didn’t. It basically said, “Listen. If you don’t know what we’re doing here, step up your game and come join us on our level.” And as a kid, I remember feeling so accomplished whenever I would get a joke or an obscure reference, like, “Oh, my God, I’m so smart. I got it.”
And he’s part of the reason why I really, really like bald dudes. At an early age, I realized, “You know what? That shit is sexy.” Shoutout to Bruce. And so, until the day I die, if I see a bald dude, I have to at least give him a second look, like, “Hey, what’s going on?” Because of Bruce Willis. This is the power, guys, of thirst. It changes your whole thirst palate. But the thing that I really liked was that despite the idea of whatever rules that they had drawn around their relationship, they still flirted so heavily.
Perkins: Yes. And I remember being in the grocery store and seeing the tabloids that tried to say that Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd were actually having an affair in real life, things like that, because the tension was so good between them.
Adewunmi: Just unlike anything I’d ever seen, or even really seen since. It’s one of those rare, once-in-a-generation kind of “Oh, my God. I’m seeing something truly impressive unfold.” And a lot of the writing you do, you hope you have actors who give it life, right? You hope that they say the thing that you hope to showcase in the writing. And I think they really lucked out with Cybill and Bruce. And let’s not forget, Cybill was the biggest star at this point. I always find that really fascinating.
Perkins: Yeah. And Moonlighting was, as you mentioned, this kind of modern take on those old Hollywood sensibilities. But there were still these elements of old Hollywood where you have the two people arguing, and then she would slap him, and then they start kissing, and then whatever, whatever. So there’s still a part of that in Moonlighting.
Adewunmi: Yes, yes. In a big way. But again, these ideas kind of lingered. Anyway, I really liked the fact that Maddie was supposed to be this woman of the world. She traveled everywhere; she’d done everything. She was so chic. And he was kind of more rough-and-tumble. He learned on the streets. He went to the university of hard knocks in life. One of the great things that I really, really enjoyed about the show is that once it recognized that these two had such undeniable chemistry, it basically allowed the format of the show to really throw them together a lot more than I think many other genres would allow.
So they were often undercover, or they were in car chases—enough situations that kind of threw them together so that you could actually see that stuff in motion. And I did love the undercover episodes the most, I think, because it always felt like, oh, they’re playing dress-up, and maybe something will slip. Maybe the mask will fall aside just a little bit, and they can see beneath it, and then they’ll realize that these feelings are real and true and all that jazz.
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