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She-Hulk: Attorney at Law is More Moonlighting Than Deadpool

CBR logo CBR 8/9/2022 Joshua M. Patton

The Marvel Studios legal comedy She-Hulk: Attorney at Law is a legal comedy series that is unlike another show for the studio. The comic nature of the series includes fourth-wall breaks, in which Tatiana Maslany’s Jennifer Walters is aware that she is in a TV show. Yet, before folks say she’s a safe-for-work Deadpool or point out it’s how meta the character was in the comics, She-Hulk: Attorney at Law owes far more to 1980s hit series Moonlighting than anything.

In 1985 detective series were all the rage. There was Hart to Hart, Scarecrow and Mrs. King, and a few others that paired a plucky gal with a slick-talking fella, and they solved crimes. The ABC Network wanted one of these series, and they tapped Glenn Gordon Caron to do it. Caron wrote on Taxi and Remington Steele when he was given a development deal by the Network. He never expected his TV pilots to be picked up for series, just delighting in the paying gig that allowed him to make, ostensibly, three made-for-TV movies. His cinematic approach to filming the Moonlighting pilot was the first sign that this show was going to be different. The next sign was its two lead actors: Cybill Shepherd and a pre-Die Hard Bruce Willis, in his breakout role.

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At the time, Shepherd was known best for her movie roles in films like The Last Picture Show and Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver. Meanwhile, Willis was a young gigging actor who had yet to have a lead role. Caron realized that these two actors were crucial to his vision of the show. Shepherd played Maddie Hayes, a former model who lost her fortune because of a crooked accountant. Willis played David Addison, the smooth, sometimes unscrupulous private eye who worked for an agency Hayes owned as a write-off. Eventually, the two join forces and solved crimes week-to-week.

However, Moonlighting set trends that television series still emulate today. Snappy banter delivered at a fast pace, the will-they or won’t-they dynamic between romantic leads, and the very concept of a show that straddles the line between drama and comedy. In fact, Moonlighting was the first series nominated for both Best Drama and Best Comedy at the Directors' Guild Awards in 1986. By the end of the series, the show was more comedy than drama, and the best jokes came via the characters, specifically Addison, addressing the audience.

When Moonlighting first debuted, there were no fourth-wall breaks in the show. Technically, the first time it happened was in Season 2, Episode 1, "Brother, Can You Spare a Blonde?" The shooting scripts for the hour-long show were normally twice the length of a typical script. Yet, because the actors delivered their lines so fast (and often over one another), the episodes notoriously came in under time. So, for the Season 2 premiere, Shepherd and Willis addressed the audience in character to welcome them back, then revealed, that they only did this because the episode was a minute short. The crew is heard in the scene as well, addressing the actors by their real names, though they don't seem to break character. They wouldn't address the audience again until Season 2, Episode 4 "The Dream Sequence Always Rings Twice."

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This episode is dedicated to the memory of Orson Welles, who filmed an introduction to the episode right before his death. The premise is that both Maddie and David dream about an unsolved murder from the 1940s at a now-defunct nightclub. The directors used actual cameras from the era, broadcasting the dream sequence in black-and-white. The first break happens in one of the show's famous "car scenes," where David and Maddie argue while driving. Scripts were usually written on the day of shooting, so the actors would tape pages to the dashboard to read their lines. In the scene, David says in response to Maddie, "Wait a second, wait a second. There's a page missing out of my copy of the script." It fits in the disagreement, but it definitely seems like a meta-joke referencing something that frequently happened during the filming of these scenes.

The best use of this technique was for laughs. In one scene, Maddie tells David she doesn't give a "flying fig" about something, and he says he doesn't know what that is. She looks at the camera and says, "But they do." Other times, David would reference the network not allowing this or that while talking to other characters. Yet, if they follow this blueprint, the fourth-wall breaks in She-Hulk: Attorney at Law may not just be gags, because in Moonlighting they often affected the story.

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There was no bigger fourth-wall break that impacted the story than the end of Season 2, Episode 18, "Camille." The episode featured two gigantic guest stars, Judd Nelson and Whoopi Goldberg, currently in Anansi Boys. Both of them broke out as stars a year earlier after their respective 1985 films St. Elmo's Fire and The Color Purple. Goldberg plays the titular Camille, a con artist. Nelson plays the crooked cop who wants to kill her. In the climax of the story, Nelson's character is about to shoot Camille, Maddie, and David. At the last second, the propmaster walks into frame, taking the gun because they "are on a tight schedule." The production staff then enters the frame, moving the sets and even taking the jewelry that some actors are wearing. Again, still in character, Nelson and Goldberg ask about the resolution for their characters. As Willis and Shepherd, also still in character, explain, viewers can hear someone telling "Mr. Nelson" and "Ms. Goldberg" their car is ready. Don't be surprised then, if She-Hulk features a cameo by someone like Kevin Feige in a narratively important moment.

The Sensational She-Hulk made the most of having a character who knew she was in a comic book, from striding across panels to escaping baddies through ads. She-Hulk: Attorney at Law looks to recreate that magic. But all the fourth-wall breaks, talk of "cases," and the fact that the show is blending comedy and drama makes it a spiritual sister series to the original: Moonlighting.

You can see how much Moonlighting and She-Hulk: Attorney at Law have in common when the latter series debuts Thursday, August 18, 2022 on Disney+.

Source: Moonlighting DVD Special Features

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