For years, Illegal work, the late ’80s romantic/detective comedy starring Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd, was on many lists of shows that weren’t streaming and should be. Well, now it’s streaming. More specifically, it’s on Hulu. All five seasons are here, from the splashy TV movie that served as a pilot to the fourth and fifth rounds when the series huffed and puffed and rarely delivered like it did in the beginning. (Sometimes people say it’s because they “got together” as a couple and it ruined the show; this is factually incorrect.)
But oh, those first three seasons. Even in the 1980s, when network television was often too simply remembered as a formulaic formula and desperately in need of the reinvention that cable would bring, Illegal work was vivid, strange and experimental.
One reason was the stars. It’s immediately obvious why this show filmed Bruce Willis, probably best known at the time for being the guy who sang in a commercial for Seagrams wine coolers – talking about the 80s – straight to superstar status. He plays David Addison as an arrogant but insecure character, his ability to speak quickly both a method of survival and a lubricant that allows him to get through life without working too hard. Cybill Shepherd plays Maddie Hayes, a cool, rich former model (like Shepherd herself) who gets cheated out of all her money and discovers she’s the owner of a ragtag detective agency that was run as a tax write-off. Thus, Maddie and David become partners.
On the surface, it’s such a classic duo that it borders on cliché: he’s a vulgar and eccentric man-child, she’s an elegant badass, horrified by his shenanigans. But it turns out he has a soft heart, and she’s smart and fearless, and This part, you and I have both heard before.
But the execution, led by creator Glenn Gordon Caron, took an unusual form. Probably the most obvious precursors to this show were Hart to Hartabout a glamorous married couple who solve crimes, and Remington Steele, which tells the story of a woman who invents a fake male partner to give credibility to her detective agency. (The latter, moreover, did for Pierce Brosnan what Illegal work made for Bruce Willis.) The difference is that both, while certainly ironic, had a tone that remained largely tied to reality.
Illegal work, on the other hand, became completely ridiculous, particularly late in each episode when the climactic action sequences arrived. They include four identically dressed people running through a hotel to the opening of William Tell, a pie-throwing scene, and a chase in a hearse where the entire funeral procession is involved. (“David, we are being followed. By a many people.”) The dialogue was dense with jokes and puns; look at this rhyming sequence, which is thrown in without any explanation, and which is only funnier when you watch the poor actor’s mischief in the scene with Shepherd and Willis trying to wrap his mouth around it.
And there were also the format breakers. “The Dream Sequence Always Rings Twice,” a black-and-white episode presented by Orson Welles, was shot on real black-and-white film rather than just being bleached, and it is absolutely stunning to look at. The Shakespeare riff “Atomic Shakespeare” is playful and silly, but also clever. Stanley Donen (who directed Sing in the rain) even choreographed a dream ballet to a Billy Joel song for the episode “Big Man on Mulberry Street.”
But despite all the rapid-fire rants (this is the show that made me a fan of jokes) and all the experimentation, and despite all the production delays and rumors of on-set drama, what surprises me when I look back in these episodes, it was the effectiveness with which Willis and Shepherd could film together and play out real, touching, often very simple emotional scenes together, which coexisted with this farce and experimentation. They’re both terrific in “Every Daughter’s Father Is a Virgin,” a deeply bittersweet episode about a visit from Maddie’s parents, played by Robert Webber and Eva Marie Saint. They’re both great in “Big Man on Mulberry Street,” in which they deal with a never-before-seen episode from David’s past. And they’re both terrific in “Witness for the Execution,” which is about a difficult case they can’t agree on (and which includes a defining moment for their relationship).
Some things age poorly over a period of almost 40 years; in particular, David’s unabashed horniness is played for laughs even though it happens at work and amounts to sexual harassment towards his boss/partner. But the pleasures of this spectacle which burned very hot and very chaotic are worth revisiting.
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