Moonlight was a TV show that ran for one 16-episode season on CBS, before being cancelled in the wake of the writers’ strike of 2007/2008. I saw it around the time of its original release, and have recently re-watched it in its entirety on DVD.
Meet Mick St. John, a vampire making a living as a private investigator in Los Angeles. Through his work, Mick gets in contact with online-journalist Beth, a person he actually tried to avoid having direct contact with, because of some stuff in the past.
While the weekly cases unfold and crimes have to be solved, Mick has to deal with his complicated relationship to Beth and with the ghosts of his past, including the wife who turned him and who he later killed.
Reading this plot description, no-one will feel tempted to accuse Moonlight‘s creators of originality. The basic concept is almost identical to the 1990s show Forever Knight; and Angel, which had straddled the same genre lines, had only just come to a close in 2004. And within a month of Moonlight’s premiere, Canadian television tried to revive the Forever Knight tradition by premiering Blood Ties, an equally ill-fated show that tried to twist the premise by partially swapping the gender roles.
There are reasons why this genre-mash is so popular. Vampires are often portrayed as lonely, as “loner” types, as people who have dropped out of time and out of society, forced to live their lives during night-time or in the shadows, etc., etc. There are a lot of parallels to the traditional noir vibe of the hard-boiled gumshoe, and even less traditional depictions of private investigators never fail to paint the fight for truth and justice as a pretty lonely one.
Moonlight uses this noir angle to a certain degree, especially in the earlier episodes. This is fitting, but the noir aspect – by its very nature – drains the show a bit of its vitality and momentum. That effect is heightened by the fact that the noir tone is fully in force in many of the show’s flashback scenes. I am not a fan of the generous way in which flashback scenes are used today, because they break the flow of the story more often than they help it along, and I feel that this is exactly what happens in Moonlight.
The show’s noir aspects have their limits. The fact that the show’s vampires do not have to shun sunlight completely, combined with the fact that the show is set in L. A., means that the show is often bright rather than grey. And the show-runners would also never allow the noir vibe to overshadow its charming heart-throb lead. Alex O’Loughlin (Hawaii Five-0) plays the musician-turned-vampire-turned-investigator rather competently. Initially, I was convinced that he had been miscast, and there is no denying the fact that he fills his character with far too much smugness in the early episodes. But O’Loughlin soon settles into the role and strikes a more balanced tone. Still, certain limitations in his acting abilities mean that early attempts by the writers to go for self-hatred and body-horror fall flat.
Early in the first episode, Mick can be seen injecting blood instead of drinking it (an idea used at least as early as Deathdream ). This fits in nicely with the fact that Mick hates his vampire existence. By injecting blood like a medicine, he categorises vampirism as an affliction he is suffering from. This injection adds to the self-hatred and body-horror angle. But as far as I can tell, the idea is dropped and never used again on the show. Mick is drinking blood from glasses, blood bags, and even humans for the remainder of the series. Maybe CBS intervened as they feared the blood injection might remind people of drug use. Or maybe the reason was that body-horror is not really O’Loughlin’s forte.
The rest of the cast is also good. Sophia Myles (Underworld) is a very good choice for the role of Beth, and Jason Dohring (The Originals; Veronica Mars) is particularly enjoyable in his major supporting role. In fact, there is a particular episode through which the writers manage to give his character some emotional depth; while their attempts to do the same with their hero lead often feels clunky.
Minor supporting roles are also well-cast (including Jacob Vargas, Brian J. White, Jordan Belfi, David Blue, Eric Winter, and Shannyn Sossamon), and the same goes for many of the non-recurring major roles in individual episodes.
The set design, etc., is decent, but the 1940s and 1950s flash-backs often do not look good. They are deliberately drained of colour to make sure the viewers understand that these are flashbacks, and they are very limited in terms of sets and costumes in order to not inflate the budget.
Where the show’s technical aspects fail is in the green-screen department, with some scenes looking decidedly worse than they should have in a 2007 production. Scenes in which Mick is cruising through the streets in his car are particularly bad, being reminiscent of 1980s cinema.
The show’s premise is good (if not new), and the weekly crime-solving stories are mostly good as well. Some of the early conversations in the show are painful examples of awkward exposition cramming; and that includes the dream sequence the first episode opens with, in which Mick – rather conveniently – dreams about being interviewed and telling all there is to tell about the life of a vampire. Painful exposition is rarely avoidable if you need to set up your own variety of vampire lore, but in this show it appears especially clunky.
There is something rather generic about the chosen lead constellation of the “broody male hero” and the “plucky female journalist”. It seems a bit old and lifeless. And in general, the show struggles a bit with its character relationships which seem uneven at times. It is a bit like the show was still trying to find its feet, but never got the chance to, being cancelled after just one season.
The back-story, which is rooted in some traumatic past event, also seems like a very generic idea – at least from today’s point of view, because I, for one, am a bit tired of every single detective/investigator on every single show having some sort of tragic past, etc. Also, this back-story (by necessity) involves many of those “budget” flashback scenes which I am not too fond of.
There is one particular season-arc that is too outlandish for my taste and does not work well. It is connected to both Mick’s and Beth’s past, AND it involves many of those 1950s flashbacks as well, so it gets muddled; and it becomes more convoluted the longer it drags on, reaching back into late 18th century Europe, and the arc’s conclusion is extremely unsatisfying. It ends with episode 12, and was possibly meant to echo through episode 13, of the originally planned 13-episode season. The writers’ strike of 2007/2008 torpedoed those plans.
Speaking of which: on the whole, certain developments of characters and/or relationships after episode 12 feel rushed at times, with not enough time passing between certain events. Or, if enough time has passed within the fictional world, the show fails to convey that fact properly to the audience. So certain storylines seem to develop in leaps. Again, a major contributing factor for this may have been the writers’ strike which hit the show at the end of its intended 13-episode season. With only 12 episodes produced, CBS brought the show back for another 4 episodes after the strike, altering the season’s balance.
The writers’ strike was probably also a major factor in the show’s demise. Like so many other new shows that were hit by the strike, it did not survive its first season. Some plot lines had been set up for a second season, but there is no dramatic cliff-hanger, so no reason to avoid this show because of that. It seems to me that the show runners saw the writing on the wall and tried to provide some closure even as they put some elements into place that could be used at a later point.
I would rate the show, overall, at just about 7 out of 10, with some of the earlier episodes being weaker than the later ones.
Even though it is a bit corny at times, there is no particular reason why you should avoid this show. But there is no particular need to see it either. If you are a fan of vampire/P.I. mash-ups, I suggest to give it a try.