I think we can all agree that television, culture and 20th century civilisation in general peaked in November 1986 with the first television screening of the rightfully beloved but rarely seen Atomic Shakespeare; this is an apex moment that we should be celebrating in 2023 rather than witchy festivals or ancient acts of sectarian terrorism. Yesterday’s freshly announced deal for streaming platform Hulu to be absorbed by Disney+ may well free up this American national treasure for the whole world to share and enjoy in our uncertain future, but right now, it’s the turn of the US to look back and marvel at such riches; how could anyone possibly be having a better time than you if you’re watching Atomic Shakespeare tonight?
The show was the subversive 80’s detective romantic comedy Moonlighting, and we’ll deal with a few other classic episodes elsewhere in the next few weeks, but let’s pluck out this particular one-off by way of a warm introduction; you don’t need to brush up your Shakespeare, or have any knowledge of Moonlighting to dig this 50 minute adaptation of William Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. Moonlighting’s attitude to its supposed remit of following a gumshoe agency’s LA investigations was so famously lax that pretty much anything goes, and aside from a vague Easter Egg referring to the way that characters slam doors, there’s barely a connection to the actual show other than the rampant chemistry between the leads, Cybill Shepherd and Bruce Willis, who drop the hammer on the Bard with some top-of-their-game performances here, from a script by Ron Osborn and Jeff Reno delivered intact by producer Glenn Gordon Caron.
The setting is ‘Padua, Italy, 1593, Or Just an Incredible Facsimile,’ as the subtitle reads. ‘Didn’t think I could pull it off, did ya?’ announces an insouciance-personified Willis as he strolls into town in top hat and goatee, somehow delivering his iambic pentameter with the rhythms and cadences of an RSC graduate; he’s playing Petruchio very much as the folio dictates, expect his horse wears a cool set of shades and has a BMW badge on its insignia. ‘I welcome thee to my humble digs, this be the cleaning woman’s century off,’ Petruchio man-brags with just the right degree of anachronism, only to meet his match in the form of the fair Kate (Shepherd) a firebrand feminist who doesn’t accept her societal position as suggested by her father Baptista (a game Kenneth McMillian) and is prepared to keep throwing vases helpfully labelled as ‘throwing vases’ until she gets her way. As the shadows lengthen on sundial watches, can Petruchio and Kate find a way forward between the sexes that balances the best and worst of their instincts? Of course, the answer is an unqualified yes; a marketplace test provides the evidence that even the most seemingly opposed forces can work it out together.
No ‘low-calorie diet gruel’, Atomic Shakespeare may well be the best popular Shakespeare adaptation bar none; it’s certainly the funniest. Midway through a five season arc, Willis and Shepherd absolutely kill it with their irreverent take on the archetypal feuding couple, with Willis’s raucous musical performance of The Rascals’ Good Lovin’ a notable show-stopping highlight, complete with a dancing Quasimodo; ‘I like a band that playeth the oldies,’ Petruchio notes. Willis was to prove himself as a singer (The Return of Bruno!) and as an actor, but he excels here as a comic opposite Shepherd, no slouch as a performer herself, nimbly milking the final argument about the sun and the moon for all its worth. ‘I have learned it from a woman and one with much to teach, thou art witness to a revelation, for myself too long in coming …For Kate never needed to be tamed, she needed to be loved.’ Petruchio concludes in a moving, surprisingly delicate finale that’s probably better than anything that even Shakespeare herself could have written. This critic’s vote for the best single episode of any television programme ever made, Atomic Shakespeare is streamable now, on Hulu, in the US, and you should cancel all other plans until you’ve seen it at least twice.
Atomic Shakespeare and all five series of Moonlighting are now, for the first time, on Hulu in the US. I’ll post up a link if and when it appears on other platforms worldwide, but it’s Hulu only for now. Thanks to Hulu for providing press access to this title and for the series.