Monday, March 14, 2011

Tales from the Darkside Season Two: Episodes 1 to 8

[Edited for formatting & new screenshots, 3 July 2011]

Season One begins here
Season Two continues here

Many of the first season directors and writers have returned for a much weaker showing; you would think experience with season one would have taught those behind the camera to produce better fare. Compared to the opening season, this one features less originality, less diversity, less creativity, while providing us with some truly poor acting. The first third of the season is consistently average to below average, with a couple of embarrassing entries. While there are the occasional good make-up effects, from Tom Savini and others, there is little to recommend in this batch of stories. The season does improve, but fails to meet the quality of the show's inaugural year.

"The Impressionist." (S2E1) First aired 26 September 1985. Directed by Armand Mastroianni. Written by Haskell Barkin from a story by M. Coleman Easton. Starring Chuck McCann. 4/10

Comedy club performer Spiffy Remo is an impressionist, his impersonations so canny that he is taken away from his show by a mysterious, steel-eyed government agent. He has been unwillingly recruited for a super duper secret mission, so secret that I can't tell you what it is, only that it has to do with aliens and greatly alters the life of our hero, and thankfully for the rest of us, puts an end to his comedy act.

An odd season opener, this one, but not in a good way. I don't think "The Impressionist" attracted many new second season fans. The problem is the story-line isn't all that interesting. It was written by Haskell Barkin, and is Barkin's third and final Darkside, following the first season's "Pain Killer" (S1E3) and "All a Clone by the Telephone" (S1E11). I appreciate the attempt at trying something quirky, but this one just isn't all that interesting. Comedian and voice actor Chuck McCann is average, while the rest of the cast is embarrassing to watch.

"Lifebomb." (S2E2) First aired 6 October 1985. Directed by Frank De Palma. Adapted by Michael Kube-McDowell from his own story. Starring Bill Macy, Robert Riesel and Samantha Harper. 5/10

Successful CEO Ben Martin is approached by an insurance man offering him technology that will prolong his life. The "lifebomb" is attached to the back with various sensors that, when the host is in danger, transforms into a cocoon to protect and administer medicine until help arrives. The episode follows an interesting concept and tries to act thematically as a reminder of the briefness and value of human life. The twenty-something minutes, however, prove repetitive, with some weak acting so that despite its strong premise, it soon becomes less than pleasurable to watch, which again reminds us of the briefness of life.

"Ring Around the Redhead." (S2E3) First aired 13 October 1985. Directed by Theodore Gershuny. Adapted by Gershuny from a story by John D. MacDonald. Starring John Heard, Penelope Ann Miller, Caris Corfman and Greg Thornton. 6/10

A lonely inventor is about to be executed for the murder of a sleaze, and tells an attentive journalist what no jury would believe: that a gateway opened to another universe and it brought him love. Based on a short story by prolific mystery writer John D. MacDonald, it is written and directed in the style of film noir, but often resulting in film 1980s. There are elements of the tongue-in-cheek, with everyone involved aware of how dated and silly the storyline is, but knowing it can still be fun. The story is predictable yet nonetheless enjoyable. Characters are stock, and there are some things more unbelievable than a gateway to other worlds, such as a man being convicted on death row and going immediately to the electric chair rather than having to wait locked up over the course of a few years. Worse still is that awkward moment right at the beginning with a very self-conscious actor playing a security guard showing what I believe is supposed to be disdain or disgust in the face of our hero. And finally, no one would believe the nerdy John Heard would be able to kill anyone. Some of the acting is a little stilted, though this may have been intentional, though Penelope Miller does a good job in her first screen role.

"Parlour Floor Front." (S2E4) First aired 20 October 1985. Directed by Richard Friedman. Written by Carole Lucia Satrina. Starring Adolph Caesar, Rosetta LeNoire and a couple of non-actors. 4/10

"I'm sorry. It was a pretty cat."

You know this one will be about voodoo or island rituals since there is a black man in it. Ironically, Romero did well himself in casting a black man in a non-race specific role in Night of the Living Dead, and continued casting colour-blindly over the years, and while he had little to do with casting here... but I digress.

[Warning: mini rant.] It is unfortunate that most Darksides casting black actors did so consciously, as in "Parlour Floor Front" and "Baker's Dozen," (S3E9) and while "The Satanic Piano" (S2E6) could have been played just as readily by a white cast, there was a kind of 1980s Lionel Ritchie pop sensation thing going on there. The only Asian actor, James Hong, was cast as a Laundromat operator, and later a Hispanic woman is cast as the poverty-stricken victim in "Payment Overdue" (S4E10).

A white couple recently bought a house in which lives a black man in the parlour floor front, who has an unbreakable lease. Turns out he does magic, white woman is evil, the cat dies and oh my god the curse was real all along. The only good thing about this episode, actually, is Adolph Caesar, and it is too bad he wasn't cast in more roles, non-specific race roles or otherwise. As for the white couple... the worst example of acting I've seen in a long time, and I am not surprised that the male half (John Calonius) has only one other credit to his name on IMDb. The female half, Donna Bullock, is so superlatively mean that it's difficult to judge her acting; how anyone would marry her is indeed the most complex mystery in the episode. The directing is not much better: there is a scene where soft white man threatens to leave evil white woman, empties out a drawer, grabs a bag that is really a tiny cloth suitcase and tosses a handkerchief or sock or rag into it, appear satisfied that he's prepared for a long journey, and noiselessly slams the cloth briefcase shut. That'll show her!

"Halloween Candy." (S2E5) First aired 27 October 1985. Directed by Tom Savini. Written by Michael McDowell. Starring Roy Poole, Tim Choate and Savini's make-up. 6/10
Make-up artist Tom Savini has returned for another turn at directing a Darkside episode, after having done a fine job with season one's superior "Inside the Closet." (He will return for the fourth season with yet another strong showing.) This year's Halloween entry is about old curmudgeon Mr. Killup who refuses to give candy to kids on the all important night and pays the price. Savini's masks and make-up are great, but the episode is illogical and unintentionally sad. While Mr. K is supposed to be getting his comeuppance for being so curmudgeonly, I felt for the poor, aging man, who does little other than nap, watch television and eat. "What else is there to do?" he asks his son. What indeed. Hi wife is gone, he's had no career and little in the way of interests, aside from the little TV. The poor widower is eking out his days to the last, and if he wants to be curmudgeonly and left alone, the choice is his right and should not be punishable by death.

"The Satanic Piano." (S2E6) First aired 3 November 1985. Directed by John Harrison. Written by Harrison from a story by Carl Jacobi. Starring Michael Warren, Lisa Bonet, Phil Roth and Felice Orlandi. 2/10

"What the hell do you know about sexy?" Warren snaps at teenage daughter Bonet. The image of innocence both here and the early years of The Cosby Show, actress Lisa Bonet would prove to be more than sexy (and little else besides) only two years later with her infamous screen time spent with Mickey Roorke in Alan Parker's Angel Heart. Such are the connections we make through visual media.

And we are forced to seek some frame of reference in order to stave off boredom in this lacklustre episode. Popular musician Pete Bancroft is experiencing composer's block when he is mysteriously invited by a mysterious stranger to a mysterious address to receive a mysterious offer concerning a mysterious piano. It has something to do with sucking souls and the musician's "I love you daddy! I wrote this song for you!" daughter is sucked into the sucky situation of an episode that simply sucks.

We do learn the important lesson that over-produced synthetic 1980s music is the choice of sound for the devil, soul music, if you will. Bonet is quite awful and Warren is simply irritating (he was at the time near the end of his long stint on the popular Hill Street Blues), but really they are stranded in a story with a script beyond bad. The set-up, during which we learn about the musician's woes, takes nearly half the episode, while the rest is fleeting, predictable and unremarkable. The music itself is painful generic 80s Faltermeyer-like. I can blame only John Harrison for the entire fiasco, as he not only adapted the story and directed, but also composed the music. This was the third of eight episodes he directed and composed the music for.

"The Devil's Advocate." (S2E7) First aired 10 November 1985. Directed by Michael Gornick. Written by George A. Romero. Starring Jerry Stiller. 6/10

Luther Mandrake, midnight talk radio host of "The Devil's Advocate," is more devil than advocate as he not only rants and raves about the unfairness of life, but does his best to drag his listeners and callers down. As with first season episode "It All Comes Out in the Wash," it's a kind of monologue or one-man show carried by a single actor, with occasional interruptions (in this case, solely by voices). Jerry Stiller is well cast and able to practice the all-out rage he later perfected as Frank Costanza on Seinfeld. These kinds of episodes are difficult to produce as they must maintain a single idea over twenty or so minutes while keeping viewers interested by mounting suspense and delivering quality mono/dialogue, with enough movement on screen to keep the audience watching. There are some nice touches, such as host Mandrake watering his plant from the cooler, spilling thick soup onto the voice modulator of his flashing console, and a zombie-like engineer who eventually falls asleep on the job.

The ending is not surprising but surprisingly sad since we (at least I) did feel a pang of sympathy for Mandrake. Unfortunately there is too much exposition and the voice at the end is somewhat unoriginal and even silly.

"Distant Signals." (S2E8) First aired 17 November 1985. Directed by Bill Travis. Written by Theodore Gershuny from a story by Andrew Weiner. Starring Darren McGavin, Lenny Von Dohlen and David Margulies. 5/10

Mysterious Mr. Smith appears with bars of gold, insistent that production on a 1960s detective TV show be completed. The show, "Max Paradise," was cancelled mid-season, yet evidently has a following far away. A cheap, poorly written detective show about a man seeking his identity.

I always like to watch Darren McGavin, whether as the dad in the wonderful A Christmas Story, the lead in Kolchak: The Night Stalker, or in his many roles in anthologies such as Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Tales of Tomorrow, but even he can't save the drivel that is "Distant Signals." He is well cast, though, a hearkening back to his portrayal of Mike Hammer in the late 1950s. The episode is all-too-predictable, with Mr. Smith's identity evident as soon as we see him. The episode is a simple affair, with false tension created by McGavin's sudden inability to rehearse, easily remedied, and his out-of-nowhere expository revelation of why the show was completed is just silly. Moreover, Lenny von Dohlen is too self-conscious as Mr. Smith, appearing like a kid in his first high school stage role.

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