Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Twilight Zone (2002): Overview and episodes 1 through 6

This is the second attempt at reviving Rod Serling's groundbreaking The Twilight Zone (1959-1964). While some episodes do maintain the spirit of the original, by focusing primarily on character, character development, and/or on some element of human nature, a number of episodes focus on their science fiction, fantasy or horror elements rather than on character or theme/morals. While these episodes might not necessarily be bad, some are even quite good, they are not necessarily TZ material. Examples of this are the good episode "The Pool Guy" (S1E9) which is more in line with The Outer Limits, or the terrible "The Harsh Mistress" (S1E9) which is more suited to Friday the 13th.

A number of experienced TV directors were involved in many of the episodes. This includes veteran Allan Kroeker (3 episodes), who had directed an episode of the 1980s TZ as well the season finales of three different Star Trek series (DS9, Voyageur, Enterprise), and the always pleasant actor, writer and director Bob Balaban (2 episodes), who directed the series pilot for Tales from the Darkside. Other long-time TV directors include John T. Kretchmer (5 episodes), Suicide Kings director Peter O'Fallon (2 episodes), and Brad Turner (4 episodes), who helmed a 1980 TZ episode while a directing rookie, and who has filmed a large portion of 24, along with ST:DS9, Stargate and its spin-offs, and an impressive seventeen episodes of The Outer Limits (1995).

The second season of the original TZ began a trend of presenting Rod Serling on-screen for the episode introductions. That same concept was borrowed here, hiring the talented Forest Whitaker as host. Whitaker was unfortunately not a great host, yet I would blame this not on the actor, but on production. While Serling was often filmed on set, sometimes filmed post production with a blurry camera pan making it appear he was amid the action, Whitaker was pasted onto the screen, photoshopped if you will, sometimes a little too obviously. Particularly during rain, grasping a useless umbrella. Likely his ultra brief intros were filmed in a studio over the course of a day or two, and the effect comes across as cheap. Of course times are different, and while Serling was fully invested in TZ, Whitaker was an employee and obviously wasn't expected to be on set. Moreover, writing for the host post was not done with Whitaker in mind, but rather the gruff, oddly eloquent and aggressively charismatic chimney that was Serling. Whitaker sounds too gentle quoting lines like "Chalk one up for the good guy," (S1E10) whereas phrases like these came off of Serling's tongue so naturally that they never felt written. Whitaker should have been considered more, and the intros and episodes would have been more effective as a result. I am glad that a talented black actor was hired to fill Serling's shoes, since the racial aspect is appropriate, in line with TZ philosophy, and would have greatly pleased TZ's creator.

In short, the 2002 Twilight Zone need not have been The Twilight Zone, but another anthology series of the fantastic. Mixed like most such series, it did not have its own consistent and unique feel that the original TZ, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Tales from the Darkside or Friday the 13th had, likely because too many industry hands were involved so it was no particular group's personal investment. There there were nonetheless a number of truly great episodes that are worth a watch, and the show should have been given a second season.

"Evergreen." (S1E1) First aired 18 September 2002. Directed by Allan Kroeker. Written by Jill E. Blotevogel. Starring Amber Tamblyn, Jesse Moss and Chantal Conlin. 4/10

"Meet the Winslows. A family searching for a way to control their troubled teen. How far they're willing to go will take them to a gated community who's address can only be found [dramatic pause] in the Twilight Zone."

There is a problem with the revival opener: it's not the family that wishes to control the troubled teen, but the parents. It would have been accurate to say that "a couple," since the troubled teen herself, as well as her clean-cut little sister, are just fine with the way she is.

The Winslow family moves into the gated community of Evergreen in the hopes of transforming their rebellious daughter Jenna into a respectful community kid. Yet Evergreen is creepy, a conformist society where nearly everyone dresses alike. And the sign on the gate reads:
Our children are our greatest resource"
which of course made me wonder if Jenna would become part of the weekend community barbecue, or perhaps used to fire up the gas stove or the car's engine. Resource is such an inclusive word. This immediate speculation is telling of how generic the concept has become, the utopian community that reveals itself to be willing to sacrifice its most deviant members for the good of the whole. Recently an episode of the Mick Garris creation Fear Itself, titled "Community," featured the same basic idea. The most recognizable dark community is probably from Ira Levin's The Stepford Wives, which, though dated, is nonetheless a good read.

The first episode of the new Twilight Zone is a "safe" one, an attempt to find fresh viewers while bringing in those adamantly faithful to the original by maintaining elements of the original show, such as the twist ending and, well, maybe only the twist ending. Everything about the episode is generic, from the basic premise to the story-line, the dialogue and stock characters, some of whom are completely non-descript, and you wonder why they are even there. They are there simply for plot progression purposes, of course, so that we can be guided to that final twist. Sadly, everything is molded toward that ending, conscious of the final great reveal, which is, truth be told, not at all spectacular. Whether or not we figure out exactly what makes children such great community resources really doesn't matter, because you have an idea of the gist of it all, and that inkling alone removes any shock or sense of satisfaction.

This is the first of three TZ episodes directed by longtime television director Allan Kroeker, who also directed one of the 1980s TZ episodes and might have been hired due to that link. Kroeker certainly cannot be blamed for the weak episode. Amber Tamblyn is fine as the rebel Jenna, but the role is so thinly written that a doorknob would have performed just as well. The gated community is pretty, very green, so at least we're offered something worth looking at.

"One Night at the Mercy." (S1E2) First aired 18 September 2002. Directed by Peter O'Fallon. Written by Christopher Mack. Starring Jason Alexander, Tyler Christopher Lynda Boyd and a pretty red rose. 7/10

His second day on the job, ER Doctor Jay Ferguson first barely saves a life, then encounters Death. An average looking man is brought to the hospital as a suicide attempt, having hung for twenty-two hours, and introduces himself as Death. Well, it turns out that Death is depressed due to the fact that he is responsible for killing everyone. Yes, every single person since persons existed. Talk about work-related stress. Unbelieving, Dr. Jay is confounded when the morning paper lists no obituaries because nobody has died that dead. Death has given up, quit his position and refuses to kill anyone else.

"One Night at the Mercy" is a surprisingly good episode. It combines ghost-like chills with a touch of humour, and its plot is driven by its theme. Unlike its predecessor "Evergreen," this episode is true to the original TZ concept, of dealing with issues affecting humanity and of individual sacrifice. It is also well written and directed, with some nice dim cinematography that adds the element of classic ghost story. The late night, power-disrupted hospital atmosphere is a nice touch. Performances are strong, with Tyler Christopher as Jay and Seinfeld's George Costanza Jason Alexander is excellent as Death, not simply adding a touch of humour to the role, but maintaining the depth of its crisis. Ironically, Christopher is best known for his lengthy stint on the daytime soap General Hospital, a fact most likely in favour of his getting the part. Moreover, before Seinfeld fame, Alexander also appeared in a hospital series, where the lead, played by Elliott Gould, was a Dr. Sheinfeld. This show lasted a single season in 1984-85, was titled E/R, and also featured in its cast George Clooney.

It's also aptly titled: what is the consequence of one night of mercy on humanity? Can death itself be a kind of mercy?

"Shades of Guilt." (S1E3) First aired 18 September 2002. Directed by Perry Lang. Written by Ira Steven Behr. Starring Hill Harper, Vincent Ventresca, Mari Morrow and Barbara Tyson. 5/10

On a rainy night, successful white dude Matt McGreevy is sitting in his car at the light, when a black guys appears, slapping his window and begging to be let inside. Matt freaks, drives off, and looks through his mirror to see the guy getting attacked by three men. It turns out that Matt is an upper-class husband and dog-owner living in a lovely white suburban and corporate world. Wife and friends do little to ease his feelings of guilt, which are enhanced when he learns that the black man was college professor John Woodrell who has published three books. Because this is The Twilight Zone, Matt begins to change, first showing scars such as Woodrell would have received from his beating, and then turning black.

Taken from the annals of the original series, which was a forerunner in anti-racism on TV, "Shades of Guilt" does not have the impact it would have back in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The idea is, of course, still relevant, because racism is, sadly, very much alive sixty years later, only mutated and modernised and, in the case of the suburban corporate landscape, often repressed. The episode means well, but suffers from being too obvious and predictable. The story is reminiscent of the disastrous John Landis production that killed actor Vic Morrow and two children during filming for the Twilight Zone: The Movie. Rather than being a vocal man of many prejudices, however, our protagonist here is an average white guy (as though all "average" white people owned such beautiful homes) whose latent racism comes to the fore. Unfortunately, there are a number of problems with the episode.

For one thing, the episode was made for white people. Matt is a sympathetic character who feels truly guilt for having driven off in a fright, so is not an obvious "bad guy." A risky but likely more convincing show of sympathy would be a true portrayal of the blatant and subtle forms of racism extant in modern society, but instead we have a wrist slapping episode for white people, one that shows Nazi skinheads beating on a suburbanised black man while a bystander white guy is punished. Why were the gang members not shown what it is like to be a visible minority? It would be better to remove one violent aggressor from the streets than to reform an average guy who just happens to be driving by during a racial beating. (Really, driving late at night and some guy starts banging on my car, black or white or orange, I can't imagine how I'd react, and do get that right: it's not an action but a reaction.) Note also that the black man, the good guy here, is a lighter shade of black, psychologically easier for the average white person to sympathise with since he is not as removed racially as a very dark man would appear to be.

TZ magic works in mysterious ways, I suppose, but despite being killed college professor of three books lives to write a fourth, and one upper-middle-class man can live long and prosperous lives while the rest of the world kills each other.

There is another point to ponder. When Matt shows up at the Woodrell's place begging for forgiveness so his life, ultimately, can be saved, Mrs. Woodrell is satisfied to let him get killed when he can't deny that he would have, on that fateful night, saved a white man. Essentially, the message here is that murderous vengeance (albeit in grief) is acceptable. Which brings me away from notions of race to notions of gender. The two lead men in this piece are presented quite sympathetically, and drive away like modern cowboys on horseback off into the horizon. The two lead women, though, are irrationally ruled by emotion. Matt's wife Hilary frustrates him when he tries to show himself up as a bad guy, and nearly kills him when he shows up as black dude John (who doesn't look in the least threatening), while John's wife Clare appears to us in a form of primal, bloodthirsty vengeance; I can almost see the blood dripping from between her teeth.

Of course I'm exaggerating a little, but the seeds are all there, and it's certainly food for thought.

"Dream Lover." (S1E4) First aired 18 September 2002. Directed by Peter O'Fallon. Written by Frederick Rappaport. Starring Shannon Elizabeth, Adrian Pasdar and John Reardon. 5/10

Working on the sequel to his successful graphic novel Sleepless City, Andrew Lomax is struggling, until he receives help from his dream girl, Sondra: a sketch of a beautiful woman he has drawn who has suddenly come to life. Everything is working well, until Sondra begins to flirt with the cable guy, drive into town, and essentially gain some independence.

If you stop to think about this episode, putting the pieces together, there are far too many holes. Andrew Lomax is unsympathetic, and his ridiculous bouts of jealousy quite silly. It also becomes predictable near the end (though certainly not at the beginning) because it becomes evident that is only one way for it to end. The episode is not terrible, as there are some nice camera angles, a nice location, some good initial suspense, and the beautiful Shannon Elizabeth is more than watchable.

The second of two 2002 TZ directed by Peter O'Fallon after the much better "One Night at the Mercy," it's the first of five scripted by Frederick Rappaport.

"Cradle of Darkness." (S1E5) First aired 2 October 2002. Directed by Jean de Segonzac. Written by Kamran Pasha. Starring Katherine Heigl, James Remar, Nancy Sivak and Jillian Fargey. 7/10

Andrea Collins is sent back in time to kill the child who will grow up to be Adolph Hitler. A simple premise, which of course challenges notions of time travel and the consequences of altering past events: should baby Hitler be killed, how can we be certain that an even more horrific crime would not transpire as a result, that an even more horrible person won't then rise to destroy the world? Of course this is all speculation, and time travel stories such as these require a good deal of suspension of logic. Toss the speculation aside, especially considering this is a terrific episode.

What impresses me most here is the quality of production, the gorgeous sets and great cinematography. A larger cast than we normally see in a half-hour episode, everyone does a great job alongside the beautiful Katherine Heigl (Grey's Anatomy) as Collins and the handsome James Remar (Dexter) as the madman's father, Alois Hitler. Supporting cast members do well, including the baby, who performs babyness with natural ease. The accents are inaccurate, inconsistent and even needless, especially since we already accept that they are really speaking German, and that the English is an illusion. Making them have accents is just ridiculous.

I found most interesting the characterization of the Hitler household, and especially of Alois Hitler. A hard, very particular customs official who takes liberties with his female servants. While much of what we know regarding the real Alois is speculation, there are no blatant inaccuracies, and with Remar's solid performance, the character is more dimensional than one would expect in a half-hour slice of historical science-fiction.Link
The first of two TZ screenplays by Kamran Pasha, who also wrote "To Protect and Serve" (S1E15). Directed by experienced television director Jean de Segonzac, who also directs the next episode, "Night Route," and the straight-to-video Mimic 2, along with many episodes of the various Law & Order series. Writing and direction are both strong.

"Night Route." (S1E6) First aired 2 October 2002. Directed by Jean de Segonzac. Written by Jill E. Blotevogel and Pen Densham. Starring Ione Skye, Dylan Walsh, Nicky Klyne and Emily Perkins. 7/10

Melina Kroner is nearly hit by a car, and soon begins to experience odd episodes, from a city bus seemingly following her to strangers recognising her. She refuses to believe that she has died, unfair since she is happy and soon to be married, and tries to escape that fate. Director Jean de Segonzac's strong follow-up to the (slightly) stronger "Cradle of Darkness" took me by surprise. not only did the end surprise me, but thematically the episode's simple message of live life to the fullest is nicely achieved. The episode plays out like a classic TZ, yet it manages to defy expectation.

A strong performance by Ione Skye is a plus, with good back up from Dylan Walsh (Nip/Tuck) as husband-to-be Adam. It's also nice to see some talented Canadians even though in bit parts, such as Emily Perkins, the lead in the great Ginger Snaps, and Nicky Klyne from Battlestar Galactica.


B McMolo said...

Fun overview. I'm thinking of doing my own and just casting about to see what all's out there in terms of the same.

Did you review any of the rest of the series? I agree - it might just as well have called itself something else (and if it had, likely people would just have said, meh, this is an unremarkable echo of the TZ) but some of the later episodes, when it hit a stride of sorts (I'd say discs 3 and 4 of the 6 disc set), aren't bad.

Casual Debris said...

Wow, somehow I totally missed your comment. I have gotten really busy so haven't been posting as much, as have been doing research on the original series so if I do get around to reviewing television again, I would likely do an episode-by-episode guide of that one. Otherwise I'm sticking mostly to books. If you do get around to posting your reviews, send me the link and I will link it to this article.


B McMolo said...

Here you go: http://mcmolo.blogspot.com/2016/02/the-twilight-zone-2002-2003.html

If leaving two links is kosher, here's one to an overview post where links to other Twilight Zone reviews (the original series and 80s one as well) can be found: http://mcmolo.blogspot.com/2014/09/the-closet-of-mystery.html

Hope you enjoy. I just had a look at the newer blogs you've been writing and have got to catch up! The ghost story and Horace McCoy posts were great.

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