Thursday, April 28, 2011

Ellery Queen (Charles W. Runyon), The Last Score (1964)

Queen, Ellery (Charles W. Runyon), The Last Score, NY: Pocket Books 50486, 15 October 1964. 165 pp
______. The Last Score & Beware the Young Stranger, NY: Signet Double Mystery (AE1307), October 1978. 158 pp

For detailed information on EQ and a bibliography of works, please visit World's Best Detective Crime and Murder Mystery Books.

As is now common knowledge, though kept from the public for many years, "Ellery Queen" was composed of two men, cousins Frederic Dannay and Manfred Lee (born Daniel Nathan and Manford Emanuel Lepofsky, respectively). Rather than creating a character, they created what has become essentially a brand, as the ever-churning EQ machine included innumerable novels, short stories, a still-running popular magazine, a TV series and several movies, along with a series of anthologies. Throughout the 1960s a number of young, up-and-coming writers ghosted as Ellery Queen. This was partly due to the fact that Lee suffered a series of heart attacks and was unable to work. Some of the ghosted novels were based on treatments that Lee had done, or at least begun.

The Last Score is considered among the strongest of these ghosted novels. It was written by little-known Charles W. Runyon (b. 1928), who wrote in a variety of genres, including three novels as Ellery Queen: The Last Score (1964), The Killer Touch (1965) and Kiss and Kill (1969).

In The Last Score, Adventure traveller and guide Reid Rance is approached by wealthy socialite May Gibson with a request to take her youngest daughter Leslie on a field trip through Mexico. Not wishing to babysit a seventeen year-old, Reid tries to evade the task, but alas cannot, since there would otherwise be no novel. While in Mexico he does his best to fend off the teen's sexy come-ons while teaching her proper behaviour south of the border, until one night Leslie disappears. It turns out she has been kidnapped, and Rance must go through one hell of a ride to get her back.

The novel is surprisingly well written, with solid prose, good character consistency and development, and an unusual amount of experimentation, which does lead to a certain amount of unevenness in tone, but also adds to the book's appeal. The first third of the novel is overly long and a little flat, as it consists of Reid fending off the feisty Leslie, yet once she is kidnapped we speed along through drugs, money, romance and a nice array of bad dudes (despite the acts of violence, I think real-life drug cartels would do much worse than this gang, and probably get away with it too). Surprisingly and even oddly, during the novel's last third the point of view shifts from Rance to Leslie's half-sister Karen Frankel, then to Leslie herself until finally, to cap off an exciting ride, for a few pages we are treated to the inside of El Delgado (the Thin One), our head bad dude, as Runyon escalates the drama with some stream of consciousness, wanting us to understand what has driven Delgado to the life he has been leading.

The novel's single greatest achievement, however, is Runyon's portrayal of a Reid high on some strong pot. Reid is forced to smoke while with the enemy, and his shifting thought processes are well recorded. Despite the accurateness of his descriptions and my assumption that Runyon has toked a little in his time, the novel does feature a clear anti-dope attitude, firmly entrenched in the belief that a little pot leads to a lot of heroin. There is a long lecture early on, with Rance doing his best to frighten the unconvinced Leslie away from her desire to try the stuff. Moreover, her kidnapping is a direct result of this desire. It is, of course, entirely possible that this anti-doping message was forced into the book by the publishers, so I won't speculate needlessly on Runyon's own opinions.

The Last Score presents us with a world of men. Reid Rance is a manly tough-guy with some good sense and a dash of sensitivity (and a cool name, though perhaps a little to Harlequin-esque). He falls not for the hungry, attractive Leslie but prefers the challenge of her older half-sister, sexy feminist journalist Karen Frankel. Other men are tough but lacking Rance's firmly established sense of morality, from the colourful bad guys to the deadly Delgado and the competent Mexican Lieutenant we meet later on. Rance is set up early on in contrast with his standard clients, all pretend men who want a week or so away from their urban nine-to-five selves in order to play tough toreador or crocodile hunter. Rance is the real thing, along with the heart of a noble gentleman.

And though the women can be feminists they remain mostly feminine. Karen learns to drop much of her feminist front and lets her hair down (figuratively as well as literally), becoming more and more feminine and clearly falling for good man Reid.

Credit goes to Runyon for including a few solid good Mexican men and therefore avoiding stereotypes, from Felipe, the youthful victim of the American dream, to the sympatheric cab driver Salvador and the focused Lieutenant who helps save the day. Moreover, [spoiler alert] we learn that villain El Delgado is actually American.

There are no real surprises with how the novel ends, but a quick and fun read it is. Shortening it down to novella length would make for a great read, but with the extra padding The Last Score remains an interesting contemporary exploration of the 1960s culture of marijuana as well as gender. Though nothing like a textbook, it's good to explore these themes in context of a little adventure story.

In addition, one of the great things about this book is the list of characters. Strangely though, some of them contain, or imply, spoilers. My three favourites:

Reid Rance: This travel agent's moment of truth lasted a lifetime.
May Gibson: Fate took care of her three husbands, but her daughters were another cup of tequila.
Karen Frankel: A cold cookie, but Reid crumbled her.

Overall some fine, fun stuff. 6/10

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Prairie Fire, Spring 2010

Prairie Fire, Spring 2010, vol. 31, no. 1. 136pp
Edited by Andris Taskans

Over the past couple of years my standard response to most literary journals is that while the overall quality of the writing is quite good, only two stories (commonly the first two) are really worth reading. The problem is not only in the stories themselves, but in that there is usually a tiring sameness to the stories collected in any given journal, so that a story that might be more appealing amid a wider ranging collection, can never gain any form of autonomy amid its kin. Imagine painting a blue tree on a blue wall: the shades might be different but the overall effect is not terribly distinct. This particular issue of Prairie Fire is an exception to the trend, and while the first two stories were clearly the strongest of the bunch, others proved more enjoyable than I'd anticipated.

There are similarities between some of the stories: two feature decapitations, two have young narrators, two have doctors, two have chickens... Truth be told there is more diversity in content than is usual, and this was refreshing. I have many partially-completed journals, both literary & genre, lying about my study & bedroom, so that completing any one feels like a rare accomplishment. Sure there were the standard thematic elements, but the idea is to produce common ideas (for what ideas are truly original?) in less than common form of expression, whether an interesting story-line, creative structure, good humour or interesting characters. This issue was a breeze to read; there was only one story I didn't care for and couldn't finish in a single sitting.

As with many of these journals, the binding and cover are quite attractive and these slim books look quite attractive on a bookshelf. I felt terrible when I knocked some water onto my desk which led to the crinkling of a few back pages; I normally take such good care of my books (all my things, really) that it almost hurts to feel the wrinkled pages between my fingers.

As per usual I will review the fiction only, though I will make mention of a poem I quite enjoyed: "This Poem Permanently Removes Hunger" by Jesse Patrick Ferguson.

"Søren and Regine" by David Bergen. As a teenager I was awed by Søren Kierkegaard's 1843 work Either/Or, and from his work I became curious about the man. David Bergen paints a vivid portrait of Kierkegaard in light of his love for Regine Olsen. Tremendously absorbing in all respects, the narrative itself is vivid and smooth, yet what works particularly well is the interwoven notion that Kierkegaard believed you can accurately speculate about a person's inner state by examining their exterior appearance, and climaxing the piece with a brief description of a portrait of Regine and a photograph of Søren which essentially debunk the philosopher's idea. Here Kierkegaard appears at once charming and destructively obsessive, and the portrait is apt. This is my first work by Manitoba author Bergen, whose 2005 novel The Time in Between was shortlisted for the prestigious IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. 8/10

"Mazing Grace" by Michael Van Rooy. "Dad robbed banks." As implied by this opening line and the unusual title, "Mazing Grace" is a fun read. It's the story of a teenager's impressions of his father, old family tensions and the solid framework of a family that leads to a small sacrifice in order to gain something of utmost importance. A short piece with good, brief sequencing and a well-rounded storyline. Michael Van Rooy received the 2008 John Hircsh Award for most promising Manitoba writer, and also serves on the Prairie Fire Board of Directors. 7/10

"Locusts and Honey" by Billie Livingston. A young woman tells of the decline of her less than stable uncle. The repetition of their similarities can reveal much about the narrator, evoke a kind of threat, but doesn't really. Ultimately the story has less and less to do with the narrator, a direct result of the plot taking over from character three quarters of the way through, and assaulting the reader with plenty of hard-edged scenes. Overall well written, but it fell apart for me after the mid-way point. 6/10

"The Persistence" by D.W. Wilson. A man returns to his home town and finds construction work with an old friend who was once his employee. He is still getting over his divorce to a painter who has recently remarried. Well written but too long and too dull. 4/10

"Lake Vostok" by Mary Thaler. Judy arrives at Lake Vostok in Antarctica to supervise some deep ice drilling, but really she is there in search of an old friend who has disappeared. Thaler's bio claims she is at Université Laval, "where she studies the biology of microscopic plankton in the Arctic Ocean." I liked the fluid writing and the science, but didn't care for the characters. In fact, I was surprised the scientists in the story are such good writers, at least the missing one who had left all those notes and recordings behind; the scientific dissertations at Laval U must be among the most poetic. 6/10

"Alice" by Lucie Moeller. In the bed of a city hospital lies Alice, a young heroin addict. Alice is being treated by young Dr. Henry Nolan, who at some point will have his notion of the Hippocratic oath challenged. This story kind of snuck up on me. The first two pages were agony, and my brain was heatedly crying out, "Why do I read these damn things!" The characters were flat and I just couldn't fall into the trite mesh of sympathy the story was begging for. Feel for me! it called, Feel for US! And before I knew it my interested was triggered, and then, of all things, I was enjoying the story, until finally I was caught blatantly sympathizing. Damn it! I was tricked; even that final sentence pricked some fibre in my heart muscles. Nicely done, Ms. Moeller. I applaud your work. But did you have to name her Alice? Alice's Adventures Through the Looking Glass and Alice in Wonderland, along with Jefferson Starship and Go Ask Alice. I get it! I might have sympathized a tad more if her name were, say, Bella. Or even Lucie. 6/10

"Just Pretending" by Lisa Wilson. A tragic coming-of-age story alternating between two scenarios: the seven year-old farm girl who witnesses the red rooster's head being lopped off, and the fourteen year-old girl who strikes up a romantic relationship with Joe Jackson, the university student she meets online. Overall a good story, though I didn't feel that all its separate components were properly melded together, that the notion of pretense was more a side-bar than an integrated thematic point, and the fact that the title is linked to a theme rather than a more concrete story component only strengthens this impression. The tone seems at times to shift, and I can't figure the age of the narrator and how distant she is from the experiences she is relating. Aside from these points the writing is smooth, the characters well realised and the story generally well written with some nice touches of humour. 6/10

"Shelterbelt" by Amber Hayward. A boy runs along along the shelterbelt beside the family farm, instances of his short life flashing by him in second person. A believable boy written by a woman (or a man named Amber) in familiar situations, everything from lacking friends, moving house, sibling relationships and first kisses. Despite the familiarity I enjoyed this short bit of fiction (not quite a story); it is well written and I found myself capturing each detail clearly in my mind's eye. This ability, of course, is not of my keen sense of visualization, but rather of the author's ability to detail scenes so that they become vivid in and of themselves. Moreover, I love that word "shelterbelt" and think I'll order a shot of it at the bar tonight. 7/10

[I must admit I did not care for the killing of the kittens, and the fact that they were decapitated struck me as odd. So odd I tried to picture it, and seeing the fluffy things stretched out on the chopping block was too much for me. And then I wondered why we have back-to-back animal decapitation stories, which of course reminded me of Horacio Quiroga and "The Decapitated Chicken," and from there my thoughts just deteriorated.]

"Bush Country" by Niall Fink. [Spoiler: No heads are lopped off in the course of this story.] Two Alberta field pipeline workers drive deep into desolation seeking a possible goldmine. At one point Mack wields a chainsaw and I thought for an instant that his partner's head would roll along the ice. My imagination wasn't deterred by the fact that the partner is the narrator telling the story after the fact. Though no heads roll some characters do, in a sense, lose their heads, and rather than a wealth of treasure, Mack finds little more than a reflection of himself. While the story wasn't bad and I found the setting both intriguing and well realised, I wanted something more than what I would expect from a story of this kind, and it offered nothing beyond my expectations. 6/10

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Tales from the Darkside Season Two: Episodes 17 to 24

[Edited 30 July 2011: cleaned up text & new screenshots.]

For the review of episodes 1 through 8, please click here.
For the review of episodes 9 through 16, please click here.
Season One begins here.

The final third of season two is much improved over the first two-thirds. Overall, the season was a mixed affair. Some ideas had good potential but the scripts were simply weak. Often, rather than using a nifty idea to make something memorable, the show resorted to adapting original ideas as sitcom-quality comedies that were desperately crying out: "Look how neat and funny I am," when in fact they were not. The show spent much of the season masquerading as Tales from the Darkside, while it was being presented as Tales from the Sillyside.

It did not help that the quality of the acting was well below average. Gone were the many neat casting roles of season one (though we did have some fine performances from the likes of Marie Windsor, Abe Vigoda, Jerry Stiller, Coleen Gray and Susan Strasberg), replaced by actors whose careers spanned less than ten television appearances. Granted, the comedic horror that the show spewed out on a nearly weekly basis did not allow many of the actors to perform in any notable way, but even in serious episodes such as "Parlour Floor Front" (here I'm referring to the two homeowners; Adolph Caesar was quite good) the "serious" acting was two-dimensional.

There were some long gaps between episodes, with no episode airing throughout March and April; the final episode aired nearly two months following its predecessor. I'm not sure why this was. Perhaps they were contracted a maximum of twenty-four episodes and at season's end stretched them out as special events while running re-rums or giving another show a chance to perform better. Or perhaps the producers were late in delivering the final episodes. All this, of course, is just speculation.

The strongest episodes from Season Three are: "The Last Car," "A New Lease on Life," "Effect and Cause," "Ursa Minor," and "Dream Girl," while other half-decent episodes were "Ring Around the Redhead," "The Old Soft Shoe," "The Devil's Advocate" and "The Shrine." The rest are forgettable or very close to it.

"The Shrine." (Episode 17: first aired 9 February 1986) Directed by Christopher T. Welch, written by Jule Selbo from a short story by author/editor Pamela Sargent. Starring Lorna Luft, Coleen Gray, Virginya Keene, Janet Wood and Larry Gilman. 6/10

Christine Matthews (Judy Garland's daughter Lorna Luft) returns to visit her mother (no, not Judy, but veteran Coleen Gray in her final screen role) after a six-year absence. Things are awkward between the two women, with tensions that have been present yet repressed for many years. We learn quickly that Christine has suffered a nervous breakdown and is convinced that her mother believes she is a failure. The creepy element is that mom has turned Christine's bedroom into a shrine, and in the late and early hours a little girl's voice can be heard in the room.

There are some creepy moments; just the idea of seeing yourself again as a ten year-old is enough to send anyone over the deep end. There is also a wonderful opening sequence that makes sense only after having watched the entire episode. Late on a stormy night Christine is knocking on the door, calling out to her mother: "Mother! Mother!" But her mom is asleep in the kitchen chair. We also hear a distant little girl's voice calling "Mommy!" and mom awakens, but instead of heading for the door to let Christine in from the rain, she heads to the stairs leading to the bedrooms, and the shrine. A truly nice, subtle touch.

This is also among the rare Darkside episode featuring an unambiguous happy ending, so I suppose that makes it unpredictable. The opening is well done and it's fairly well written, though the ending drags a little and there is a seemingly useless scene with Christine's brother (Larry Gilman), a character exposition scene that could have been written for her friend Toni (Janet Wood) instead: the episode deserves an all-female cast since the highlighted relationships are between mother and daughter. Aside from Coleen Gray the acting is fairly standard, though the roles don't require anything too elevated. Despite these intrusions I did enjoy this one for the most part, glad when the show tried to do something a little different, or at least do it a little differently.

"The Old Soft Shoe." (Episode 18: first aired 16 February 1986) Directed by Richard Friedman, written by Art Monterastelli. Starring Paul Dooley, John Fiedler, Kathy McLain, Dorothy Parke and Patrick Farrelly. 6/10

"No I'm not with some cheap floozie,
I'm in some creepy motel for God's sake
Travelling lingerie salesman Chester Caruso (Paul Dooley) is stranded in a cheap motel owned and operated by eccentric Arthur (the always lovable John Fiedler). There is only one room remaining, which Arthur is mysteriously unwilling to let, though an ten bucks is all the convincing he needs. In this room is beautiful ghost Glenda (Dorothy Parke), who believes that Caruso is a man named Harry. The rest is mostly predictable, though not necessarily bad.

The humour is at times painful, though the scene with Fiedler entering the room with a shotgun is amusing simply because it's reminiscent of the Warner Brothers hunter of bunnies Elmer Fudd, who Fiedler oddly resembles. (I wonder if this was intentional.)

The additional story explanations given at the end, Arthur's confusion about the odd events in cottage number 7 just don't make any sense. [Spoiler] Arthur is at first unwilling to rent the cottage out, though keeps the key in full view, and knows full well it's the room his father was drowned in, yet seems unaware and even shocked to learn of the room's unusual occurrences.

Finally, the title "Old Soft Shoe" is a reference to Caruso's soft dance steps, yet his tango is awkward and I can't imagine him ever competing in ballroom (I'm saying this as someone with experience). However, Caruso/Dooley is truly smooth in his approach with women, or so he thinks. Married and seemingly faithful, though flirtatious and wanting so much to be the womanizing road warrior, he is at the end of the day an old soft shoe, a slipper really, lacking danger, mystique and likely not a real threat of infidelity.

A special note on the cast, since each member does an honestly good job with this fairly generic ghost story. Dramatic and comedic character actor Paul Dooley, who was a stand-up comic for many years fits his soft shoes well. John Fiedler has been in just about everything, from 12 Angry Men to Star Trek and Kolchak: The Night Stalker, two The Twilight Zone episodes ("The Night of the Meek" and "Cavender is Coming") as well as two AHP episodes, including the popular Henry Slesar scripted "Incident in a Small Jail." Torontonian Dorothy Parke is simply lovely, and it's too bad she hasn't appeared more on screen. Non-actor Patrick Farrelly with the bit part as the sheriff was among the call-in voices in the episode "The Devil's Advocate."

"The Last Car." (Episode 19: first aired 23 February 1986) Directed by John Strysik, written by Michael McDowell. Starring Begonya Plaza, mary Carver, Louis Guss, Scooter Stevens and Bert Williams. 8/10

Young Stacey is heading home for Thanksgiving, and finding the train awfully crowded, makes her way to the peaceful confines of the last car. "Why is it so empty back here?" she muses, and the friendly old lady tells her it's because the furthest car sways the most, which many find uncomfortable. Stacey settles into a seat, and besides herself and the friendly older lady, the car is occupied by a young boy and an old man. Everyone is a little too agreeable, a little slow even, not the sharpest knives in the drawer.

And then there are the tunnels...

What makes this such a strong little play is not the shocking ending, since we can quickly figure out what's really going on, but the odd characters, each of whom are well portrayed, and those creepy little tunnel episodes. The surreal bits, from the Old Man's replenishing lunch box to the Boy's changing costumes and Mrs. Crane's quick knitting, are all excellent additions to something that could have been just bland, but is happily creepy. Director John Strysik has helmed some of the better Darkside episodes so far, with "Anniversary Dinner" in the first season and "A New Lease on Life" earlier in season two. Here he succeeds in directing the strongest episode of the season.

Members of the cast do a good job all around. Colombian actress Begonia Plaza as Stacey; Mary Carver (Mrs. Cecilia Simon of Simon & Simon) as Mrs. Crane, Louis Guss I thought great as the zombie-like yet strangely sympathetic Old Man; Scooter Stevens is a fine freckled Boy; and Bert Williams is nicely smiley in his brief turn as Conductor.

"A Choice of Dreams." (Episode 20: first aired 4 May 1986) Directed by Gerald Cotts, written by James Houghton from a story by Edward F. Shaver. Starring Abe Vigoda, Ralph Monaco, David Chandler and David Glen. 6/10

"Don't just stand there! Get me a bottle of scotch!"

Mobster Jake Corelli has just learned that he is dying. Having lived with more power than most can imagine, and more money, Corelli is nonetheless impotent in this new twist of events. The doctor makes it clear that he will die, and that the cancer he has will prove to be excruciatingly painful. Yet a mysterious scientist calls on Corelli with an offer of salvation through Afterlife, an invention that offers a kind of immortality: the ability to spend eternity with the happiest of his memories. Of course this comes with a hefty sum, which Corelli is able and willing to pay (for otherwise there would be no episode).

"What are you, some kind of hippy undertaker?"

Like most Darkside episodes I found this to be predictable, yet I did enjoy the progression, the quiet meditation and the suffering Corelli. The wonderful Abe Vigoda is in fine form in this episode, as is Ralph Monaco as right hand man Angelo. The others are a little weak and the laboratory set is less than impressive, but Vigoda and a few good one-liners prevent the episode from ever getting dull.

"Strange Love." (Episode 21: first aired 11 May 1986) Directed by Theodore Gershuny, written by Edithe Swensen (see below at "The Unhappy Medium" for comments on Swensen). Starring Harsh Nayyar, Marcia Cross and Patrick Kilpatrick. 5/10

A vampire love triangle. (The title, "Strange Love," is out of place in an era when love between mortals and vampires is, unfortunately, all too common.) In 1935, vampire Edmund Alcott drags physician Philip Carrol to the aid of his wife Marie who has broken her knee while dancing. We learn that times are tough and it's hard to find good, clean blood (it is, after all, during the Great Depression), so the doctor is essentially held captive and should do nicely for supper. Complications arise when the good doctor and his patient start developing feelings for each other. (Personally I find this odd, since though I love meat, I've never fallen for my steak enough to want to spare it, let alone make out with it.)

Yet that is only one of several problems with this ill-thought-out episode. The first main problem is that a superhuman vampire suffers a serious injury so easily (you'd think after hundreds of years of practice they'd be able to get their steps down). Yet they are desperate for a doctor to come and care for the wound, whereas the knee heals all by itself in no time. (But what the hell, we have a set-up for romance, don't we?) The second main problem is the choice of costume and make-up: we learn on sight that these archetypal figures are bloodsuckers, so that when the fangs are revealed there is absolutely no surprise. (Alcott is evidently modelled after Bela Lugosi.)

A dull and predictable episode, which would have ended better with an additional twist: Marie turns out to be have been the one to turn Edmund, hinting that every half-century or so she seeks a new mate, tired of the old. But that was not to be and so our generic ending remains for all eternity. (Like a vampire this episode is, sucking the universe of logic and good sense.)

It can be argued that, though the good doctor is turned into a vampire, this is a happy ending since they find love, while the evil vampire dies. I must add that there is an additional attempt at making Marie likable by revealing that she does not drink human blood, only the blood of animals. (Something much touted as of late with a ridiculously popular vampire series.) Edmund is made so unlikable (and unattractive) that one wonders what Marie ever saw in him, and I must add that versatile Indian actor Harsh Nayyar is a little irritating in this role, while Patrick Kilpatrick is a wuss who later becomes demented, it seems.

The best thing about this episode is the elegant and beautiful Marcia Cross, who delivers a fine performance made better by her absolutely wondrous knee.

"The Unhappy Medium." (Episode 22: first aired 18 May 1986) Directed by Dusty Nelson, written by Edithe Swensen. 2/10

Televangelist Farley Bright (Peter Miller) is dead and three people are gathered to view his video will (appropriate for someone who has made his fortune through the medium). His sister Caroline (Connie Stevens) wants the estate and to amass an additional fortune by taking over the business; associate Jonathan Reed (Richard Kuhlman, who is to appear in a season four episode) wishes to take on the role of tele-preacher; niece and Caroline's daughter Jenny (Carolyn Ann Clark) wants to donate the money to a humanitarian cause.

This is the second straight episode penned by Edithe Swensen, and the third in the series from a total of ten Darkside episodes. As the show progresses, Swensen will go on to prove that her attempts at humour tend to fall flat. Her first season episodes are lighter affairs, dealing with tricksters who lose the fight against good, and in this sense her scripts generally have happy endings. Of the first three this is by far the weakest, though none are good. Still early in her career, Swensen will go on and write some fine television, with six episodes of Monsters, one for Star Trek: The Next Generation, and five episodes for the excellent Odyssey 5.

There isn't much to say about this one. The evangelist is caught in limbo with the devil chasing his tail, and he uses Jenny to tell everyone (including the bored viewer) what's really going on, and to yell some threats out. Hence the title, as Jenny is an unhappy medium. Kind of like a puppet on strings. Characters open doors that look into Heaven and Hell, and all we see are smoky neon lighting, with Hell in red and Heaven in an odd, cold blue rather than a warm gold. The ending is silly but then again so is the beginning and those parts in between, and the only thing worth watching is that brief moment when Connie Stevens struggles with a painting, believing there is a safe hidden behind it. There is something charming about that handful of seconds.

"Fear of Floating." (Episode 23: first aired 25 May 1986) Directed by John Lewis, written by Donald Wollner from a story by Scott Edelman. Starring Lex Luthor, General Jonathan Krantz and Lisa Simpson. 4/10

In the middle of a tremendous heat wave in dusty Arizona, a man wearing heavy shoes (Sherman Howard, Lex Luthor from Superboy) rushes into a military recruiting house where two soldiers, Corporal Marcia Smith (Anne Lange) and Master Sergeant Buzz Caldwell (Leon Russom, Krantz from Prison Break) are on the verge of losing their senses amid the heat and boredom. The stranger, however, is seeking not a military career, but sanctuary from the crazed members of a circus he has just fled from. Well, it becomes clear that this person is a fibber, but more so, he has a special, uncontrollable talent, which is that without the weighted shoes he will float. And I mean float; not fly or glide, just soar uncontrollably like a helium balloon.

The odd premise, unique setting intermingled with its theme of becoming "grounded" by taking responsibility for one's actions could have worked nicely, but it doesn't. The problem is that the writers tried to create an amusing comedy when a more serious take on a surreal situation would have suited it better. Think of the excellent first season episode "If the Shoes Fit..." (S1E18)

The acting is fine, with a neat appearance by Yeardley Smith (best known as the voice of Lisa Simpson) and I liked the set quite a bit, with its dated recruiting posters and miscellaneous junk. There are some nice camera shots, with the opening focus on Uncle Sam's poster followed by the neat angle through the ceiling fan (see the shot above) which nicely displays both the neatly cluttered set and the element of heat. Moreover, it manages also to foreshadows the ending. Even the music has a playful military quality. Sadly, "Fear of Floating" is a failed episode that could have been far better.

"The Casavin Curse." (Episode 24: first aired 13 July 1986) Directed by Frank De Palma, written by Edithe Swensen. Starring unknowns Catherine Parks, Joseph Cortese, Scott Lincoln, Julie Ariola and John Brandon. 5/10

If the title hasn't given it away, Gina Casavin is cursed. Or is she? The lovely woman (Catherine Parks) believes she is unable to fall in love, simply because she is convinced that the man she loves will die a horrible death. The episode opens onto a bloody scene, shots of a woman lying by her white, virginal bed, covered in blood, pills on the table, flowers in a vase, a mirror on the wall... everything covered in blood, while a man lies dead at the vanity table, his back slashed open by what appears to be a set of claws. Suddenly there's a knock at the door, a woman calls out some information useful to the viewer, and our lovely, troubled heroine starts to scream: "I killed him!"

I found this episode painfully predictable. Perhaps I have read too many short stories employing a similar trope, with the idea of [spoiler alert] an attractive, innocent woman who is being sheltered by a mean-looking man who intends on marrying her despite the fact that he is her brother (played malevolently by Joseph Cortese). In his efforts he keeps all other men at bay. (Hey, it's Darkside's version of The Barber of Seville, just not as fun to watch.) The thing is, she did kill the guy. Her brother was right all along even though we don't want to believe him since he's such a [expletive]. The idea is that the viewer will automatically believe the woman innocent even though she doesn't believe it herself. The mean guy turns out to be in the right, and love does not prevail over all, but rather vengeance is a more powerful force. There is a little post-twist twist, which was unpredictable yet unnecessary and out-of-nowhere. Though really, the entire episode was not terribly necessary either.

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