Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Night Gallery: Season Two, Episode Three

Night Gallery 2.3
First aired 29 September 1971
Overall rating: 5/10

Preceding episode review: Night Gallery 2.2
Following episode review Night Gallery 2.4.

It appears to be a requisite for anthology series to include at least one episode featuring a witch and one featuring a devil. Night Gallery meets those two requisites in this single episode. Perhaps it's because the setting for both stories is familiar, the episode was overall quite disappointing. It is also the first episode of season two that features no teleplays either written or adapted by Rod Serling.

Thankfully this episode has only a single comedic sketch, but one is plenty since it's downright awful, and features yet another embarrassing moment in the career of Adam West.

Notable in Serling's introduction is that he refers to himself as "an undernourished Alfred Hitchcock."

Since Aunt Ada Came to Stay
Directed by William Hale
Written by Alvin Sapinsley from the short story "The Witch" by A. E. van Vogt
Starring James Farentino, Michele Lee, Jonathan Harris, Jeanette Nolan
Rating: 6/10

This witchin' tale with the cozy title is a standard story of a centuries-old witch who, in the guise of one Aunt Ada, is attempting to take over the body of her young niece Joanna Lowell in order to maintain her longevity. Husband Craig senses some kind of evil plot from the start, and investigates this Ada person. Though he's a staunch disbeliever without the proper social graces to even feign interest in colleague Nicholas Porteus's studies of the occult, he quickly learns to believe in witchcraft. Only problem is, his flaky wife just dotes on the old hag.

Standard fare indeed, but it is well pieced together and manages to be entertaining. Sure there is some silliness with those flowers and the spells and pentagrams, but the sets are nice as is the 1970s tv quality cinematography with some nice framing and camera angles. Witch sounds seem to be borrowed from Doctor Who which transforms drama into comedy, and that multiplicity sequence comes across as a bit of a joke rather than a form of dramatic tension. Helping to rescue the episode is none other than Jeanette Nolan in the role of the Aunt Ada imposter, who is simultaneously charming and yet clearly a witch.

The ending, which I won't and don't need to reveal, is obvious from the start. Whether the witch succeeds or not, however, can go either way, but by then we stop caring. One problem is the role of niece Joanna Lowell, who is so simple and agreeable while not believing a word of husband Craig's outlandish accusations. Simple-headed indeed, she is written as a trope rather than a character, and though not actress Michele Lee's fault, she is quite annoying. James Farentino as Craig Lowell, who pieces together what this witchy woman wants, is pretty good, even though he spends much of the segment dripping with water, whether it be sweat or rain. Convenient isn't it how every day is a gorgeous example of summer in the suburbs, but that one day when the witch's plans are to come to fruition we are inundated with torrential showers. Moreover, the fact that a university physics class is held at midnight is just a little hard to accept, for of course that is the witching hour and television must conform to the wants of their spells.

The wonderful Jeanette Nolan has appeared in countless projects in both film and television, and her roles in anthology series include many 1950s dramas, as well as four episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, two for the original The Twilight Zone, and one each for Naked City and Climax! She was also the wonderful Miss Wattle in Night Gallery's first episode segment "The Housekeeper." Moreover, she was the voice of Norman Bate's mother in the fabulous Psycho. James Farentino has also had a long enduring career, including two appearances on The Alfred Hitchcock Hour and one on Naked City. He will reappear in a season three episode of Night Gallery, "The Girl with the Hungry Eyes." Michele Lee is best known for her role in Knots Landing, while Jonathan Harris who plays Lowell's helpful occultist colleague is best known for the series Lost in Space and The Third Man, and has also appeared in two episodes of The Twilight Zone.

With Apologies to Mr. Hyde
Directed by Jeannot Szwarc
Written by Jack Laird
Starring Adam West
Rating: 1/10

Another terrible sketch brought to you by the pen of show's producer Jack Laird. Having already pillaged the works of Bram Stoker, Gaston Leroux and Edgar Allen Poe, he is now ransacking the oeuvre of Robert Louis Stevenson. A well-dressed man (could this be Dr. Jekyll?) is tasting a potion while a shrunken and filthy man named Igor watches on. The good doctor makes faces, growls a bit, then looking really angry and slightly deformed, complains about the amount of vermouth. The End.

Not only is the skit not funny, former Bruce Wayne and Batman actor Adam West is pretty bad, as is everything else about the two minute interlude. It makes no sense that there is another person mixing Jekyll's potion since he always worked alone, and naming the little helper Igor, that generic name for a mad scientist's aide, comes across as lacking invention. "Apologies to Mr. Hyde" indeed, and apologies to Mr. Serling, Mr. Stevenson, and everyone in the audience.

The Flip Side of Satan
Directed by Jerrold Freedman
Written by Malcolm Marmorstein and Gerald Sanford, from a story by Hal Dresner
Starring Arte Johnson
Rating: 4/10

Sleazy disc jockey J. J. Wilson arrives at an isolated broadcast station for a new gig. Too hip for 1971, Wilson is puzzled by the funeral-like music he is forced to play, and by the fact that this station broadcasts only from midnight to six in the morning. In the studio he makes some calls and we learn he is a sleaze, which is not surprising. Indeed the situation is much too clear to the viewer within minutes: he is broadcasting from hell. Being an amoral dude as well as a disc jockey, you know.

Unexciting and not too creative. It also doesn't make sense that when Wilson arrives at the station it is broad daylight, yet he tells us minutes later that it's midnight. Tales from the Darkside did a better, similar effort with the episode "The Devil's Advocate" (episode 2.7) with Jerry Stiller. Comedian Arte Johnson is fine in the role of J. J. Wilson; it's the lack of creativity that drags this one down. Johnson has also appeared in both The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Night Gallery: Season Two, Episode Two

Night Gallery: Season 2, Episode 1
First aired 22 September 1971
Overall rating /10

Please see here for Episode 2.1.
Please stay tuned for Episode 2.3

Similar to the previous episode, this one delivers one excellent segment alongside a good segment, as well as two weak comedic skits. Two versions of episode two have seen air time: the original ending with the skit "Witches Feast" and another with "Satisfaction Guaranteed." The second version replaced the former during the episode's rerun on 22 March 1972. The version I watched is from the Season Two DVD and contains the second skit; I will add "Witches Feast" when I've had a chance to watch it.

With the exception of the second comedic skit, each segment of this episode was directed by Jeannot Szwarc, who directed and continues to direct episodes for several television series, including many more for Night Gallery. He was also behind the camera for some disasters during the 1980s, such as Supergirl, Santa Claus: The Movie, and Jaws 2.

Death in the Family
  • Directed by Jeannot Szwarc
  • Written by Rod Serling from a short story by Miriam Allen DeFord
  • Starring E. G. Marshall, Desi Arnaz Jr., James Sikking, John Evans, William Elliott, Bud Walls
Rating: 6/10
  • DeFord, Miriam Allen, "A Death in the Family," Dude, November 1961
  • reprinted, Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Stories That Scared Even Me, ed. Robert Arthur, NY: Random House, 1967
Lonely and sentimental middle-aged funeral parlour director Jared Soames is saddened by the arrival of the corpse of an eighty-one year-old man who has no mourners, no flowers, but only a hundred dollars' worth of state funding reserved for its neglected citizens. It is clear from the start that Soames has somewhat alternative ideas for this particularly body.

In the meantime a young, uncared for recently escaped murderer finds his way to Soames's cozy parlour-home, and Soames, caring as always for the neglected, decides to help him out. The denouement is less than surprising, but the segment is nonetheless a pleasure to watch thanks to E. G. Marshall's wonderful performance as Soames, alongside a great set and a few good camera angles. Unfortunately some of the corpses are obviously breathing and even moving, nodding their heads as though concurring with Soames's twisted ideas. Weak also is the poor choice or music. Parlour music, if you will.

E. G. Marshall is unfortunately not too well remembered, despite numerous memorable roles, including juror four in 12 Angry Men and nearly stealing the show as Upson Pratt in Creepshow. He made a good living actively appearing on most major (and some minor) anthology series in the 1950s, with several appearances throughout many popular dramas and mysteries, and appeared in both the original and the 1980s remake of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Desi Arnaz Jr., not a great actor but a better theatre aficionado, is just okay in his role as escaped convict Doran. Character actor James B. Sikking is quite good in a small part; he's best known for his role in the revolutionary Hill Street Blues, and has appeared twice in the original The Outer Limits. There is also a small part for Noam Pitlik, longtime television director who was behind many episodes of the great Barney Miller.

The Merciful
  • Directed by Jeannot Szwarc
  • Written by Jack Laird from a story by Charles L. Sweeny jr
  • Starring Imogene Coca and King Donovan
Rating: 4/10

While the first two comedic segments (from episode 2.1) borrowed from Bram Stoker and Gaston Leroux, this one tears a page from Edgar Allan Poe. An elderly man is seated silently but agonizingly in a chair while his dear elderly wife is erecting a brick wall between them. She is trying to comfort him, telling him that it is for the best, that it will put an end to the constant pain, death will be swift and not to worry, but think only of the good times. The punchline is evident from the start since there is only one possibility. Still, I will not give it away.

The wife is played by comedic screen legend Imogene Coca, who I loved watching as a kid during the mid-1980s in reruns of Your Show of Shows on some public station. Coca also appeared on anthology series throughout the 1950s, as well as on Wide World of Mystery and Monsters. Husband King Donovan is long-time comedic and dramatic actor, not well remembered despite a long career and being an all-around entertainer.

Class of '99
  • Directed by Jeannot Szwarc
  • Written by Rod Serling
  • Starring Vincent Price, Brandon De Wilde, Randolph Mantooth, Frank Hotchkiss, Hilly Hicks, Suzanne Cohane, Barbara Shannon, some others
Rating: 8/10

In the future, year '99, a university class gathers for their final oral examination. The stern and cold professor selects randomly from the group, asking questions that must be answered immediately, and the students are graded on the spot. First we begin with propulsion, but soon move into what is considered the most important of subjects: the behavioural sciences.

As with much of Serling's scripts, the message supersedes the story. There is a surprise ending which is delivered not for a shock finish, but revealed three quarters from the ending, and though not completely surprising I nonetheless could not predict it accurately. Yet it is not the ending which is surprising, but that Serling managed to convey ideas about human nature in such a blatant and effective way. He points directly to some of our prejudiced notions, particularly racism and classicism, in a way he would not have been able to during the run of The Twilight Zone. But the 1970s are not the 1950s, and ideas regarding controversy has changed. Serling's script is solid, and even the questioning of propulsion and Newtonian physics is fraught with tension. Vincent Price adds a good deal to the teleplay as the professor, cold and scientific in his approach, and passionate in his utter disgust at displays of deviance. Price manages to use his voice to great effect, with its firm and commanding tone.
What is fascinating too, if we were to look beyond the thesis on the dark nature of twentieth century societal norms, is that in this future year of '99 (whether 1999, 2099 or 2999, it is cleverly not made clear), there is no desire to make the world a better place, but only to maintain the status quo among us mortals. Humanity is to be preserved and bot bettered, so that our evolution comes to a halt. The additional concept within this idea is simply that human nature does not evolve, that this class of future '99 is made up of the same or at least similar prejudices that formed the behavioural aspects of all the previous classes of '99, regardless of century. Why bother bettering society when it has proved time and time again that it cannot evolve.

Aside from the inimitable Vincent Price in his first of two appearances in Night Gallery, the episode features Brandon De Wilde, who is best remembered as Joey in Shane.

Satisfaction Guaranteed
  • Directed by Jeannot Szwarc
  • Written by Jack Laird
  • Starring Victor Buono and Cathleen Cordell
Rating: 1/10

As noted above, "Satisfaction Guaranteed" was not the original skit that first aired in episode 2.2. That slot belonged to "Witches Feast." It appeared instead during a rerun of the episode on 22 March, 1972.

A wealthy man seeks the perfect candidate at an employment agency that carries the motto "Satisfaction Guaranteed." The cast is less than subtle in their roles, which does not help this downright terrible and embarrassing little skit.

Victor Buono is best known for comedic and villainous roles, and appeared twice on Thriller. Cathleen Cordell appeared in The Alfred Hitchcock Hour as well as Night Gallery's opening episode "Dead Man/The Housekeeper," as Miss Beamish in the second segment.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Night Gallery: Season Two, Episode One

Season 2, Episode 1
First aired 15 September 1971
Overall rating: 7/10

For an overview of Night Gallery and its pilot, please visit here.
For reviews of season one, please enter here.
For the following episode, please stay tuned.

Season Two of Night Gallery changes its unique anthology set-up to overall weakening effect. The first season allowed for as many segments as fit into its one-hour time slot, depending on the length of each. The thing is it didn't matter how long each segment was; there was no need to split the show into two clearly blocked half-hour segments. An episode could feature two or three segments, and the length of each segment could vary from ten minutes to forty minutes. Season two, however, introduced brief comical sequences which Serling himself opposed. It is unfortunate that the studio wouldn't allow Serling more control over the show, since clearly he still had a lot of creative ideas to work with, as proven by the series exceptional pilot and the overall strength of its first season. The comic sequences introduced in season two are downright embarrassing, many written by the show's producer, Jack Laird. The message sent to the viewer is that that the producers and the network didn't take such fantasies seriously, that the age of The Twilight Zone was a bygone age, and audiences were dumb and easily amused. Who needs serious, thought-provoking television when simple, formulaic anecdotes with silly ideas and tired punchlines were so readily available.

In the season's opening episode we have two serious teleplays, one deeply thought-provoking and the other more of a classic supernatural mystery. These were alongside two brief an forgettable comedies.

The  Boy Who Predicted Earthquakes
  • Directed by John Badham
  • Written by Rod Serling from a short story by Margaret St. Clair
  • Starring Michael Constantine, Clint Howard, Bernie Kopell, Ellen Weston and William Hanes
Rating 8/10
  • Margaret St. Clair, "The Boy Who Could Work Miracles," Maclean's 1950
  • _____________, "The Boy Who Could Work Miracles," Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Stories Not for the Nervous,  NY: Random House, 1965
"I wanna tell you about tomorrow." Eleven year-old Herbie Bittman has a special talent: he can predict up to forty-eight hours into the future, and so far all of his predictions have been accurate. Herbie wants to share his predictions with the world, and manages to gain a spot on a local television station where he becomes quite popular with viewers. But it's difficult for someone so young to have access to all this knowledge, especially when the predictions become tragic. Herbie, however, proves to be mature and compassionate at all times, even when he must air his final prediction.

"The Boy Who Predicted Earthquakes" is a powerful little play. It starts off with surly station manager Mr. Wellman ridiculing Herbie as well as his own assistant Mr. Reed for booking him. The first half of the episode is driven primarily by Mr. Wellman, but Herbie takes over for the last chapter. Though the final prediction is shocking, the story focuses mainly on how an eleven year-old can carry the weight of such an unusual ability, and wonders at the stress he must be suffering. Clint Howard does a fantastic job at playing Herbie. He is certainly just a boy on one level, but carries with him a marvellous level of youthful maturity and conscientiousness, and it's this characterization that lifts the episode to greater heights. Michael Constantine is just as good as Mr. Wellman, who in contrast carries the weight of running a struggling television station. Wellman's world is on a roller coaster, initially plunging as his station is suffering and unable to discover new talented commentators, and quickly shooting skyward when Herbie charms the nation while in his studio. There is a near plunge as Herbie refuses to go on air during that final shooting, an important ratings week for the station.

This is where Rod Serling's excellent teleplay works some real wonders. Well scripted from start to finish, Serling is all over the screenplay, from overly dramatic yet well characterized monologues, to contrasts between sympathetic characters and the arrogant. When Wellman is trying to convince Herbie to do the show, he is telling him that countless fans are relying on him, that they shouldn't be disappointed and wonder why Herbie is not on air that night. Essentially the public should not feel afraid. In Herbie's mind Wellman is right, but for less selfish reasons. Clearly Herbie has seen some kind of horrible disaster, worse than the earthquakes and sunken submarines he's already predicted, and he takes Wellman's wisdom to heart, agreeing to go live and doing his best in an abstract way to comfort viewers and ensure that they not be afraid.

Serling also brings in University professor Dr. Peterson (Ellen Weston) to counteract Mr. Wellman's hard-lined approach. She is sympathetic and understanding, a maternal figure, and the only one who tries to understand Herbie's talent, while being also the only one besides the boy's caring grandfather Mr. Godwin (William Hansen) who best understands the strain these predictions must be affecting the boy. The superb clincher at the ending reveals that the boy proves he can deal with the strain better than adults around him.

Along with the great acting and an excellent script, we have some creative technical staff. Throughout the opening sequences in the studio we catch glimpses of Herbie in the background and through various monitors. We catch our first glimpses of both Herbie and Wellman momentarily during the first studio pan, before they're even introduced to us. Continuity between what we see happening, what is projected on camera through various monitors around the studio, often behind the actual action is surprisingly accurate. The sound and voice recording is also superb, so that wherever Herbie appears onscreen his voice always matches his lips. There are also some nice colour effects, particularly at the end. A great technical achievement all-around, and I'm impressed the producers went for something so tricky for a twenty-minute teleplay.

Staff notes: Director John Badham will go on to direct five more Night Gallery segments, as well as popular successful films such as Saturday Night Fever, Blue Thunder and Stakeout; Michael Constantine has appeared in numerous television shows, including anthology series such as Naked City, The Twilight Zone, the original The Outer Limits, and Darkroom, as well as many films; Clint Howard is Ron Howard's younger brother, and has also appeared in various roles across television and film, including the later The Outer Limits, as well as several Star Trek series, including the original in the popular episode "The Corbomite Maneuver"; Mr. Reed is played by Bernie Kopell who is best remembered as Doctor Adam Bricker on The Love Boat, and has appeared on The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, and starred with Michael Constantine in Room 222; Ellen Weston appeared in Kolchak: The Night Stalker's "The Devil's Platform"; William Hansen appeared in Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Naked City.

Miss Lovecraft Sent Me
  • Directed by Gene R. Kearney
  • Written by Jack Laird
  • Starring Joseph Campanella and Sue Lyon
Rating 2/10

The first comedic intermission and by far the worst from episode one. Dracula meets 1971 as a hip bubblegum cracking and radio toting chick shows up for a babysitting gig at the count's house. She was sent by a Miss Lovecraft, clearly a nod to Mr. Howard Phillips Lovecraft, who had little to do with vampires. Joseph Campanella appears as a very obvious Dracula, down to the rolling of the Rs. Comedic lines such a "We are always back at sunrise" are not even remotely funny. I am strangely glad they chose not to kill the girl, seen below unable to see the vampire's shadow.

Poorly written by series producer Jack Laird. Campanella has been on Naked City, Suspense and The Invaders. Pretty Sue Lyon was the original Lolita.

The Hand of Borgus Weems
  • Directed by John Meredyth Lucas
  • Written by Alvin Sapinsley, from the short story "The Other Hand" by George Langelaan
  • Starring George Maharis, Ray Milland, Joan Huntington, Peter Mamakos, Robert F. Hoy, William Mims
Rating 6/10

"Arise my avenger, out from my bones."

Peter Lacland (George Maharis) appears in surgeon Archibald Ravadon's (Ray Milland) office demanding that he remove his right hand. When finally removed and Lacland is calmer, he explains his strange story. He has recently moved into town as part of his company's business venture, and soon finds that his right hand has developed independence. Moreover, that hand is trying to get him to commit murder. It phones a man and makes Lacland say into the phone the name Borgus Weems. When the man appears the hand tries to kills him. Later it forces a steering wheel to run over a lawyer, and later still to buy a gun to kill a woman Lacland has just met and fallen in love with. The good doctor Ravadon helps Lacland investigate the mystery, and the entire tale falls into the category of a classic supernatural mystery. Not bad by any stretch, it is certainly not as inventive and original as the episode's opening segment. The acting is fine but not stellar, though the editing is quite good, as we get flashes of Lacland's hand and other scenes at different moments, and this repetition actually enhances the suspense. Add to this some good music.

The single unbelievable aspect of this episode (even if you're willing to believe a dead man can take over the right hand of the living) is Lacland convincing Ravadon to surgically remove his hand. Just because he displays some desperation by bashing his hand with a paperweight? I think the point is that the doctor realizes it would be safer for him to remove the hand than allow Lacland to try to destroy it. This does not quite come across.

Director John Meredyth Lucas has worked throughout television as director and scriptwriter, most notably for the original Star Trek. He directed four segments of Night Gallery, including season one's first episode segment "The Housekeeper." Maharis is best known for his lead role in Route 66, though he's also been in four episodes of Naked City and several early dramatic anthology series. Milland was already a major film star by the time television drama reached his peak in the 1950s, though he did appear a few times on General Electric Theater, in a Robert Bloch story for The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, and later in Columbo. He's best known performances are his Academy Award winning role in Billy Wilder's The Lost Weekend, and his spectacularly charming performance in Alfred Hitchcock's Dial M for Murder.

Phantom of What Opera?
  • Directed by Gene R. Kearney
  • Written by Gene R. Kearney
  • Starring Leslie Nielsen and Mary Ann Beck
Rating 4/10

The second comedic interlude is not as terrible as the first. Here the phantom brings his sopranic beauty to his underground lair, monologues his desire and intentions, until that final completely expected denouement. (If she's just like him, why did she fight so much at first?)

The great character actor Leslie Nielsen is good in the role, an actor who has appeared in most major early anthology series (some of which have been reviewed on Casual Debris). Mary Ann Beck does not appear to have had much of a screen career.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Blogging: Review Requests

For days on end, weeks even, the Casual Debris mailbox is a desolate place, barren and neglected amid Google's vast kingdom. On occasion, however, it is unexpectedly crammed with a combination of epistles, everything from spam, article feedback or site comments. Most often it is a receptacle of review requests.

Until recently I have politely turned down all review requests. This is not because I'm a snob or too sensitive to potentially hurt anyone's feelings, nor too arrogant to be interested in anything in which I'm not already interested. Most of the requests I receive are simply not appropriate for Casual Debris. Though the site has branched a little from its initial portfolio, some of the requests truly come out of left field. Review requesters often don't take the time to read blog descriptions or sample reviews and are hence unaware of where the blog's mandate lie. Often requests are sent out in mass bulk, aimed at as many reviewers as a generic email can get a hold of. Most of the requests I've seen are from new or self-published authors desperate to find readership and confident enough to think such requests will lead to a positive online write-up. I don't hold this kind of marketing against anyone as there is so much competition and I understand that everyone wants to be given a chance. Yet I would more likely be interested in something if the marketing were approached with creativity rather than volume, and at times authors can be so aggressive that their tactic is not to their benefit.

The main reason I have turned down review requests is that most of those I've receive are for styles I am not interested in reviewing, such as flash fiction. The work might very well be excellent and worthy of reading, but it's a style I am personally not fond of, and Casual Debris has not, so far, branched out into the flash fiction universe. The bulk of the review requests I receive are for horror fiction, and while I do read and occasionally review works of that genre, I am not a horror aficionado. I prefer horror in the short form and only occasionally read the genre to get an idea of what's out there. I prefer what I'd like to call "literary fantasy," which is fiction that emphasizes strong writing but contains an element of fantasy, whether it be horror or otherwise. Think Franz Kafka.

A few weeks ago, however, I received the perfect review request. Perfect for Casual Debris, that is. The editor sending the request was clearly familiar with the blog and sent a personalized request with proper links and descriptions. I was impressed; it was both professional and considerate. The work being offered up for review was a new annual anthology, something Casual Debris gets very excited about, and rather than sending e-texts or co-ordinates for download, they offered actual books. I understand that shipping, particularly overseas can be costly, but as I never request payment of any kind, nor any counter-offer other than a link to the review, the gesture is generous and appreciated. Particularly since I collect (of all things) anthologies and literary journals. These editions will look nice on my anally organized shelves once I'm done reading them.

The small press that sent me the request was Unthank Books, and the annual anthology is titled Unthology. A week or so ago I received the first two unthologies (the third is due out this fall), and they are attractive and dense publications. I'm familiar with some of the authors via other UK journals such as The Fiction Desk, and having just read the first entry I am excited to get through the volume.

Truly among the minor joys in my life is receiving books in the mail, and sending appropriate books is a good addition in convincing me to review. I own over a thousand books and I now only keep novels is they are truly exceptional, out of print or hard to find, a nifty old edition, or if it has some sentimental value. Honestly though, as I do like to help support new literary ventures, I would definitely accept electronic copies for review.

Or, if you just happen to have any anthologies or journals lying around that you no longer want... I do offer trades.

Monday, July 9, 2012

The 4400: Mommy's Bosses

Mommy's Bosses (Episode 2.12)
Directed by John Behring
Written by Ira Steven Behr and Craig Sweeny
Guest starring Peter Coyote, Jeffrey Coombs, Tom Verica
First aired 28 August 2005
Rating: 6/10

Previous episode: "The Fifth Page"
Next episode: you'll have to wait for season three.

[Spoilers aplenty.]

A great title and a great first part does not a good episode make. The problem with many two-part television series outings is that the bulk of the twists and turns are reserved for the first part, while the second part plays out primarily like a denouement, an extended climax and resolution. With the exception of that final minute montage which is more a sneak preview of what to expect in season three rather than the ending of season two, there are no surprising events or stunning secrets to appear that we didn't learn of during part one. Well okay, there is one bit of news that did take me by surprise.

It's confirmed that Dennis Ryland is behind promycen inhibitor (PI), that the suits at government's upper echelon fear the powers of the returnees and have produced this inhibitor to allay their powers. Less than twenty percent of returnees have exhibited special abilities and that's thanks to PI, otherwise it's suspected that all four thousand four hundred should exhibit some power or other. Being smart agents, Tom and Diana figure out what's going on, and being conscientious they wish to report on their government, but Tom is in a bind as it turns out Ryland knows about Kyle and set up Marsden as gift to Tom. "Kyle hated quarantine. I wonder what he'd think about prison." This is the one surprise in the episode, and a good one at that. Amidst the government cover-ups I was sad to see Dr. Hudson knocked off, though not too surprised, what with the direction things were heading. The episode mimics aspects of The X-Files with our inability to trust who we work for, the government, and having to rely on our partners.

Among the better aspects of the episode are Richard's leadership and Lily's hallucinations. I began reviewing season two by criticizing the Richard and Lily sequences, finding them uninspired and uninteresting, and must here congratulate the writers for having brought the two to more engaging levels of characterization. Richard is doing a great job co-ordinating efforts to herd healthy returnees to a secret safehouse while trying to get his wife and child back into the fold. When the safehouse location is revealed, he is saved from having to make a decision as to the fates of the resident 4400, thanks to Tom's timely interruption.

Lily is hiding away with baby Isabelle in a cottage that ex-hubby Brian has brought her too. While in hiding Lily is experiencing a range of visions, from thinking she's contracted the 4400 plague to experiencing Brian hitting on her, and then hitting her. Poor Lily thinks she's going mad, until she realizes that baby girl is feeding her these visions in an attempt to convince her to head back to the safe house. Once there Dr. Burkhoff uses Isabelle to create a serum to flush out the PI from everyone's system, thus removing the side-effects and saving their lives.

What bothered me most about "Mommy's Bosses" is the Kyle/Shawn sequence at the end. Kyle admits to having killed Jordan Collier, and Shawn heals him by removing the ball of light that was controlling his actions. The scene is just badly executed, actor Patrick John Flueger almost comical in the range of emotions that cross his face, along with some bad dramatic music and terrible special effects, not to mention really bad, hurried writing. Kyle prepares to turn himself in to the authorities for JC's murder, and I'm just hoping he won't be written out of the series.

To contrast the awkward Kyle/Shawn pairing, the extremely brief dinner scene with Diana and Marco manages to be cute.

And in order to give the audience a whallop and a tease, Maia appears to let everyone know that things are not all right, that the War is just starting. This fails in both its teasing and whallopiness, since by now we're used to Maia's ominous portents.

This premonition leads into our musical montage, during which we witness Patrick gaining telekinetic abilities, baby Isabelle all grown up, and Jordan Collier resurrected at Mount Ranier, where the ball of light originally dropped him and the other returnees off.

With the plague over we can now tabulate the deaths: a total of 23 returnees have passed on due to the plague, leaving us with 4,371 members of the original 4400 still alive (six have died in previous episodes). Yet with the return of JC we find ourselves with a grand total of 4,372.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

The 4400: The Fifth Page

The Fifth Page (Episode 2.11)
Directed by Scott Peters
Written by Ira Steven Behr and Craig Sweeny
Guest starring Peter Coyote, Tom Verica, Keegan Connor Tracy
First aired 21 August 2005
Rating: 8/10

Previous episode: "Lockdown"
Following episode: "Mommy's Bosses"

A suspicious title offers the second straight excellent episode of The 4400. It's the first of two parts and focuses on ailing returnees and a complete schism between the 4400 and the US government.

The episode opens with the promise of a new beginning and a sense of belonging as displaced Alana moves in with Tom and Kyle. Cozy it would appear, but Alana suddenly asks Kyle for a prescription for allergy medication. Tom reminds her that Kyle was a doctor only in their eight-year fictional life, and she grins, claiming she's just had a case of "brain freeze." Yet Alana grows more and more confused as the details of her two lives are merging. What looks like a great stand alone premise transforms into one part of the whole when we learn that she too has developed that mysterious rash that has stripped Maia and Shawn of their powers. Alana's powers aren't stripped, but she is losing her ability to control the life she leads over the one she created.

Returnees all over the world are succumbing to this rash, and NTAC calls everyone back into quarantine. While Jarvis is recovering from the gunshot wound she suffered in the previous episode, she is replaced by previous leader and Tom's good friend Dennis Ryland. Yet Ryland seems to adopted a hardcore attitude toward the returnees, and insists that even the healthy must submit themselves to quarantine.

Meantime, good friend from the previous episode Dr. Max Hudson is becoming a little suspect, especially since the fifth page of Maia's medical report goes missing, only to reappear with a couple of lines blotched out. Hence the episode title.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the episode, Kyle is guilt-ridden and visits Roy Marsden's home, where he encounters Marsden's suffering girlfriend Alison Driscoll (Keegan Connor Tracy) and Marsden's troubled younger brother Sam (Harris Allan). Both Alison and Sam think he has a thing for her, but Kyle insists that Roy is innocent and just wants to help. Alison is trusting but Sam isn't, and goes through Kyle's wallet, discovering his daddy works for NTAC. I just wonder why anyone, especially when assuming another identity, leaves his wallet on the couch in another room. On a side note, both actors (Tracy and Allan) appeared in Final Destination sequels, numbers two and six, respectively. Tracy has been in numerous projects, television and film, including a recurring role in Battlestar Galactica, while I recognize Allan only from that great Masters of Horror episode "Jenifer."

At the 4400 Centre, Lily is still suspicious of baby day care, as am I. Interestingly enough, ex-husband Brian is now being nice to her and first daughter Heidi seems okay. Shame on the writers for ending an earlier episode with Heidi ill, potentially due to baby Isabelle, and then pretending it never happened. Did the network complain that baby Isabelle is becoming too evil? That she must be a hero baby and not a devil spawn? Or did I miss simply something?

With Shawn ill Richard is promoted to centre spokesperson. A good choice, I think, since he has strong morals and a healthy sense of duty. As the third leader he will likely be the best. Not conniving and arrogant as Collier and not as boyishly arrogant as Shawn. Finally the centre gets an honest face.

That honest face must now deal with a split between centre and government. Ryland is threatening marshal law and Richard is telling the sick to enter quarantine, but the healthy to remain out, leaving many returnees on the run, seeking shelter in safe houses. The idea is that we are once again experiencing the plight of early Christianity. With JC gone, the minority Christians/returnees are facing persecution and must hide out from government agents. There are a few sympathizers who help out, but primarily the world fears and is hence against them.

The episode ends on a great twist. The rash and fever are after-effects of promycen inhibitors (PI) that have been injected into returnees since their return. Promycen is what is causing their abilities. It appears the government has been suppressing the returnee talents, and consequently getting them severely sick.

This image of government officials entering the 4400 centre makes me think of conventions in medieval Christian paintings depicting Jesus Christ and John the Baptist as infants (mostly by Italians). It's easy to tell which figure is Jesus (even if he isn't seated in the Madonna's lap), because John is always pointing at and/or looking at him. Baby Jesus, on the other hand, is pointing at the sky or at his mother. Mother has a pale yet distinct halo. These paintings were distinguished by many facets, yet always established a clearly defined hierarchy. In this shot, Ryland is in the forefront with Diana and Tom behind. I won't interpret the shot that Ryland is Christ because that role has already been given to Jordan Collier. Hierarchically, Ryland certainly is at the top of the political chain, and the look on his face as he looks into the centre is less than ecstatic. He is, after all, there to remove Collier/Christ's followers. Diana has a direct link to Ryland, making her the Baptist figure, while Tom is at the bottom of this trinity. Each is looking to the other for guidance. What do I make of all this? Very simply that I have too much time on my hands.

Friday, July 6, 2012

The 4400: Lockdown

Lockdown (Episode 2.10)
Directed by Douglas Petrie
Written by Douglas Petrie
Guest starring Tom Verica, Hiro Kanagawa, Roger R. Cross
First aired 14 August 2005
Rating: 8/10

Previous episode: "Hidden"
Following Episode: "The Fifth Page"

The second season's weakest entry is followed by its strongest, so far. "Lockdown" is a tense and interesting episode that veers somewhat from the normal The 4400 formula. There is no returnee-of-the-week and primarily one main focus dealing with the lock down of NTAC (hence the episode's title), while the sub-plots are for the most part not filler. The episode succeeds in delivering a tense stand alone scenario, while using that same scenario to highlight overall aspects of the series, and likely to progress future plot points, primarily by raising tensions between the returnees and the government.

Breaking the somewhat formulaic pattern of these Casual Debris reviews, I will begin this episode by discussing the sub-plots. First of all, Shawn is attempting to unite science and faith by recruiting the eccentric Dr. Kevin Burkoff (the wonderful Jeffrey Coombs returns!); Isabelle is now talking to daddy Patrick, and evidently hasn't spoken to mommy Lily in weeks (I'd be upset too, the way she's been acting), and it appears that baby has been undergoing some secret tests at the 4400 Centre. Maia has contracted a rash, and later Shawn develops the same; both lose their powers as a result. And finally, Kyle gets laid. I mention above that the sub-plots are "for the most part not filler," and Kyle's getting laid is nothing other than filler material. There is clearly no real purpose to the scene, and I doubt his partner will play much of a role in the show, even though he tells her, post coitus, "I don't deserve you."

The episode opens with a dramatic montage, as Diana is comforting a sick and sweaty Maia in a gymnasium whose doors are blocked with filing cabinets and other heavy objects. Someone or something is trying to break in. It resembles a dream sequence, with lots of shadows and cold blue hues. Diana pulls out her gun, promising Maia that mommy will help, and breaking through the barrier comes Tom, bloody and stumbling, drawing his own weapon. The two face each other, guns aimed at faces like some movie poster.

The episode then jumps back in time ten hours, and it's clear that the opening sequence is no dream. The NTAC building is shut down after a virus is released through a high pitched ultrasonic screech that only men can hear. The men inside the building start becoming uncontrollably aggressive, attacking one another at the slightest provocation, and amid the chaos Jarvis takes a bullet in the shoulder. Meanwhile, a team of field enforcement officers are in the building, having just been introduced as backup for the agents. These men, led by Major Culp (Roger R. Cross), take over and try to handle the situation, killing a returnee in the process, a Roger Wolcott who was visiting for his mandatory check-up. The thing is, it's made clear that the virus was spread by a returnee, and these cold agents are attempting to eliminate every potential suspect. Wolcott's death brings our remaining returnee count to 4394.

I won't drown you with the rest of the episode's details, and we're pretty certain neither Diana, Maia or Tom get hurt. The idea that a 4400 ability is used against NTAC heightens the notion which Jordan Collier spouted on about, that there is a war looming ahead. The episode leaves behind a few corpses and presents the returnees as potential terrorists. It is an act of terror, the victims insist, and the government will likely not become more sympathetic toward the 4400 cause.

This is precisely why the episode works. As a stand alone episode it is tense and interesting, and yet it also helps to mount the rising tensions between the 4400 and the "normals." Along the way we are treated to the return of Dr. Burkoff, and are introduced to a positive and sympathetic character and a potential love interest for Diana, Dr. Max Hudson (Tom Verica), who is looking into the strange rash that Maia has developed.

The episode was written and directed by Douglas Petrie, who also wrote the much weaker episode "Carrier," as well as numerous episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Mommy's not gonna let anyone hurt you.

The Ghost Quartet, edited by Marvin Kaye (2008)

Kaye, Marvin, editor, The Ghost Quartet, NY: Tor Books, 2008
Cover and interior art by Stephen Hickman.

The Ghost Quartet at Goodreads
The Ghost Quartet at the ISFdb

The Ghost Quartet is latter part of a series of novella or longer short fiction anthologies that include The Vampire Sextet and The Dragon Quintet edited by Marvin Kaye and published by the Science Fiction Book Club and Tor Books. The anthology was not very well received, and copies quickly made their way to bargain bins and discount shelves (which is where i found mine). Having read it through I pretty much join the general consensus that the collection is forgettable, with the notable exception of Orson Scott Card's contribution.

The Place of Waiting by Brian Lumley. 4/10

The publication of "The Place of Waiting" marks Brian Lumley's fortieth year in publishing genre fiction. He's produced all forms of fiction, from novels, series to many stories for the Cthulhu Mythos, as well as poetry. For a list of his publications, visit the ISFdb. Like any veteran author he has produced good fiction, adequate fiction and not so good fiction. Despite being included in Stephen Jones's The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror 20, "The Place of Waiting," in my opinion, is not among his more memorable efforts.

The story is told through the point of view of Paul Stanard, a recently divorced painter who has even more recently lost his painter mother. He is at a crossroads, unfocused and vulnerable, and easily the target of phantom spirits. The vulnerable grieving loner is the perfect character to be unduly influenced by any sort of spiritual force.

In the misty moors Stanard is attempting to paint a piece of rock called the Tumble Tor, and while waiting meets three characters, one friendly and another babbling, and the third he sees upon Tumble Tor, a strange and nasty-looking figure. Which are of these are ghosts and what do they want with him? Can we figure out what's going on amid Old Joe's gibberish and those nightmares Stanard is experiencing night after night? Of course we can, and not because we're particularly smart, but rather because the mystery is a little too familiar. Lumley offers us a ghost tale featuring many of the classic supernatural tropes. The narrative is replete with haunted dreams, strange gibbering characters, and even squeezes in an unnecessary love plot, so incidental I'd term it a sub-sub-love-plot. And all this is handed over to us in some flat prose. The problem with the prose is that it's over-articulate and dry, lacking the desperation and anguish which Stanard must be feeling. It reads as though it were told by a man in a cozy chair with a lighted pipe sharing a long-winded tale he once heard, rather than by someone in the thick of the excitement. Moreover, frightening characters are less than frightening, and dialogue such as "I don't understand!" // "Ah! But you will understand!" along with a ghossst who ssspeaksss in hisssesss are more comical than tense.

As for the anticlimactic ending... well, Lumley has written better stories.

Hamlet's Father by Orson Scott Card. 7/10

[Spoilers; difficult to avoid them with this one.]

I have no intention in entering the controversy dispute as it is exaggerated and ridiculous. Besides, like much silliness it's been over-discussed in the web community. If you're interested in the controversy Google can help you better than Casual Debris. The idea is (and here's the spoiler for you) that the story is homophobic because Hamlet's father is a pedophile. Honestly, it's the accusation that is homophobic as it assumes that Hamlet's father is homosexual on the basis that he is a pedophile. The story is not concerned with any kind of sexuality, nor even with pedophilia, but is concerned largely with Hamlet's misconceptions of the world around him, and the dangers within that misconception, which is one of its strongest links to Shakespeare's play. Both works deal with existential, with a man's attempt to locate his place in the world, a world which has suddenly been flipped upside down.

So much for the preamble.

"Hamlet's Father" is a well-written re-telling of Shakespeare's excellent play. I admire Shakespeare, have read much of his work and have encountered all form of adaptations and interpretations, some better than others. Prince Hamlet is among Shakespeare's most interesting characters, and Card does a great job in his portrayal, as well as in his approach to many of the play's sequences. The does well in capturing the gloomy mood at Elsinore and also in settling on a great level of language that bridges bard and the modern mainstream reader. Wisely, not every detail is included (there are so many), so we don't learn about the death of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Since this is prose, the ideas delivered to the audience through soliloquies are captured in thought.

My favourite aspect of Card's re-telling is Hamlet's characterization. Renowned for being introspective yet much too cautionary, Card brings these traits to the fore, and Hamlet comes across as less than a heroic figure. He is not likeable in this version, yet he is nonetheless fascinating. As for the tragedy, the ending on "Hamlet's Father" is utterly tragic, horrific even, as in death the conniving king manages to trap his conflicted son under truly horrible circumstances.

The Haunted Single Malt by Marvin Kaye. 5/10

In an Edinburgh pub a group called the Jamesians gathers once a month to tell ghost stories. On this particular night the four regular members are joined by a British couple and a man from Connecticut named Hugh, who tells of the haunted single malt.

The story is entertaining enough, but perhaps a little too long for what it is, though it is the shortest piece among the group. Structurally it is broken up into narratives featuring the minor ghost stories, each one very much what you'd expect a tourist to be treated to. Nothing gory or too horrifying. There is a narrator holding it all together, and an overarching tale involving Hugh and the single malt from Connecticut. The story's weakness lies in the narrator, "Doc," who is a little overly talkative and a know-it-all of the annoying rather than the interesting kind, which gets in the way of the novella's supernatural narratives. Unfortunately there are no remarkable ghost stories here, nothing to awe or make one shiver, and the single malt comes across a little anti-climactic. Not a bad story, but very average and imminently forgettable.

Strindberg's Ghost Sonata by Tanith Lee. 5/10

I'm not familiar with August Strindberg's play, and can only analyze Lee's interpretation/re-telling (whatever it is) as though it were its own single unit.

When young Blya Sovinen is on the verge of committing suicide, a group of strangers come to his rescue. They take the beautiful young man to a tenement building, and keep him trapped there, though they treat him well. The building is a kind of co-op, and the hundred or so inhabitants share the space with a three hundred year-old ghost. This spirit was once a slave girl who fell under the spell of a magician named Nezchai who was captivated by her incredible beauty. When she died at the age of twenty-five he preserved her body and managed to keep her spirit alive. The people in the tenement remain in order to give the fading ghost more life, and need Blya and his beauty for the same.

This story is normally considered the weakest of the quartet, evidently incomprehensible and dull. I actually found the first part riveting and fascinating, but unfortunately the second part, which tells of the experiences of the slave girl, sometimes called The Swan, other times Webbed, is overly long and far less interesting. The first part is filled with mystery and gloom on par with the castle in Elsinore, with interesting characters and a situation reminiscent of modern Eastern European writing. It is a real shame Lee chose to veer the narrative along a divergent path, as I was more interested in the living and the culture they established around the ghost than the ghost itself.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The 4400: Hidden

Hidden (Episode 2.9)
Directed by Vincent Misiano
Written by Frederick Rappaport
Guest starring Teach Grant and Katia Khatchadourian
First aired 7 August 2005
Rating: 4/10

Previous episode: "Rebirth"
Following episode: "Lockdown"

"Hidden" is not a terrible episode, but it's an unnecessary one that comes off as little more than season filler. The episode focuses primarily on the Kyle assassination plot, with a minor triangular sidetrack concerning Shawn, the return of Liv, and Danny. I'm really not sure why the episode was produced, since it doesn't progress the plot, only delays it.

First off, that minor plot involving Liv and some attraction between her and Danny is pointless. Nothing is gained and we end up just where we started off. Liv and Danny go to a party despite Shawn making it clear she cannot go, and Liv steals some pills which she tries to take with Danny. They're caught, Danny feels badly though he didn't realize she's a recovering addict, and Shawn tells Liv to behave. That's all folks.

The episode opens with a warning from Maia, as she tells Diane not to catch Collier's murderer, since someone will get hurt. Of course she can't say whom, since the suspense would be lessened and we'd be dealing instead with one character trying to stave off injury or death. This way we're enshrouded with mystery.

Then we spend the episode with Tom realizing what Kyle's done, and searching for him. NTAC too is searching, and they have a lead on the murder weapon and a handgun the killer also purchased. This handgun is found in a storage locker, but Tom gets to it before NTAC. There are a multitude of problems with all this running around. First of all, why would Kyle buy a handgun and leave it in someplace as unsafe as a bus station locker, whereas he ditched everything else? What does he need with that handgun anyway? Secondly, how come Tom's fingerprints weren't found all over the locker?

Tom eventually finds Kyle, there is some bonding, discussion of trust, and the understanding that Kyle is not responsible for Collier's death since the people of the future made him do it. The plan is to send Kyle to Brussels where he can stay with a friend of Alana's, but some cops capture a man they believe is Collier's murderer, and Kyle is off the hook. Can anyone define "convenience"? Well, as the person is brought in, a gun is grabbed a little too easily off a police officer, a shot is fired, a bullet heads toward Diana... and misses. All is well.

But the episode finishes off with a good line from Maia, and we know the danger hasn't yet passed.

And what about that police officer who let his gun get taken so easily? Don't police act cautiously around known criminals suspected of murder? Idiotic scene, the entire episode suffers from such convenient acts.

Monday, July 2, 2012

The 4400: Rebirth

Rebirth (Episode 2.8)
Directed by Milan Cheylov
Written by
Co-starring Hill Harper and Lew Askew
First aired 31 July 2005
Rating 5/10

Previous episode: "Carrier"
Following episode: "Hidden"

[Episode spoilers.]

Given the title, I was assuming Jordan Collier was returning this episode, but I was fooled. Rebirth refers to 4400 member Edwin Mayuya (Hill Harper), a nurse with the ability to repair the cells of babies who were supposed to have been born with mental or physical deficiencies. NTAC wants to study him, and the 4400 Centre wants him in their midst, but complications abound when it turns out he was a surgeon in Rwanda and a bystander at a massacre at his own clinic during the 1994 Rwandan Genocide. His involvement riles communities and causes a division between level-headed Diane and the emotional Tom, who wants him extradited for execution. An interesting idea all around, but the delivery lacks the moral depth that the writers are trying to generate. What do you do with a man who participated in one of the most horrible events of recent history who simultaneously has the ability to cure unborn babies of various diseases? Moreover, it turns out that whenever he cures a child his own cells are damaged, so that the act of curing others is an act of self destruction. Perhaps if less time were spent on other threads this one could have been better developed, but sadly the devastating tragedy of the genocide is treated as standard television fare. Moreover, Edwin finds himself at the 4400 Centre, healing babies and dying, but why hasn't anyone thought of the possibility of healer Shawn healing healer Edwin so that more babies could be made healthy?

With the assumption that Edwin Mayuya is dead, that shrinks the 4400 hundred count down to 4395. Actor Hill Harper, best known for his role in CSI: NY, appeared in the Twilight Zone episode "Shades of Guilt," reviewed here.

Richard is back in episode eight but Lily is nowhere to be seen. It's as though the writers are implying that things are not grand in their world by keeping them apart on screen. What I find odd is what happened with Lily's first daughter Heidi? In episode five she was dying, potentially at the hands of baby daughter two, but we haven't seen hide nor hair of her since.

In this episode Richard is reunited with his war buddies at the death of one of their numbers. He cuts a striking image among the elderly veterans, but they accept his as he was, while Richard, being conscience-ridden and curious about the vast aspects of human nature, wants to meet with his old nemesis Lee Kendall (Luke Askew), the man we saw punching him in the pilot episode. This thread, though brief, is far more effective than the returnee-of-the-week feature, with fine acting by both Askew and Mahershala Ali. The writers do well to leave this unresolved, for it is a conflict with no possible closure.

A veteran character actor, appearing in Cool Hand Luke (1967), Pat Garret and Billy the Kid (1973), and a variety of television appearances, Mr. Askew passed away earlier this year at the age of eighty.

Meanwhile, in other neighbourhoods of the 4400: Matthew convinces Shawn to reunite with his family and repair bonds with brother Danny, while Diane tosses sister April out for having used Maia. I wonder what the purpose of April's character is, other than perhaps to give Maia something to keep her busy with while Diane is working her long hours. Lily and Alana do not appear in this episode, and we haven't seen Liv since The Godfather doors closed on her pretty face. And I miss Jordan Collier.

Saving the best ongoing thread for last. Kyle is continuing to recall the events of Collier's assassination. He visits the building from where the shot originated and the janitor who saw him at the shooting recognizes him. Tensions brew between him, Shawn and Danny, and the two concerned brothers convince cousin Kyle to take shelter at the 4400 Centre. Ironic since Kyle killed their cult leader. Instead of seeking shelter, Kyle altogether disappears.

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