Ray Bradbury Theater – The Town Where No One Got Off (02/22/86)

It’s hard to believe these first few episodes of Ray Bradbury Theater are part of the same series I grew so contemptuous of while watching the later episodes.  Maybe, in some sense they are not, in the same way you can’t urinate in the same river twice. [1]  

This episode clearly has a larger budget than the later episodes.  Not only are there dozens of extras, many exteriors, and multiple locations, but they have a real train.  It has an experienced director to move things along, and get the occasional interesting shot.  It also has some star-power with Jeff Goldblum after he had already had a few big roles, and the same year as The Fly.

Cogswell [2] (Jeff Goldblum) is gazing out the window at fields and small towns.  They must be on their way to New York because the passenger across from him wonders, “What kinds of lives do people live in God-forsaken places like that?”  Cogswell suggests that they enjoy peace and quiet, clean fresh air, friendly people; it is a farming community where people “look out for each other instead of looking out for number one”, although they do have to look out for number two.

The man spots Cogswell as one of those “bleeding hearts with their heads stuck in the past.  They think the solution to the life’s problems are waiting around the bend on small town front porches.”  So he’s a bleeding heart conservative?  He challenges Cogswell to get off at the next stop and talk to the boring-as-hell rubes.  Maybe I’m wrong, maybe this is the Acela Express.

The idealistic Cogswell does get off at the next random town even though it is not a scheduled stop.  As the train pulls away, he sees the other passenger through the window shaking his head at either 1) Cogswell’s naivete about humanity, or 2) in amazement that his absurd ruse to clear the seat in order to put his feet up actually worked.

At the train station, Cogswell encounters a a very rude clerk, and a sleeping old man who is only slightly less responsive than the clerk.  He leaves his bags and starts touring the town.  He walks past the cemetery, past some horses, into the small town.  He tries to get a drink from a machine, but it is as unresponsive as the citizens.  A scowling clerk tells him it is broken.  It must be said that Cogswell is doing an admirable job of trying to be friendly and engage these awful people.

He sees the sleeping man has awakened and is standing down the street.  When he sees Cogswell has noticed him, he turns his back.  However, he starts following Cogswell.  He next walks down a street covered in fallen autumn leaves.  He sees a little girl on a swing.  He asks the girl’s mother about the room-for-rent sign.  She rudely tells him it has been rented.  He sees the old man again and walks the other way.

He goes back to the store with the scowling clerk.  He asks two guys playing checkers what time the next train stops.  The men ignore him, but the clerk says, “It don’t.”  She explains that it only stops if there is a flare on the track.  He steps out and sees the old man window-shopping pocket knives at the hardware store.  He reaches for the door, but someone immediately closes the blinds and puts out the CLOSED sign.

A dog barks at him, and the police station is locked.

He finally comes face to face with the old man.  He tells Cogswell he has been waiting a long time at that station.  After more walking and talking than an Aaron Sorkin script, the man leads Cogswell into an old garage.  The old man confesses he has long wanted to murder someone and figures a stranger in town would be the perfect victim.  Cogswell counters with a story that coincidentally he also wants to murder someone and figures visiting a town where no one knows him would provide the perfect opportunity. Cogswell gets back on the train, and the old man resumes his nap at the station.  The end.

They were wise to pay the money to get Jeff Goldblum.  There is a lot of mundane dialogue in the episode, but he is endlessly fascinating to watch.  But to what end?  In the final face-off, is Cogswell bluffing about committing a murder?  Almost certainly, but it is a nice turning of the tables.  But that confrontation really has nothing to do with the why the townsfolk are all so surly.  So ultimately, we get resolution on why one man is acting crazy toward this stranger in town, but no mention of the much bigger mystery — why are all the rest of the people here such assholes?

Still, it looked great, and Goldblum was great in it.

Other Stuff:

  • [1] Note to self: Might need to brush up on my Heraclitus.
  • [2] For some reason this strikes me as a terrible character name.  Maybe because it suggests he is a cog in some mechanical or metaphysical process. And I’m not hard to please — I thought Fiorello Bodoni was a perfectly fine name for a rocket man.
  • Title Analysis: My guess is that Bradbury was too pure of heart to even get the naughty spin of the title.  In fact, that might be what doomed this series to low-budget hell.  Maybe HBO wasn’t going to keep funding it if it wasn’t going to occasionally show a little skin like Tales From the Crypt or The Hitchhiker.
  • The town seems be to named Erewhon.  That is the name of a utopian novel by Samuel Butler, a health-food store in Los Angeles, and is nowhere spelled sideways.  Tip o’ the hat for the Butler reference here.
  • Yeah, during the talky parts, I was thinking, “Must go faster!

Ray Bradbury Theater – The Crowd (07/02/85)

After midnight, Spelliner leaves a party and is driving his white Datsun 280-Z home when a dog runs in front of him.  Not being a bike messanger, he actually swerves to avoid it and flips the car.  He tries to crawl out.  Before the wheels even stop spinning, he is surrounded by people.  And not the kind of people you expect to be out at 2 AM, but a nice cross-section of male & female, young & old, white & off-white.  When the ambulance arrives, the crowd disperses.

A few days later, he is back at work in his neon sign studio.  He and his partner Morgan hear a car wreck and go to the window.  Spelliner pulls out his Casio digital watch and times that it only takes 21 seconds for the crowd to assemble.  They are the same people that flocked to his accident.

Spelliner first tries roaming the streets with a camera hoping to witness an accident.  Luckily, Morgan is able to get his hands on a stack of surveillance tapes [2] and episodes of America’s Wackiest Fatal Car Accidents.  He finds the same group gathering at 11 different accident sites.  There is one man in dark clothes whose face is never visible.

Shop Spelliner’s Gallery for all your Sumo-Wrestler ass art needs.

He shows all this to Morgan, who asks what the connection is.  Spelliner then produces morgue photos of these same people who had been killed in auto-accidents.  His friend suggests he drop it.  Spelliner believes the crowd is former accident victims who try to steal the air of those injured in current accidents.  He wants to meet these killers.

They go out looking for trouble.  They see no accidents, but do see some of the crowd-members individually walking around which kinda undermines the story. Spelliner panics and runs over Morgan, and flips his car again.  Spelliner climbs out of the car.  The crowd has assembled around Morgan lying dead in the street.  He looks around and sees Morgan is now one of the crowd.

There was a great premise here that falls far short of its potential.  Part of the problem is simply the times.  The synths, the hazy cinematography, the goofy clothes, the neon — they just don’t time-travel well.  Some of the fault must also fall on Nick Mancuso’s painfully dull performance as the awkwardly named Spelliner [1] (to be fair, I’m not sure it was ever spoken, but it was tough to type).  Morgan was mostly a non-entity as well.

Credit where it is due. It is a simple shot, but maybe the best in any RBT episode.

And what of the faceless man on the tapes?  Surely that was supposed to be Spelliner or Morgan, but it is just left hanging.  I’m not saying that would have made sense, but it would have tied things up.

Other Stuff:

  • [1] It is slightly more manageable as Spallner in the short story.
  • [2] I guess they are surveillance tapes.  When he hands them to Spelliner, he says something I have been unable to decipher after multiple replays.
  • LOL — Googling the episode, I found a New York Times article that called HBO’s Hitchhiker series “embarrassing”.  Shockingly, they did not blame Donald Trump.

Ray Bradbury Theater – The Playground (06/04/85)

We open in the titular playground which looks like it was shot in a sandstorm on Mars with a sepia filter during magic hour.  This dissolves to a strangely constructed shot of a kid in a cage, or in some sort of playground equipment.  There are sticks striking the bars and hands trying to grab him, but no other kids are actually shown.

Charles Underhill (William Shatner) is at home playing with his young son Steve when his wife interrupts them to tell Charles he doesn’t spend enough time with his young son Steve.  I don’t have any idea what this director was thinking, but he sure loves his earth-tones.  Charles goes into the dining room for breakfast.  The table is brown, the bureau is brown, the door is brown, we see through to the brown kitchen, there is brown paneling on the wall, and his tie and pants are brown.  The 54 year old Shatner’s toupee is a rich mahogany.  Even the toast is burnt.

Oops, not his wife, but his sister Carol.  She has a career and is getting married, so she won’t have time to take Steve places anymore.  She chides Charles for not even taking him to the local playground so he can meet some other kids.  She is worried he will never learn to fit in; a misfit who lives with his sister — just like Charles, or countless men on Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

That night after work, Charles walks by the playground to see if it is safe for his son.  He sees a lot of kids having fun on swings, on a corkscrew slide, running around, riding a lazy susan, roller-skating, see-sawing.  Things gradually darken so the kids are getting hurt, some are crying, bullies begin hassling one boy.  Charles calls them out and they stream by him like a flock of assholes.

That night, at his sister’s insistence, he takes Steve to the park.  At night, I say.  To the park.  Who goes to the park at night?  A lot of kids apparently, as it as filled with kids when they get there.  When they arrive, the kids stop and stare at them.

One of the kids calls to him, “Come out and play, Charlie!”  He sees them as monsters as they approach him.  To be fair, this is one homely bunch of kids.  He panics and runs home like a little girl.  Well, not like the ones he is running from.

The next day on the train, he is gazing despondently out the window.  He has this exchange with his twitchy, gum-chewing co-worker:

Charles:  How do you raise a boy?

Twitchy:  I don’t know.  You find a cement mixer, you throw him in, you let it run for five minutes, you take him out.

What?  That’s not how you make anything.  That’s not even how you make cement.  And he didn’t say make, he said raise.  Bradbury was a great prose stylist, but some of his dialogue is just painful.

As Charles passes the playground that night. he sees Steve running around having fun with the other kids.  He chews Carol out for bringing him and picks him up in his arms.  Again a kid calls his name.  Charles recognizes it as Ralph who bullied him as a kid.

That night after PTSDing over his childhood, Charles goes back to the playground.  He sees 12 year old Ralph and runs home.

The next night — or maybe it’s the same night; who the hell knows?  This playground only seems to be open sunset to sunrise — when they get to the playground, all the kids stop and stare at them.  And I can’t stress enough how hideous these kids are.  If there were a juvie version of Escape From New York, this would be it.

What happened next actually shocked me.  I expected a long-winded soliloquy from Bradbury on the innocence of children.  Actually, I got some interesting imagery and a body swap between Charles and Steve.  Charles, now in Steve’s body, is once again chased up the monkey bars and the kids are poking at him.

I was surprised again.  I expected Steve, now in Charles’s body, to rescue li’l Charles.  But no.  He mills around, does a little swinging on the swing set.  Makes his way toward the gate, and leaves.  What do you expect, he’s just a dopey little kid.

This was peak-Shatner, filmed between Star Trek III and IV.  Yeah, you get the breathy pauses and the permed brown toupee, but people forget how good an actor he was.  The image of him, with Steve’s katra in him is tough to shake.  The easiest thing would have been for Bradbury to have him go save Steve, they switch back, and have a good cry.  However, with the mind and soul of a six year old, the Charles-body doesn’t know what to do.  He stays away from the crowd.  Maybe he doesn’t fully understand what is happening.  He plays a little by himself, then gets bored and leaves.

Maybe a little too melodramatic, but one of RBT’s better episodes.  It certainly would have made a better debut than Marionettes, Inc.

Other Stuff:

 

Ray Bradbury Theater – Marionettes, Inc. (05/21/85)

Annoying preface:  

I started this blog because I spent $9 on a box set of this series, and bailed after one season. Determined to get my money’s worth, I needed something to force me to watch every remaining episode.  I started with the first episode I had not seen, Season 2’s The Fruit at the Bottom of the Bowl.  With the unexpected deletion of Science Fiction Theatre from You Tube for copyright and presumably humanitarian reasons, I have opted to complete the coverage of RBT. [1]

Annoying commentary:

John Braling (the insufferable James Coco) is trying to eat breakfast, but his pestering wife won’t shut the hell up.  Like one of those Alfred Hitchcock Presents wives, she just goes on and on (i.e. asks for it).  To be fair, all of her yapping is about making him a nice breakfast and getting him out the door dressed warmly for work.  Also like AHP, she tempts fate by asking, “What would you do without me?”

Surely you can’t be serious.

When Braling starts up his computer at work, it seems to have been hijacked by Marionettes, Inc.  Misc personal information scrolls up the screen.  He later picks up a newspaper [2] at the newsstand and there is a Marionettes, Inc business card attached.  At lunch, the waiter brings his bill and there is a Marionettes, Inc. card attached.  He demonstrates a 1985 laptop at a client’s office and the Marionettes Inc. logo comes up again with his personal information.  Most embarrassing: it states his favorite show is Wheel of Fortune.

He goes to a bar where he sees a friend and demonstrates the computer’s strange behavior.  He decides to pay a visit to Marionettes, Inc.  I’m not sure how he found the building since there was no address on the cards.  After wandering down numerous dark hallways, he enters a dark office that is sparsely decorated with only a desk, a couch and Leslie Nielsen.  What?  This is some major star-power compared to the later RBT episodes.

Nielsen asks Braling if he is happy.  He tells Braling he is “a sad man rushing to the edge of the cliff, toward his own destruction.”  He offers Baling a chance to be happy.  In another office, he shows Braling an exact duplicate of himself, amazingly even wearing the same tie.  Neilsen suggests the robot could stay home with Mrs. Braling while he did whatever he wanted to do.  And all this for the low, low price of every penny in his bank account.  Braling calls it madness and leaves.

However, in the next scene, he drags his friend Crane to his house where Braling also appears to be sitting on the couch with his wife.  Braling explains he is ecstatic with his new freedom.  He keeps the Marionette in the basement and switches places with it as needed.  He is having a grand old time “going to movies, bowling, all the things I’ve wanted to do.”

Crane suggests “wine, women and song”.  Braling admits he hadn’t thought about girls.  How exactly would the Marionette help him?  He’s still James Coco; and also now has no money.  Maybe he would have been better off investing in the 1985 Kelly LeBrock Marionette.

Crane is so impressed he decides to get a Marionette of himself.  Crane goes home and grabs his bank book — his balance is $0.00.  He puts his ear to his wife’s chest and hears a clanking robot heart.  When the B-plot is better than the main story, there is a problem.

Still watching through his living room window, Braling sees his Marionette give his wife a gift of some lingerie.  He sneaks into the basement, opens the Marionette’s box, and presses the remote which causes his double to come to the basement.  He asks, “What am I supposed to do now that you’ve got her all riled up?”  The Marionette goes on at length about what an ingrate Braling his.  His wife only wanted to make him happy.  So he stuffs Braling in the Marionette box and goes back upstairs to take Braling’s place.

This story was previously filmed as an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. [3]  This episode is light years better than the later seasons of RBT.  It has more than one recognizable face, and shows some skill in the direction.  This is from the first season, before RBT fled the country like a celebrity on November 9th (oh, you’re still here?). It was directed by the ubiquitous Paul Lynch (Prom Night, Ray Bradbury Theater, The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits).  Also, yesterday’s TZ.

However, it still is not as good as the AHP version.  Both versions suffer from having too much story for a 30 minute episode.  This version also suffers from having too much James Coco for a 30 minute episode.

Other Stuff:

  • [1] I will probably also circle around on Alfred Hitchcock Presents once I’m staring down the barrel of those hour-long episodes.
  • [1] Also, still haven’t gotten my $9 worth.
  • [2] The newspaper also blows the whistle on this being a Canadian production — the headline references the CBC.
  • [3] The character there had an extra I in his name — Brailing.  However, there was a non-I Braling in RBT’s The Coffin.

Ray Bradbury Theater – The Tombstone (10/30/92)

Another director with RBT as his only directing credit.  Usually, the episode that follows makes this understandable.  In this case, however, the episode immediately got off to an interesting start.  The dust flying from the chiseling of the titular tombstone, then the car silently going across a bridge.  Mix in some interesting camerawork, and this had potential.

Walter and Leota Bean are in town looking for a hotel room in an unnamed city (presumably not Tombstone).  The first one they try has an inexplicably repulsive guy renting the rooms.  It is a little bizarre as Walter goes to what is clearly just a room at the hotel with the word OFFICE on it.  No front desk, no ledger, just a guy in a stained wife-beater with a Bud in his mitt.  Even at this dump, there is not a room.

When he goes back to the car, he is berated by his wife Leota, who you would expect to be getting by on her personality.  As a funeral procession goes by, Walter says there ought to be at least one room free in the city [1].  I guess this is Hotelville where everyone lives alone in a hotel.

At the next hotel they try, Walter is nearly knocked over by a man running out.  They get the last vacant room, but when they are taken to it, they see a large, black, oddly phallic tombstone in the middle of the room.  It was left by the running man who was disconsolate over misspelling Whyte as White on the stone.  Why the man chose the 2nd floor of a hotel to chisel the 2,000 pound block of marble is not mentioned.

Leota is convinced the room is haunted, but they stay there anyway.  That night, the chiseler comes back to retrieve the tombstone.  As he chats with Walter and Leota, in the background we see the 60 year old clerk take the stone away on a handcart.  Either this ain’t a real tombstone, or this guy possesses the alien technology that enabled the building of the pyramids.

rbttombstone07Turns out that another person has croaked and just happens to have been named White.  As the Beans are checking out, Walter notices that Mr. White had the room below theirs.

The ending is kind of a mess.  So Mr. White had the room downstairs — so what?  The noises the Beans heard which Leota interpreted as haunting were clearly from the living Whites below.  The noises from above might have been questionable, but the Whites were not staying above.

Mrs. White takes possession of the tombstone locally.  Strangely, the hotel clerk is even on-hand, apparently having more jobs than Kirk on The Gilmore Girls.  So why was the local couple staying in a hotel?  And yeah, I watch The Gilmore Girls.

As the Beans get back on the road, Walter swerves to hit a black cat.  Hunh?

rbttombstone09There is a shot of a Maryland license plate clearly intended to trick the audience into thinking this was not another New Zealand production. However, the last shot of the episode has the car going past a big sign for NZ alt-band Bailterspace.

Thus endeth 6 seasons of Ray Bradbury Theater.

Post-Post:

  • [1] Walter Bean, portrayed by Ron White, is not as funny as the other Mr. Bean, but is funnier than the other Ron White.
  • Never considered:  Mrs. White murdered her husband!
  • If nothing else, I learned that epitaph and tombstone are not synonyms.  The epitaph is an inscription written on the tombstone.
  • Did you ever really think about the fact that there is an American city named Tombstone?  Most people have heard of it, but just think about that — weird.  Now it is no longer a thriving community, just a tourist attraction most famous because of the gunfighting.  Like Chicago.