Twilight Zone – Aqua Vita (10/04/86)

Composition 101: Do not put a woman wearing stripes in front of a louvered door.

Christie Copperfield is a big-shot news anchor reader driving her red Mercedes home after a gruel-ing 30 minutes of delivering press releases and spoon-fed spin from politicians. She spots her picture on the side of a bus and smiles at her own awesomeness. [1] BTW, the director gives his credit a classy shot just below her ANCHOR 5 license plate as she pulls away.

She opens her front door and sees what to me would be the most hellish scene in the TZ canon — a surprise party.  She struggles to blow out the 3.333 dozen candles.  That night in bed with her husband Marc, Christie confesses she is worried about what being 40 will do to her ratings.[2]  Her husband jokingly assures her, “You’ve still got at least 5 good years on your warranty, then I can trade you in for a couple of 20 year-olds.”  Maybe the twist will be that he is an alien, because there was not enough booze at that party to make a human guy say that to his wife.  All is well, though, and they plan a long weekend in Santa Barbara at the Shakespeare Festival . . . yeah, one lonnng f***in’ weekend.

The next day at work, Christie shares the make-up room with young reporterette Shauna.  She tells Shauna it is no fun to be turning 40.  Shauna shows Christie her drivers license which says she was born in 1938, making her 48 (the actress is 29).  Christie asks how that is possible, and Shauna produces a silver flask.  Christie says she can’t drink before the show, but Shauna assures her it is just water.  She declines.

Just seconds before Christie goes on the air, the producer tells her that news-bunny Shauna will be filling in for her while she’s on vacation.  So maybe he and her husband crashed here in the same spaceship.  While she is on the air, the news director tells the producer that Christie’s ratings are down, and that Christie is “old news”.

After the broadcast, Christie and Shauna go see Marc at his photo-graphy studio.  His current gig is shooting scantily-clad, athletic young women exercising.  Shauna helpfully says, “Remember when you had a body like that?”  She hands Christie a card for her miracle water, Aqua Vita.

The next day, the Aqua Vita man installs a cooler in Christie’s kitchen.  He has a big toothy smile and is dressed in a white shirt, bow tie, and hat like a 1950s Texaco Man.  When he tells her “it’s no charge for the first one, missy” she asks how old he is.  He stares into the camera and says ominously, “Don’t ask.”

The next morning, she is noticeably younger to herself and her husband, but not the viewer.  It was probably fine when it aired, but the You Tubes are pretty fuzzy and the DVDs are worse.  I’ll take their word for it.  Before they head out to Santa Barbara, she takes one last swig of water.  For some reason there is a sinister musical cue as the camera zooms in on the key that keeps out unauthorized drinkers.  The water tank, I could understand, but the key?

The next morning at the hotel, Christie looks at herself in the mirror and looks so bad I can even see it on You Tube.  She looks terrible — bags under her eyes, lines on her face, and generally run-down, like by a bus.  Thank God she is wearing a towel.  She puts on a scarf and big Jackie O sunglasses and tells Marc they have to go home NOW.

As soon as she gets home, she runs to the water cooler.  Despite the earlier shot of the key, the water is fine.  In fact, because of a continuity error, there is actually more water in the tank than when she left.  The water works immediately and she takes off the scarf and glasses to reveal her younger self.

Back at work, things are going great — her ratings are up and she is getting offers from other stations.  Shauna asks Christie to return the favor by lending her a few thousand bucks.  Christie understands when her next delivery of Aqua Vita comes with a price tag of $5,000.

That night, Christie gets up to get a glass of the magic water.  This somehow escalates to an argument.  Marc says, “I’ll be staying at the studio if you need anything!” and takes off.  For some reason — but not that reason —  he is next seen knocking on Shauna’s door.  She refuses to let him in, but the Aqua Vita man is making a late-night delivery.  For the price of this stuff, you’d think he could hire some help.  When she opens the door, Marc sees she has aged worse than [                ][3] and her hair has gone white.

Back casa de Christie, she drop a glass of the water and shrieks.  She panics and tries to sponge the water off the floor and disgustingly squeeze it into the broken glass.  OK, I get that it is $5,000 a tank, but that’s a pretty big tank.  We’re looking at about $20 of water on the floor; not enough to drink brown water out of a broken glass.

Marc returns and stops her.  When he sees her face, she has aged again.  She tells him the whole story.  He tells her she has to stop, but she says, “Look at me, Marc!  I’m old!”  Cyrano tells her, “No, you only look old.”  He tells her not to worry about her career — she is “a journalist, a writer, not just a face.”  Dude, stop digging!

She is worried about them as a couple.  She worries that strangers will see them and think Marc is a gigolo, or that she will be mistaken as his mother.  Without saying a word, Marc drinks a glass of Aqua Vita.  Wait — there was water in the tank this whole time?  Why does she still look old?  Why was she practically licking it off the floor?

The next scene is them as an elderly couple.  Well, as the Aqua Vita man explained they only look old.  They can still go have wild sex . . . whoa, did they think this through?  I hate to say it, but it is kind of sweet until Charles Aidman’s insipid narration ruins the moment.

While I would have liked a darker tone, it was a good episode.  At least the score was tolerable this time. Mimi Kennedy was a strange choice to play Christie.  She is not unattractive and is always good in comedic roles.  However, her character would definitely not have been successful just based on her looks; she must have actually had talent.  Maybe a more traditionally beautiful actress would have been a better choice.  This was 10 years before Fox News — where did all the info-babes work then?

Classic TZ Connection #1:  In The Long Morrow, an astronaut allows himself to age 40 years during a trip to match his sweetie’s natural aging on earth.  However, she put herself in suspended animation and dumps the old man when he returns.

Classic TZ Connection #2:  In The Trade-Ins, people can be transformed into their much younger selves for $5,000.  An elderly couple can only afford one procedure.  After agonizing over the choice, the old man — who is in terrible pain — gets transformed. Seeing the effect this has on them as a couple, he has them reverse the process and make him a suffering old man again.

Wow, dudes are always getting the shaft in the Twilight Zone.

Other Stuff:

  • [1] She also sees an old couple crossing the road.  I get the connection to the end of the episode, but it is pointless.  There is no irony, no foreshadowing, she will not give it another thought, and it is not her time-travelling future self.  Just a big obese NOTHING is done with it.
  • [2] In a radical departure for TV, the actor’s age is actually 2 years younger than the character.  In this case, I think there was no agenda — they wanted her to face a milestone birthday, and the actress they wanted was close enough.
  • [3] Hmmmmm, I hate to mention anyone specifically.
  • Title Analysis: Simple, efficient, unique — water of life.
  • Other segment:  What Are Friends For?  I doubt this was intentional, but the other segment in this episode also dealt with aging.  Fred Savage becomes friends with the imaginary friend his father Tom Skerritt had as a boy.
  • They still make Aqua Velva?  Who knew?

Twilight Zone – The Once and Future King (09/27/86)

I don’t know whether to credit writer George R.R.R. Martin or director Jim McBride, but they pulled off a task I thought was impossible.  They made a rock & roll segment which, not only did not make me cringe, but kept me entertained throughout.  Of course, I have a few issues, but they mostly fall into the categories 1) I didn’t give it a chance, and 2) not enough of a good thing.

Elvis impersonator Gary Pitkin is doing a serviceable imitation of The King, singing Heartbreak Hotel in a venue that surprisingly does not have bowling balls and pins colliding in the background.  At first I was little put off by his silver jacket, black shirt and white tie.  It was too tacky for younger Heartbreak Hotel Elvis and not glitzy enough for older heart-attack Elvis.  He doesn’t really look much like Elvis either.  Little did I realize I fell right into their trap.

Back in his dressing room, he is complaining to his manager about the crummy gigs he is playing.  Surprise!  She has booked him in Viva Las Vegas!  Pitkin is not thrilled, however.  He feels that it was decadent Vegas that killed Elvis.  Or maybe he’s just been there; I certainly feel no need to go back.  He says he might look like Elvis, but he’s not going to make the same mistakes he did.  His manager says old Vegas Elvis once gave her a scarf after rambling like a crazy man — a fact you might think she would have previously mentioned to her Elvis-impersonator client.

Driving home that night, Pitkin is run off the road.  This is the one scene that still bugs me.  After he sees an on-coming car swerving into his lane, the POV suddenly shifts to inside the drunk’s car, over his shoulder, and we hear his drunken singing.  After Pitkin flips his car, we are literally seeing through the drunk’s eyes as we see the rear-view mirror and Pitkin’s upside-down car framed in it.  He drives off and that, as they say, is that.  I replayed it a few times trying to make the warbling sound like Elvis.  That would have made no sense, but I was grasping for any kind of context.

Pitkin climbs out of the car.  Keen observers (i.e. not me) will notice that it is day-time now.  He puts his thumb out and an old pick-up stops. He takes a look at the driver and says, “You look just like Elvis Presley!”  The driver — Elvis — says, “Do I know you, mister?”

Ahhhhh . . . I get it now; and by “now” I mean after I finished watching the entire segment the first time.  Jeff Yagher is playing both Pitkin and Elvis.  They couldn’t have Pitkin be a perfect doggelganger for Elvis.  When he climbs in the truck, the driver with the lock of black hair hanging down his forehead, the rolled up shirt sleeve, the sideburns, the friendly sneer, the voice — we accept him as the real Elvis right away.  Dang that’s good.

Pitkin notices the date on a newspaper.  It is July 3, 1954.  He recognizes this as two day before Elvis records his first record for Sam Phillips.  They go back to Elvis’s job where his boss is not thrilled that he has 1) picked up a hitchhiker, and 2) the hitchhiker has a picture of a black man (Chuck Berry) on his t-shirt.  Well, actually he refers to Berry as “a negro” with a pretty i-sounding “e” and pretty uh-sounding “o”.  Elvis plays him the ballad he plans to record.  Pitkin says that is all wrong and demonstrates the rock & roll performance Elvis should give.  Elvis thinks it is trashy.  They get into a fight and the real Elvis ends up dead, impaled on a broken guitar neck.  Of course, given how Elvis really died, this is relatively classy.

Pitkin decides to bury Elvis and assume his identity.  He will honor Elvis’s memory, he will protect his legacy, he will ensure that the world will still have his music, he will use this 2nd chance to avoid all the mistakes that Elvis-Prime made.  But mostly he will keep his own ass out of the electric chair.

In two days, he grows his sideburns and hair out, dyes them and goes to Sun Records dressed as Elvis.  And I mean literally dressed as Elvis — wearing the exact same pink shirt Elvis was killed in.  OK, I guess he could have bought an identical shirt, but why bother?  Was that the only shirt Elvis owned?  And would Elvis still be wearing it?  Wouldn’t people say, “Hey Smellvis, how many days ya gonna wear that shirt?”  And yeah, I guess the hair and sideburns were make-up and a wig from his act, but he didn’t retrieve anything from the wreck except his guitar.  In a good segment, none of that matters.

He dumps the ballad, and plays the rock-a-billy That’s All Right, Mama for his first recording, and the rest is history.  We fade into an aerial shot of 1970s Las Vegas.  Despite Pitkin’s disdain for Las Vegas, he has steered Elvis II right back there.  Bloated helmet-haired, aviator-spectacled Elvis is telling a groupie his crazy tale.  He says he doesn’t think Ma Presley truly believed he was her son.  He ponders what would have happened if real Elvis had lived.  Maybe that was the key to getting Elvis to a happy, healthy life.  The groupie turns out to be Pitkin’s manager.  Elvis gives her his scarf — after wiping his nasty sweat on it — and sends her away.

It’s not so much that this episode tricked me or had great twists, it just really made me think.  First they got me with Pitkin’s less than perfect imitation.  Seeing him grow into the part was awesome.  He became Elvis as he became Elvis.  By the last scene, Pitkin was The King.

I was thinking ahead that, in course-correcting, Pitkin should wait a few years later to call Priscilla Presley and should kick Col. Parker’s ass out a few years earlier.  But I never jotted it down because that just wasn’t the point.

In no time we are with fat Elvis in Vegas.  It was Pitkin who brought this fate on Elvis.  He was trying to save Elvis, but as his groupie / manager reveals, he has always been Elvis.  Somewhere a little boy named Gary Pitkin is listening to Elvis records and will eventually start the cycle again.  Maybe old Pitkin should warn him.  But would that deny Elvis to the world in the next go-round?

I was disappointed that it just sort of ends (i.e. not enough of a good thing).  I guess you can take the groupie being his manager as the twist, but it is not necessary to enjoy the show.  Just sit back and let the story roll over you.  Pitkin knows how and when he will die.   He knows that he killed Elvis, and by trying to perfect his life, kills him again.

The Once and Future King ranks with Profile in Silver as among the best of this series.  Is it a coincidence that both are centered on an actual historical figure?  While that is fun, the real common thread is the extraordinary performances by the leads.

Great stuff!

Other Stuff:

  • Title Analysis:  They even nailed that.  Well done!
  • Segment not Posted:  A Saucer of Loneliness starring Shelly Duvall.  She has enough problems without my shit.

Twilight Zone – A Day in Beaumont (04/11/86)

Well this is a problem.

Seeing the title, I immediately recognized it as a reference to TZ master Charles Beaumont and patted myself on the back accordingly. When the car was zapped by a Bradbury Ray, I thought, clever, but they’re pushing their luck.  Then they tell the sheriff they saw a meteor land near Willoughby, and I finally got it.

The segment is admirably stuffed with such references to the original Twilight Zone and 1950s sci-fi movies.  There comes a tipping point — and it comes early — where the point of the episode is mainly to shoehorn in as many references as possible.  This is the Mr. Creosote of TZ segments.  But that’s not a bad thing.

Many of the actors were actually in those 1950s movies such as Forbidden Planet, This Island Earth, and Them.  Their character’s names have at least one homage in them. The aliens, their uniforms, the spaceship design and sound effects are all based on those films.  There isn’t a whole lot of room left for a story after that.  But that’s not a bad thing.

It was the last episode of the season and they ended with a hoot.  But it doesn’t give me much to work with.  I could document every reference, but where’s the fun in that?  I didn’t even catch many of them.  The director’s commentary educated me on the more obscure ones.

It might have been more interesting if they had the actors — and their bloody composer — play it more straight.  Filming the segment in B&W would have given it a huge boost.  But why quibble.

So, I will just say it was a fun, light-hearted ending to the 1st season.  And get back to bed at a reasonable hour for a change.

Other Stuff:

  • Classic TZ Legacy:  What the — didn’t you read anything above?
  • Written by the writer of The Trouble with Tribbles.
  • Skipped Segment:  The Last Defender of Camelot.  Pffft.

Twilight Zone – Shadow Play (04/04/86)

Adam Grant is sentenced to “hang by the neck until dead” and he laughs.  See, that’s the problem.  My idea is to hang criminals, but give them just enough air so they hang there until they starve to death.[1]

He tells the judge, “all of this and all of you are a dream.”  He is hauled out of the courtroom under Charles Aidman’s narration of the exact same intro Rod Serling used 25 years earlier.  This is the perfect example of how Aidman’s avuncular voice undermines the show whereas Serling’s menacing tone gave it gravitas.

He tells the other inmates that this is just a dream that he lives over and over.  He describes in detail each step of walking the last mile, getting your feet bound, and having the hood placed over your head.  Then the noose.  He describes how they all nod at each other and a red light comes on, but given that he is already wearing the hood, that must be speculation.  Then the switch is thrown and he hangs by the neck until he wakes up.

Grant’s attorney goes to see the D.A.  She is starting to believe Grant’s story that this is all a dream even though she is not wearing stilettos and a push-up bra.  She points out to the DA how weird it was that there were no spectators in the courtroom, and no Hollywood actors were coming to Grant’s defense in the media.  Although, to be fair, I don’t remember if he was in jail for killing a cop.

The DA goes to death row where apparently executions are carried out on the day of sentencing — hey that’s my dream!  Grant points out several inconsistencies in this world that make the DA question his reality, like why Girls lasted six seasons and Arrested Development only lasted three.

With a slight twist, Grant is executed, then we and he find ourselves at the beginning of the episode.  However, the players are recast.  A prisoner is now his attorney, his attorney is now the judge, the priest is now a juror, etc.

I see some reviews suggesting this version is better than the original, but I don’t get it.  As good as Peter Coyote always is, it is hard to top Dennis Weaver and the B&W cinematography.  Also, the original had a classic cut (T-bone, I think) from Grant’s description of the electric chair to a sizzling steak.  Frankly, both episodes are undermined by the small stakes here — it’s just a dream.  Take some Ambien for crying out loud.

Post-Post:

  • [1] Adam Grant is electrocuted in the 1961 version.  In that case, my penal reform would be the electric couch for maximum taxpayer savings. Heh, heh, penal.
  • Classic TZ Connection:  Duh. Also, William Schallert (Priest) was in an episode and the movie.
  • Skipped segment:  Grace Note.  Notable only because it contains the same Marriage of Figaro opening as Trading Places.

Twilight Zone – The Library (03/28/86)

Beware any TZ segment that begins with that little pixie-dust musical flourish.  It does not bode well for your next 20 minutes.

Aspiring writer Ellie Pendleton is excited about her first day on her new job at the library.  The head librarian Gloria cautions her that this is a private library and “the books are not for reading by you, me or anyone.  The owners are very strict about that.”

They enter the library which contains endless shelves of books, down to the vanishing point and that’s just the James Patterson section.  Gloria says, to save space, they are going to be converting the books to holograms — which makes no sense. Understand-ably in 1986, the producers didn’t know what a Kindle was; but they did know what a hologram was.

Seeing that the books are titled with people’s names and birth dates, she leaps to the conclusion that they contain people’s lives rather than that she might just be in the ##0.#09 section.  Gloria admits there is a book there for everyone alive.  “Each is an up to the minute record of the person’s life, changing with each moment.”  When a person dies, her employer uses the book to determine their final destination, although Zeno’s Paradox would suggest the book will never get that far.

As is frequently the case with this TZ series, the insipid score undermines any suspense that this scene promised.  Ellie finds herself in the P section.  After she zips up [1], she pulls out the volume titled Ellen Pendleton.  It gives an account of her life including pulling the book off the shelf and opening it.

Back at the apartment she shares with her sister the nurse, she says her day was enormously unbelievable.  After dinner, she tries to work on her novel, but noise from the adjoining apartment is disturbing her.  She confronts her neighbor Mr. Kelleher who is laughing it up with his gal Carla . . . . . I don’t know if I can go on.

Ellie has had a mind-blowing experience at work, she is stood up by her sister, she has writer’s block, she is frustrated at the “cheapest drywall in the world”, she is angry at her inconsiderate neighbor, she confronts him and he is an obnoxious jerk.  So naturally the score sounds like public domain music that would play under two young lovers having a picnic lunch at a lake watching the sailboats.  It is inconceivable to me that this selection wasn’t drawn out of a hat.  OK, looking again, I guess this is the music on the neighbor’s stereo, but it is still a poor choice.

The next day, Ellie uses White-Out and a pen to edit Kelleher’s volume so he is a eunuch priest.  The segment regains its footing with Ellie’s entrance into her apartment after work.  The butterfly effect has changed the past, present and furniture which she trips over; and her sister is now a waitress — it is a good moment.  Note to Hollywood: Played with no score.

Ellie’s sister is consoling her crying friend Carla who was Kelleher’s gal in the original timeline.  She whines, “I’m 37 years old. [2]  I have no kids, no husband, not even a boyfriend.  My life is a complete and utter waste.” [3] The next day, Ellie writes her into “a relationship with that nice Mr. DeWitt in 304.”

After work, Carla is sporting a full length fur coat.  When Ellie enters her apartment, it is much more homey for one thing.  Her sister is now a lawyer helping Mr. DeWitt who, in this timeline, has been bankrupted by Carla’s spending.  Wow, nurse to waitress to lawyer — what a decline!

Ellie edits his volume so he is a successful real estate developer.  She sees de wealthy DeWitts as she is coming home from work. Mr. DeWitt tells her not to be late with the rent, and “and whatever your sister is trying to pull in that tea party upstairs, it’s not gonna work.”  Her sister is organizing the tenants in a rent strike against the over-bearing, do-nothing criminal landlord.  Heh, Tea Party indeed.

Ellie has had it with apartment living, so edits her volume for a nice beach house and bigger boobs, although I might have imagined that last part.  She gets home and finds her sister has died while rescuing a little boy from drowning.  D’oh!

She immediately returns to the library to erase the beach house.  And, by the way, probably condemns the little boy to die in the new timeline.

She tells them to keep CPRing while she runs back to the library, but her sister’s book has already been pulled.  Gloria finally realizes Ellie has been editing the books, so throws her out of the library like a 50 year old dude browsing in the Young Adult section.  She finds her sister in her nursing uniform waiting by the car, so all is as it was.

There is so much to like here.  The structure is pretty well-worn, but that’s OK — there is a reason why classics are classics.  This basically is the same genie/devil wish-and-consequence seen since The Monkey’s Paw.  In fact, a month ago we just had the same concept on TZ with a Leprechaun.  The 15 minute segment was well-constructed to work in minor changes in the timelines and interweave the characters.

I guess my only complaint is the score.  It is not unusual for the overly-syruppy scores the undermine TZ segments.  I am just baffled by how this was allowed.  I know they were going for a kindler, gentler, not-your-father’s TZ — misguidedly, in my opinion — but at least the sappy music often accompanies a sappy scene.  Here, it just made no sense.  I’m not going back to check, but it seems to me the most effective scenes in this segment were the ones played with no score.  The occasional heavenly choir bit worked, so I am not advocating silence.  Just don’t have the score at odds with the tone of the scene.

Just the slightest dark edge could have made this great.

Post-Post:

  • [1] She wasn’t wearing pants, but I couldn’t think of another way to say it.  See, like she was urinating in the P section.  Just urinating and urinating and urinating. Cuz it’s the P section.  Where Pendleton would be.
  • [2] The actress is 41.  F’in actors, man.
  • [3] C’mon this was already being mocked in 1980.
  • Classic TZ Legacy:  Take yer pick of genie and time-travel episodes.
  • Written by Anne Collins who also wrote the dreadful Ye Gods.  I’m willing to bet that one also had the pixie dust flourish.  She has a huge resume; maybe she is just not getting a fair shake on TZ.
  • Skipped Segment:  Take My Life . . . Please.  I like the premise, but it was just about unwatchable.  Many others seem to like it, so maybe I will get up on the wrong side of the bed in a couple of hours.
  • Skipped Segment:  Devil’s Alphabet.  No one seems to like this one.  The whole time, I kept thinking it seemed like a segment that could have easily fit in on Night Gallery.