Twilight Zone – Button, Button (03/07/86)

This segment begins by setting up a story that never arrives.  Norma Lewis (Mare Winningham) is such an insufferable shrew that you have to think that characteristic must be of some great importance to the plot.

Maybe something happened in her past that made her this way . . . not that we’re told.  Surely this will be the catalyst for a dose of 1960’s TZ style cosmic comeuppance . . . eh, not really.  Maybe it will be cathartic when this battle-ax is bumped off in a grizzly fashion . . . nope.  Maybe . . . maybe . . . I got nothing.  She is just a nasty woman for no good reason; so unlikable, that it really casts an unnecessary pall over the whole segment.

OK, money is tight.  The car is broken and she has stolen a shopping cart to get her groceries home.  Her husband Arthur (Brad Davis) is clearly far too good for her.  He is a handsome guy with a cheerful attitude.  All he wants is a kiss after working on the car, but she pushes him away.  She might have nabbed the cart expecting him to push her around town.

The doorbell rings.  This surprises them because WTF would drop in on this couple?  Arthur goes to the door, and finds a package has been left on their doorstep.  He hands it to Norma, I guess hoping it is a bomb.  Inside is a wooden box with a glass dome over a red button.  There is a note on the bottom telling them Mr. Stewart will be by the next day.

The next night, Mr. Stewart comes to the apartment and explains to Norma how the device works.  If the button is pushed, someone she does not know will die, and she will receive $200,000.  When Arthur gets home from work, she gives him the 4-1-1 through a constant sneer and cigarette smoke.

The premise is solid gold, but Mare Winningham sinks the episode.  OK, maybe there isn’t much time in a 20 minute segment to create a nuanced character.  However, there is no need for a character to be so pointlessly repulsive she is unwatchable.  In discussing their options, every sentence is a scream delivered like a zinger, everything is negativity and sarcasm, she is smoking like a chimney, and constantly scrunching her face into a sneer.  And how long is she going to wear that same t-shirt?

Brad Davis also plays it very over-the-top, but at least his character is a decent human being.  Because they are both playing it so broadly, clearly that was the intent of the director.  It just doesn’t suit this story, though.  I guess the writer had issues with it too because he had his name taken off the episode.

Of course Norma is going to push the button.  She is low-life trash and her husband is too whipped to stop her.  They take a long time to get there, but there is never any doubt. Imagine if this had been a classy couple; maybe moderately well off but just suffered some big financial loss.  Or a preacher who sees only the immediate good the money could do for people around him.  Or a parolee who is struggling to be a better person.  Or a dying man who wants to provide for his family.  There would have been some tension then.

She pushes the button, but there is a twist.  I peeked at the Wikipedia page for the short story, and I must admit the TV version has a better ending.  But, overall, what a squandered opportunity.

The most positive thing I can say is that it makes me really appreciate yesterday’s Profile in Silver.  In particular, Andrew Robinson’s performance just gets more amazing.

Post-Post:

  • Classic TZ Legacy:  Written by TZ royalty Richard Matheson, but he used an alias in the credits.  I would love to hear that story.
  • The same short story was the basis for The Box starring Cameron Diaz.  I saw it on 03/23/10, but don’t remember a single frame.
  • Brad Davis was just in the execrable Why Are You Here?

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