Twilight Zone – The Storyteller (10/11/86)

Dorothy Livingston and her daughter are coming out of the Robert Byrd Library.  The sign tells us the hours are 9 to 5 thus guaranteeing no students or working people will ever soil its stacks.  Dorothy recognizes a man getting into a cab.  She drags her perplexed daughter into the next car and says, “Follow that cab!” although figuratively, not literally.

She believes she knew the man 50 years ago when he was a kid and she was the new school teacher.  She flashes back to 1933 West Virginia where she arrove on the Robert Byrd Bus Line with a suitcase full of books.  She passes the former teacher as she leaves on the same bus,  As the bus pulls away, she yells out the window that Dorothy must be sure Micah Frost has full access to the library.

The next morning at Robert Byrd Elementary School, she faces her rowdy class full of flannel, bib-overalls, suspenders, and small humans.  As she begins her first history lesson, she notices Micah is not paying attention to her.  He is writing furiously in his notebook, although I’m not sure how she knew he wasn’t just aggressively taking notes.

Like all government employees, Dorothy works late her first day.  Micah also stays, looking at some books in the classroom bookcase which, I guess, is what represents a library in West Virginia.

As she is walking home, she passes Micah’s house.  Through the window, she can see him reading from his notebook to an old man.  The next day, Dorothy asks Micah if she can set up a parent-teacher conference.  He says his parents are dead and he lives with his grandfather.  When Dorothy suggests a grandparent-teacher conference, Micah gets very upset and runs away.

Despite Micah’s insistence that she stay away, Dorothy goes to his house that night.  Through a window, she hears Micah again reading the old man a story.  When Micah catches her, she asks him what is going on.  He says the old man is actually his great-great-great-grandfather, born in 1793.  Micah keeps him alive like his father before him, by reading him a story every night with a cliffhanger.  He would stop each night before the end, so the old man had to stay alive to hear the resolution.

The next day, Micah falls out of a tree and breaks his arm.  The doctor keeps Micah overnight, so Dorothy goes to his house.  She lets herself in, lights a lamp in the old man’s room, and gives him something to live for.

The next morning, Micah returns home and is happy to see his GGGGF still alive.  He doesn’t understand how he survived without hearing a story.  He turns and sees Dorothy is there — she read him a story from Micah’s notebook.  Presumably with no spoilers as they would kill him.

Back in the present, Dorothy tells her daughter that she thinks the man they are following is Micah.  She always wondered what happened to him, and if the old man is still alive, approaching his bi-centennial.  Or, at her age, maybe she wants him to read her a story.  They follow the man into a building, then to his apartment.

Strangely, the version posted on You Tube stops there, before the twist.  Being a good citizen, I have the DVDs.  Turns out this episode was just a story being told by Dorothy to keep her mother alive.

Despite TZ’s usual efforts to undermine the episode —  Charles Aidman’s terrible narration, the insipid score, the maudlin tone, the complete lack of any edge — there is a lot to like here.  Glynnis O’Connor is excellent as the new teacher.  The script didn’t give her much room to exercise the skepticism I would hope for from a teacher, but she transcended the words.

It also introduced a moral dilemma, although it spent about 5 seconds on it.  Not much, you say, but dang near a record for network TV.  Why is the old man being kept alive?  Is it enough just to breathe?  He seems to have no quality of life.  He never leaves his bed, has no friends, has a scraggly beard and is — just a hunch — not a regular bather.  Maybe Micah is keeping him alive as a guardian since his parents were killed.  But why did his father take on this task?  What happened to Micah’s grandfather, great-grandfather, and great-great-grandfather?  And sorry ladies, men-only.

The ending is kind of beautiful.  The reveal that this has been a story told by Dorothy is well played as opening a door into a room which fades to white.  When cut to Dorothy and her mother, it is intriguing beyond the simple twist.  Was there actually a Micah from whom she learned this cliffhanger technique?  Why did she let her mother get to be 90 years old before she began practicing it?

But most of all, is the old man — real or fictional — still alive and pushing 200?  Even after watching the episode and writing this, my mind keeps snapping back to that question.  They have physically involved me in the mechanics of the story in a way that has very rarely happened to me before from TV or a movie.  Yeah, I want to live to see what happened.

Other Stuff:

  • Classic TZ Legacy:  Nothing really, it was a pretty original premise.  It did remind me of One for the Angels.  Ed Wynn had to filibuster a sales pitch to keep Mr. Death from taking a little girl.
  • Dorothy is said to be 22, but Glynnis O’Conner was 31 at the time.  F’ing actors, man!
  • Directed by the ubiquitous Paul Lynch (Prom Night, Ray Bradbury Theater, The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits).
  • Micah was played by an unrecognizably young Bud Bundy.
  • Skipped Segment:  Nightsong.  Unwatchable, Lifetime movie caliber.  It has the standard TZ shortcomings discussed above, but with no redeeming features.  I thought the lead actor was a dick when he had 4 shirt buttons open, then he later came back with 5 unbuttoned.  Actually, there is one well-done aspect to the episode.  I have often commented how awful DJs are on TV.  Here, Lisa Eilbacher and Kip Gilman both struck me as pretty authentic.

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