Friday, November 9, 2012

'Way Out - "Death Wish"

Season 1, Episode 9
Original Airdate: June 9, 1961
Writer: Irving Gaynor Neiman
Director: Boris Sagal
Producer: Jacqueline Babbin, Roald Dahl
Cast: Don Keefer, Charlotte Rae, Heywood Hale Broun

Okay, let’s get to the elephant in the room. I cannot, for the life of me, comprehend why there is an apostrophe before the word “Way” in “’Way Out.” Though when I first heard the title I assumed it was an anthology focused on folk trying to find a “way out” of their problems, horrifying situations or lives, I discovered that the real meaning is that the stories themselves are “way out.” As in, “that’s way out, dude!” Were the creators and producers trying to be hip? The psychedelic intro where host Roald Dahl (yes, THAT Roald Dahl) has three heads seems to underline this theory. But still, what the hell is up with that floating apostrophe? Ah well, like the last third of “Mulholland Drive” and where Jimmy Hoffa is hidden, there are some things we are never meant to know.

“’Way Out” is a little seen, barely-available anthology series that was paired with “The Twilight Zone” for half a season before being cancelled. I had never heard of it until recently and sought it out because I simply had to see what the author of “The Witches” and “Matilda” (two books that really screwed me up when I was younger) did as a “presenter,” writer and producer on a television series. And I’m so happy I did. I’ve genuinely seen anything quite like this before – its tone is utterly different than “Twilight Zone,” “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” or any other anthology I’ve ever seen. The storytelling is like a Rubik’s Cube, transitioning tonally from dark comedy to horror to mystery, all the while keeping its viewers on their toes because we genuinely don’t understand where its authors are taking us. I was never bored, always entertained and, by the end, picking my jaw up off the floor.

“Death Wish” opens with an introduction by Dahl, who rambles on for minutes in a rant that both fascinates the viewer and serves as a pretty damn good pitch for “Six Feet Under.”
“I’ve often wondered, haven’t you, what sort of man an undertaker really is. Is he a gentle, sensitive, generous person who undercharges madly because he cannot bear to profit from misfortune? Or is he a more sinister individual, who reads the obituary columns in bed at night and broods all day about the price of caskets? One doesn’t know. And none of us are in any hurry to find out either, because we all figure, quite rightly, that we are all bound to meet up with him in the end, just once.”
The episode opens in a funeral home, with George (Don Keefer) and his wife Hazel (Charlotte Rae) attending calling hours for someone or other. Hazel is blunt, brutal and addicted to the television, but not in an adorable way like I am. She seems genuinely unable to comprehend a life outside of sitting in front of the box, memorizing actors and storylines and considering the stories proof that Native Americans got what was coming to them, among other things. This woman is so dense that she can’t even fully comprehend a commercial. And so, of course, George decides to murder her.

Up until this point, “Death Wish” could fit into any anthology series easily, but that is when the really interesting stuff happens. An unseen narrator tells us that George is deciding what way to murder Hazel, but then stops at the problem of how to dispose of the body. At that moment, a wonderful twist of fate, he is passing the funeral home he was at earlier, and the Mortician (Heywood Hale Broun) is putting out a sign that reads: “Let Us Dispose of the Body.”

George can’t help himself. He goes inside to see the Mortician has a special sale on pine boxes and a “Do-It-Yourself Burial Kit.” It’s here that the audience is thrown for a loop. How serious exactly are we supposed to be taking the situation? Is this just a really dark comedy with no connection to logic? Or is writer Irving Gaynor Neiman just teasing us to throw us off balance?

The rest of the episode continues to toe that line beautifully, with the viewer unable to take any of it very seriously, but still remaining oddly invested in the goings on. The final twist is a doozy: George finally signs some forms to allow the Mortician and his assistant to “take care” of his wife, only to discover that he was literally signing his life away. His wife came in earlier and ordered the same package for him.

The dialogue has such ingenuity it almost feels like the characters are dancing around one another more than communicating. And the actors (none of which I’m familiar with) are well cast and fill their characters beautifully without turning into caricature (with the exception of Rae, who is purposely over-the-top). This is what makes the episode work, because it certainly isn’t anything else.

To call the sets cardboard would be an insult to cardboard. As far as I can see, the funeral home doesn’t even have walls. There are some creepy horror series candelabras in the funeral home that were obviously borrowed from the next set over, and the science lab is laughable. This entire production probably cost $50 in total. The camerawork makes soap operas seem creative in their storytelling.

But because the story is there, “Death Wish” works beautifully. There are only four episodes available on YouTube for view, and I can’t wait to try the others. I can fully understand why the series was cancelled after so few episodes – the humor is too adult for kids but the series was too much of a farce for adults. I’m pretty shocked that it has not gained the same cult reputation that shows like “Thriller” have managed to, because if this episode is any indication of the writing quality, it deserves to be.

The “Death Wish” episode of “’Way Out” is only available on YouTube.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

My So-Called Life - "Pilot"

Season One, Episode One
Original Airdate: August 26, 1994
Writer: Winnie Holzman
Director: Scott Winant
Executive Producers: Marshall Herskovitz, Edward Zwick
Cast: Claire Danes, Bess Armstrong, A.J. Langer, Wilson Cruz
“You agree to be a certain personality or something for no reason. Just to make things easier for someone. But when you think bout it, how do you know it’s even you?”
This is the same question just about every teenager asks him or herself, and here it’s articulated by Angela Chase (Claire Danes) in a voice that helped to define an entire generation of teenagers. I remember in high school when we did a special edition of our newspaper focusing on our generation, the cover featured Danes’ unreadable face staring out at us. Angela is the person we all see part of ourselves in, pretty or not. We fall deeply, madly, fully in love with her over the course of the pilot of “My So-Called Life,” which is a huge accomplishment because, at times, we don’t like her very much at all.

At first glance, Angela is your “average” high school student in just about every way. She’s not too popular but not unpopular. She’s pretty but isn’t getting too many glances from the boys. She is part of a few clubs but not the head of any. She doesn’t make fashion statements. She has had the same best friend since who-know-when. Sickened by this life and this world she has created for herself, Angela begins to change. She tries new things, like a haircut and red dye job. She drops her best friend in favor of two edgier, crazier cats named Rayanne (A.J. Langer) and Rickie (Wilson Cruz). She quits yearbook. She alienates her parents, in particular her mother (Bess Armstrong). And yet it doesn’t make her any happier. So who is she, really? The question is left beautifully and brilliantly up in the air as the pilot fades to black.

Winnie Holzman wrote the episode, and was unafraid to show us all the dark, shallow, stupid sides to Angela’s personality as well. She doesn’t think “The Diary of Anne Frank” is so tragic – after all, the girl is stuck in an attic with a cute boy for a few years. And when Holzman cuts from Angela’s point-of-view, we get some real insight into how her mid-quarter-life-crisis is affecting those around her. Her mom is depressed by Angela’s actions and demeanor, finally admitting to her husband, “She loves you more and I accept it,” even though what mother ever could? Angela’s immaturity is even more underlined in a fight she has with her former best friend Sharon (Devon Odessa). You see, Angela never had a conversation with Sharon to explain her newfound rebel status – she simply stopped talking to her, which hurt Sharon deeply. When Sharon confronts her and begs to know what she did wrong, Angela can only respond, “It’s not like that! It’s not just one thing!” as her excuse, which infuriates Sharon even more, and rightfully so.

And yet, we continue to love Angela. Because who among us doesn’t wonder what would happen if we just changed our life one day, out of the blue? Because many of her thoughts, while shallow, are also surprisingly sharp and insightful. Like this one:

“My parents keep asking how school was. It’s like saying ‘How was that drive-by shooting?’ You don’t care how it was. You’re lucky to get out alive.”

She speaks for us in ways we can’t quite articulate. She pays attention and notes the small stuff that sounds silly but takes up so many of our thoughts. You have a feeling that she will, indeed, discover who she is and turn out more than alright in the end, even if her taste in men at the present time leaves a lot to be desired.

Holzman’s writing is consistently excellent throughout the episode…hell, throughout the entire series. Because Angela is so quiet with most of the people in her world, Holzman provides us with ample voiceover, but not the overwritten, faux-insightful dialogue you’d see on most other television shows. This voiceover sounds exactly how Angela sounds when she speaks, full of stutter-steps and silly observations that perfectly reflect her personality. In addition, Holzman gives us amazing voiceover descriptions of the supporting cast of characters. For example, here’s her summation of her first true “love” Jordan Catalano (Jared Leto):
“He’s always closing his eyes, like it hurts to look at things.”
And here’s how Angela describes Rayanne:
“Rayanne always knows who is going to be there.”
She doesn’t tick off personality traits or types. Instead, Holzman provides viewers with the smallest of details and lets the viewer fill in the rest of the information himself. And, in many ways, isn’t that better than being spoon-fed how to feel about a character? What can you read into “He’s a brooding, soulful ne’er-do-well” anyway? What does that really tell you about the object of Angela’s affection?

It’s extremely rare for a television show to have a “perfect” season. By that I don’t mean flawless, I mean a season in which every episode is indispensible, beautifully rendered and emotional resonant. I think of the second season of “Gilmore Girls,” the third season of “Friday Night Lights,” the first season of “The Good Wife,” and the entirety of “My So-Called Life.” The show lasted for only a single season of nineteen episodes, and each is like a master class in writing, acting and direction, even the silly Halloween and Christmas episodes that involved ghosts and guardian angels. Each one deserves a column on this blog (and I’m sure a few others will), and in some ways I’m happy that there isn’t a whole bunch of closure at the end of the show, because that wouldn’t be honest. In life, so few things get the nice little bow on it, and there’s often rarely a defining moment where a person realizes who he or she “really” is. Instead, we are left with the question posed by the pilot still unanswered. Who is Angela Chase? Every time I sit down to view the series, I think I know, but then she always manages to surprise me.

The pilot of “My So-Called Life” is available on DVD, Hulu, Amazon Instant Video and iTunes.