Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Outer Limits - "Demon With a Glass Hand"

Season 2, Episode 5
Original Airdate: October 17, 1964
Writer: Harlan Ellison
Director: Byron Haskin
Producer: Ben Brady, Leslie Stevens
Cast: Robert Culp, Arline Martel

“Demon With a Glass Hand” is a wonderful, complex science fiction story hidden underneath a beautifully shot film noir. It was “Blade Runner” long before that huge Geisha appeared on the skyscraper…and has better voice-over to boot. Writer Harlan Ellison sued the studio behind “TheTerminator” for plagiarizing his other (lesser) “Outer Limits” episode “Soldier” in a move that, to this writer, seems like quite a stretch. But though the mythology here is much different than “Blade Runner,” it’s impossible to not see all the inspirations, from the emotionless hero to the final twist.

Despite my obsession with all things “Twilight Zone” and love for anthology series in general, I’ve never before watched “The Outer Limits,” despite having the original series on DVD for a few years now. After finally digging in and watching several of the most popular episodes (“The Zanti Misfits,” “The Chameleon” and “Soldier,” among others), I was very much let down. Despite gorgeous cinematography and some good acting, the one-hour format stretched most of these science-fiction stories to their breaking point, despite very good ideas at their core. When half of your episodes feel like filler, you have a problem – the same one that “The Twilight Zone” dealt with when it expanded to an hour in its fourth season.

That’s one of the reasons why “Demon With a Glass Hand” (whose name doesn’t really make sense in retrospect) feels like such a breath of fresh air. Instead of filler scenes placed upon other filler scenes, writer Ellison provides us with an ever-changing Rubik’s cube of mythology, often so dense that the viewer is playing catch-up. It begins with a man named Trent (Robert Culp, purposely wooden) lost in modern times with a partially-constructed glass hand and several alien killers on his tail who are recognizable because they wear panty hose (not kidding) on their faces. Trent has no idea who he is, only that he supposed to be humanity’s savior, and he must retrieve the three missing fingers for the glass hand to understand entirely what has happened to him and what he must do to save the humanity of the future. And trust me, I’m just scratching the surface here. There’s more, lots more.

The first ten minutes of the episode feel like an exposition bomb has gone off. First Trent gets a boatload of information from the mysterious panty hose aliens, then more exposition from his hand, then he meets up with a woman and explains even more to her. It’s difficult to keep everything straight and would usually signal very clunky writing, but because Trent is almost as confused as we are, the exposition dump actually works to the episode’s advantage. We go along for the ride, waiting for pay-offs to mysteries we only half understood to begin with, and when those pay-offs come they are both surprising and fascinating.

Everything speeds up once Trent gets to an office building where the aliens are headquartered. Though director Byron Haskin and his fantastic cinematographer Kenneth Peach employed the shadows of noir from the first frame of the episode, the noir look goes into overdrive in this beautifully rendered building, filled with fantastic architecture and maze-like hallways. It reminds me a lot of the office in Billy Wilder’s “Double Indemnity,” and I wasn’t surprised to read that Ridley Scott used the sameplace to film the third act of “Blade Runner” (there’s that movie again).

Trent runs into a woman named Consuelo (Arline Martel) who was working late and turns her into his companion, not by choice, but because the aliens have put an invisible barrier around the building. Together they move up the several floors of the building, ultimately to the roof, before Trent descends back into the danger below as Dante did into the inferno.

"Cowabunga, dude!"
Many of the more sci-fi elements of the episode are almost laughable, and this is true of the show in general. The killer ants in “Zanti Misfits” had cute teddy bear faces and were obviously horrible models swung on strings during the final siege. The aquatic monster in “Tourist Attraction” would have fit better as one of Ariel’s pets in “The Little Mermaid” than on “The Outer Limits.” Here Trent’s glass hand isn’t the most impressive prop (and, for a long period of time, is stuck in a “Cowabunga, dude!” position). The aliens all wear a big necklace that, when torn off of them kills them and sends their bodies back to the future – and yet none of them think they might be safer if they just tuck it into their shirt. And I did mention the panty-hose faces, right?

I’m willing to forgive many of these in part because of the show’s budget, time period and that, yes, “The Twilight Zone” had many shoddy effects too. But what really saves the more eye-rolling parts of the production are the film noir elements. Even the most laughable costumes look awesome when shot in shadow, and the kookiest villains look menacing when you can barely get a good look at them. It’s inspired that Trent and the aliens use guns, actual guns, to do their battle. Ellison apparently was horribly unhappy with that decision, but seriously, what adaptation of his work has he not all-but-disowned after the fact, and here the guns bring a unique level of urgency to the storytelling missing from other science fiction (the guns used here are infinitely scarier than, say, the ray gun from Ellison’s other episode “Soldier”).

The twist at the end of the episode is a genuinely surprising one that hits the viewer on both an emotional and intellectual level, and fits perfectly in the world of noir. It is also darker and self-defeating than one would expect from an anthology, a trait that seems to be repeated throughout almost every “The Outer Limits” episode I’ve seen. Humanity always sucks, things never get better, and our heroes must consistently suffer for little reward. It’s a very dire notion for stories whose imagination is supposed to reach from the inner mind to the outer limits, and perhaps that’s another reason why I haven’t become fully invested in the series. The ending worked beautifully here, that’s for sure, but in the other episodes I’ve seen it just felt tacked-on, as if it was trying to prove a point. Ah well, the show still has many great qualities and I’m looking forward to diving into the remainder of the episodes. I will say one thing about it: the opening credits are much cooler than any of those in “The Twilight Zone’s” history. So that’s, uh, something.

“Demon With a Glass Hand” is available on DVD, AmazonInstant Video, Hulu, iTunes and YouTube.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Maude - "Maude's Guilt Trip"

Season 6, Episode 1
Original Airdate: September 12, 1977
Writer: Charlie Hauck
Director: Hal Cooper
Executive Producers: Hal Cooper, Rod Parker
Cast: Bea Arthur, Bill Macy, Adrienne Barbeau, Rue McClanahan

People don’t talk much about “Maude” anymore, do they? Though well-liked throughout most of its run, in recent years its popularity has been eclipsed by the show it spun out of (“All in the Family”) and star Bea Arthur’s other iconic comedy (“The Golden Girls”). And what a shame that is, because for my money “Maude” is better * gasp! * than both of those sitcoms.

The show centers on Maude Findlay (Arthur), Liberal with a capital “L” and currently married to her fourth husband Walter (Bill Macy). While “All in the Family” mocked its bigoted hero Archie Bunker while simultaneously humanizing him through his faults, “Maude” had a more interesting trick to play: Maude considered herself one of the educated, cultural elite who was consistently faced with the foibles of everyday life, tried to rise above it, but (usually) ended up surrendering to her more base emotions. As an audience, we see parts of ourselves in Archie, sure, but I see a lot more of myself in Maude. A similar version of this would be used to huge success first with Sam in “Cheers” and later with Fraiser in his self-titled spin-off.

The show also took one hell of a lot of risks, more than probably any other in history. Even if you’ve never seen the show, you’ve probably heard about the infamous abortion episode, which unfortunately doesn’t hold up today. But there is so much more. At some point every major character abused prescription drugs. An entire episode focused on Maude trying to buy a bag of pot. Walter became an raging alcoholic who slapped Maude onscreen. Later he went bankrupt and attempted suicide. Maude struggled with what, in retrospect, appears to be bipolar disorder. In one episode Maude hired a black maid (Ester Rolle, who spun her Florida character off into “Good Times”) because she had white man’s guilt. And in a fantastic tour-de-force, Arthur performed a one-woman-show for an entire episode as her character quietly came apart at the seams in a therapy session. You simply can’t get away with stuff like this today, even though for my money sitcoms would be served well to be a lot more topical and risk-taking. Oh, and I should note that, even though the above events are really “heavy” in content, the show still managed to be really damn funny, even in its darkest moments.

“Maude’s Guilt Trip” is, for me, the high point of the entire series, and shows all its characters reacting to the “death” of a most hated relative. Everything action, reaction and line of dialogue showcases moral ambiguity taken to most hilarious extremes.

The episode begins with Maude preparing for the arrival of her loathed Aunt Tinky (“Her tea kettle doesn’t whistle, it whines”). Maude has bought her a plane ticket on a crappy puddle-jumper, but her mind is focused on wanting to take a trip to Rome. As a way to make Maude feel guilty, Tinky purchases $50,000 worth of life insurance in Maude’s name before she gets on the plane…and then the plane crashes.

Arthur’s performance throughout the episode is tremendous, a perfect balance between the meaningful words coming out of Maude’s mouth and the dollar signs spinning in her eyes. All Maude really cares about is getting the best trip to Rome possible, but she must go through the motions of seeming upset that this horrible person is dead, especially in front of her daughter (Adrienne Barbeau) and best friend Vivian (Rue McClanahan. Yes, THAT RueMcClanahan. Seriously, you should be watching this show).

Here’s a little sample of how brilliantly writer Charlie Hauck toes the line between humanity and selfishness:

Maude: “We could make (the trip to Rome) a pilgrimage in Tinky’s honor.”
Vivian: “Was she Catholic?”
Maude: “What the hell is the difference?”

Just as Maude finally makes peace with her “emotional reaction” to Tinky’s death and begins to behave normally again, Hauck pulls the rug out from under the characters in a brilliantly executed twist: Vivian’s husband Arthur (Conrad Bain) arrives with the news that there is a lone survivor who has crawled out of the rubble and is fighting for survival in the woods where the plane crashed.

The thought that Tinky might be alive becomes secondary to the thought that the trip to Rome is now in question, even though Maude tries to pretend that her priorities are just the reverse. She desperately attempts to keep the moral high ground even though there is none to stand on, and even though no one around her is really judging her. Watching Arthur spiral out of emotional control is one of the great joys in all of comedic television, and her meltdown here is one for the ages.

Then there’s yet another twist, one I’ll let you discover for yourself, since I’m pretty sure you haven’t watched the episode. It’s worth noting that this is the first episode of the show’s sixth and final season, and to see the sitcom still firing on all cylinders this late in its run is wonderful. Despite the heavy writer turnover throughout “Maude’s” run (like many sitcoms of its time), the show was consistently good, often great, and allowed its characters to learn from their mistakes and stumbles – a rarity in a genre where keeping things status quo is the norm.

All this, and yet only the first season of “Maude” is available on DVD, and there don’t appear to be any announcements of the other seasons forthcoming. Such a shame, because this show feels perhaps even more timely and button-pressing today than it did when it first aired. Arthur remains a treasure, and fans of “The Golden Girls” would adore this sitcom because the characters are so similar. Here is a show that still has something to say to modern audiences, and yet that audience is having one hell of a time finding it.

“Maude’s Guilt Trip” is only available on YouTube.