Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Dallas: “A House Divided”

Season 3, Episode 25
Original Airdate: March 21, 1980
Writer: Rena Down
Director: Irving J. Moore
Executive Producers: Philip Capice, Lee Rich
Cast: Larry Hagman, Patrick Duffy, Linda Gray

The first thing to note about “Dallas” is how big it is. Those opening credits, with the sprawling theme music and helicopter shots of the city and South Fork, present the viewer with an introduction to the biggest poker table in the world. Everything is up for grabs – all you have to do is want it enough and not be afraid to get a little blood on your hands. It feels like a big-budget movie, not an episode of television.

It’s a shame that the series is remembered today more for its cuckoo-for-Cocoa-Puffs stunts more than its excellent storytelling. I came to this series after becoming a fan of the fantastic sequel show, which underlines that a good soap opera does not have to be done with camp or over-the-top slap-fights. In many ways, it’s more difficult to write a good, character-based soap than many other genres – here, all the drama must come from within while still allowing the characters to grow, mature and revert.

“A House Divided” presents us with the most memorable season-ending cliffhanger of all time: Who shot J.R.? J.R. (Larry Hagman) is ultimate villain – viewers loved to hate him just as much as “Dallas’” characters simply hated him.  The episode opens with J.R. having pulled off the neat hat-trick of managing to save his company from going belly up while systematically bankrupting almost every other oil baron in Dallas. I’m not exaggerating by writing that the first ten minutes of the episode involve character after character entering J.R.’s office, threatening him and then leaving just in time for the next character to come in and start screaming.

But then again it isn’t like his home life is going much better. He’s attempting to get his alcoholic wife Sue Ellen (Linda Gray) institutionalized. I’m not an expert on the mythology of the show, but I have a feeling J.R. probably drove his wife to the bottle, and I can’t really blame her. His mistress is trying to backstab him. Even his dear ‘ole Mama Miss Ellie (Barbara Bel Geddes) is cross with him after J.R. manages to drive Bobby (Patrick Duffy) away from Southfork. Sure, Miss Ellie seems soft on the surface, but anyone who watches “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” knows she is not one to be trifled with.

And let’s not forget the reason Bobby decided to leave Southfork. Ewing rival Cliff Barnes (a wonderfully oily -- sorry for the pun -- Ken Kercheval) has found legal documentation that he is entitled to half the profits from a hugely profitable oil field. J.R.’s response to the news? He immediately shuts down the wells and refuses to turn them back on. Sure, this screws him out of millions in profits, but he wins, so whatever. When Bobby finds out, he’s livid, and responds by wanting to get himself and his wife as far away from J.R. as possible.

Sure, you can see the machinations of the plot twisting in every scene of the episode, but that does not mean the writing is not inspired. The episode (and the series as a whole) is all about those machinations, and it feels like a more fanciful version of “Dune,” with oil substituted for the spice. And yes, that was sarcasm. J.R. seems to have the ability to be completely emotionless about his shady dealings, snaking back and forth whichever way he needs to, damn the consequences for everyone around him. He appears to think that everyone capable of decency is really “weak.” He never seems to ask a question, only make statements that he treats as facts, no matter how insane they are. In other words, he’s a monster. In an odd way, it becomes fitting that an act of emotional rage is what brings him to a halt (albeit only for a little while).

As terrible as J.R. is, I can see why he became so beloved: He’s the only one on the show unafraid to crack a smile. Everyone else on “Dallas” has their emotions cranked up to an 11 at all times, but J.R. spends at least as much time coming up with wisecracks as he does plotting the downfall of [Insert Character Here].

Take this line, said to his mistress:
“It takes brains to know when to be scared, honey, and since that’s something in short supply around here, I’m gonna help you. Now is the time to be scared.”
Or this exchange with his wife:
Sue Ellen: “Tell me, J.R., what slut are you going to stay with tonight?”J.R.: “What difference does it make? Whoever it is has got to be more interesting than the slut I’m looking at right now.”
The aforementioned scene where Bobby lets Miss Ellie know that he’s going to leave is surprisingly poignant, a reminder that sometimes morality and honesty can be just as engaging and powerful as villainy. Duffy is excellent in the loud and emotional scene, and it proves why his character is such a great foil for J.R.

The dynamic of the series at this point seemed to be a great triangle of power between Bobby, who represented good, J.R., who represented evil, and their father Jock (Jim Davis), who was the pendulum that swung between the two. That triangle is echoed on the new show in a similar way, with Cliff Barnes’ family representing evil, Bobby’s family representing good and J.R.’s brood representing the pendulum.

Yes, there’s one or two “I’ll kill you for this, J.R.!” too many peppered into the episode, but I’m surprised it holds up as well as it does today. When you hear so many times how campy and over-the-top these ‘80s soaps were, then see those shoulder pads, then watch this compilation video, you begin to believe that they were horrible. And yet “A House Divided” is tightly scripted, the characters are memorable and that cliffhanger still packs a punch. And did I mention that theme song? Wow.

“A House Divided” is available on DVD and iTunes. The “Dallas” sequel series is on TNT Mondays at 9 p.m.

Monday, March 4, 2013

The Comeback - "Valerie Shines Under Stress"

Season 1, Episode 12
Original Airdate: August 28. 2005
Writer: Heather Morgan
Director: David Steinberg
Executive Producers: Michael Patrick King, Lisa Kudrow, Dan Bucatinsky, John P. Melfi
Cast: Lisa Kudrow, Robert Michael Morris, Lance Barber

It had been a few years since I had seen “The Comeback” when I decided to revisit it for this article, and after only a few seconds I found myself dropped back into the world of all things Valerie Cherish. The characters all seemed so familiar and so beloved, and the world that co-creators Michael Patrick King and Lisa Kudrow created was completely three-dimensional and real. This is truly one of the greatest of all television shows.

The premise involves a show within a show within a show, and yet still manages to seem simple and fresh (even today). Valerie Cherish (Kudrow) is a C-list actress who concurrently lands a dowdy supporting role on an unfunny sitcom called “Room and Bored” and a reality show that aims to follow Cherish on her “comeback” to television. The show presents raw, unedited footage of Cherish, her family, her friends, the reality crew and those working on the sitcom. It came out around the same time as the American version of “The Office” and employed that same documentary style that became so prevalent over the past eight years, but because “The Comeback” embraced the meta aspects of the style and used the crew as characters (something “The Office” is just now beginning to do, here in its final season), it created another level of humor to its storytelling.

The world that King and Kudrow created was quite ingenious on many levels. While it poked fun at the three-camera sitcom Valerie worked on (a three-camera sitcom is where the audience watches the show taped live and laughs at all the gags), it employed its own skewed version by having “normal people” watching the reality show taping and reacting to all of Valerie’s gags and pratfalls. And that cast of characters! Dickens would be proud. I’m continually fascinated by the depth that King and Kudrow brought to (at first glance) shallow caricatures. The star of “Room and Bored,” Juna (Malik Akerman), is a none-too-bright blonde actress…and yet the writers continually make a point of humanizing her. She really does consider Valerie (who befriended her in order to seem more hip) to be one of her best friends.

And then there’s Valerie.

On one level, the audience never sees who Valerie Cherish really is (until the finale) because she always has a mask up for the cameras. On another level, the cracks in her “onscreen” persona humanize her and her inability to let any of the many (many!) embarrassments she suffers through bring her down make us cheer for her. We love her, but we also love to see her suffer.

“Valerie Shines Under Stress” presents us with a world where all of Valerie’s comforts and safety nets are taken away from her. With “The Comeback” reality show premiering soon, its in her contract that she must be featured heavily in an episode of “Room and Bored,” something her arch-nemesis (and co-head writer of the sitcom) Paulie G (Lance Barber) is none-too-happy with. The writers devise a diet-pill induced dream for Valerie’s character – her character dressed as a giant cupcake must perform a big pratfall. During all this, Juna begins getting death threats and security is bumped up on set, and after Valerie beeps while walking through a metal detector she reveals that she has scoliosis and, as a result, has a large metal rod in her back.

All during this, writer Heather Morgan begins setting up the dominoes that she will knock down during the episode’s climax. “Room and Bored’s” other head writer, Tom (Robert Bagnell) has an “ulcer situation” and spends the week at home. The sitcom’s director for the week is a non-presence. Valerie insists that her husband doesn’t come to the taping. She goes to get advice from a director she trusts (James Burrows, one of the great comedic television directors of all time playing himself), who tells her that falling backward will be funnier, even though we know that will really hurt her because of the rod in her back. On taping day, the audience leaves early after a technical malfunction…the last safety net for Valerie.

All she has left is Paulie G’s emotionless stare.

In an incredibly uncomfortable sequence (purposely), Valerie falls in the cupcake suit over and over…finally falling backward, fully knowing she will be in incredible pain afterwards. Who would have ever thought a giant cupcake suit would be such a dramatic prop? After all is said and done, Paulie G insults Valerie one too many time, and Valerie punches him in the gut. Causing him to vomit. Which causes her to vomit. And, in that moment, all the tension that has been building for the entire episode comes to a beautiful, hilarious climax. Because, seriously, who doesn’t love (in the words of Jay Leno) “the rare double vomit”?

What really impressed me was how well Morgan was able to hide the script’s machinations. Every piece of the puzzle was enjoyable enough on its own that it did not seem like set-up, which is the hallmark of great writing.

The series was, in many ways, lightning in a bottle. On every level, from the writing to the cast to the direction, it worked. And that is some kind of special. Of course, “The Comeback” was never planned as a one-season wonder. Though the finale works perfectly as a series finale, when Kudrow came to speak at AFI she spoke at length about what would have happened had the series come back for a second season. Even on the DVD there are extra scenes shot that I can only imagine would have been used if the show came back. Even though I’m heartbroken HBO didn’t give the show a second chance, part of me thinks that it would be nearly impossible to top the first season. Of course, even as I write that, I know that if anyone could do it, it would be Kudrow and King. The character still remains so indelible that I can’t help but wonder where she would be today. What would Valerie Cherish be doing right now? I do wanna see that.

“Valerie Shines Under Stress” is available at HBO Go, YouTube and on DVD.

Thriller - "Pigeons From Hell"

Season 1, Episode 36
Original Airdate: June 6, 1961
Writer: John Kneubuhl (adaptation), Robert E. Howard (original story)
Director: John Newland
Producers: William Frye, Maxwell Shane
Cast: Brandon De Wilde, Crahan Denton, David Whorf, Boris Karloff

“Pigeons From Hell” is a masterpiece of slow-burn horror. At first glance, its creators seem content to embrace all the usual trappings that are trotted out to achieve cheap, impact-less scares. But instead of the cheap scares, we are instead treated to slow tension building over the course of the hour, deliberately paced to get under the viewer’s skin and linger there.

Tell me if you’ve heard this one before: Two brothers (Brandon De Wilde and David Whorf) find their car broken down on an abandoned highway in the middle of nowhere. They come upon a nearby abandoned mansion… and then the horrors begin to happen. But instead of a bunch of scares straight out of the Universal B-horrors of the 1940s, writer John Kneubuhl and director John Newland aim to create the best movie Val Lewton never produced. It is an adaptation of a great short story by Robert E. Howard (a writer who inadvertently was the cause of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s career by creating “Conan the Barbarian,” but don’t hold that against him), and in his adaptation Kneubuhl makes two distinct but very smart changes.

In the original story the young men are just friends, but here they are brothers. When Whorf’s character gets an ax to the skull, there is much more emotional resonance for both the audience and De Wilde’s Timothy. The original story worked fine without it, but here it gives the death extra significance, especially considering we only have five minutes with the characters before one is murdered.

Second, the short story takes place over the course of two or three days and nights, but Kneubuhl condenses the story to a single, endless night of horrors. That way the atmosphere is relentless – the characters cannot escape the dark and neither can we.

The most overt horror in the episode comes early: The aforementioned ax murder. While his brother sleeps, Whorf’s Johnny is drawn up the stairs of the deserted mansion by ghostly singing. When Timothy goes searching, he finds Johnny’s skull cracked in two. But that doesn’t make Johnny any less mobile – his brains still bleeding all over, Johnny chases Timothy out of the mansion, waving about the ax that was used to kill him. Despite the grisliness of what I have just described, the scene is played almost entirely by suggestion. While Johnny stalks Timothy in the hallway, we never actually see the split skull or the brains… all we see are drops of blood streaming down the front of his face. Everything else is hidden by the shadows.

Timothy manages to make it a few hundred yards away from the mansion before passing out. He is brought to the nearest Sheriff (Crahan Denton) by a town hick, and when the Sheriff decides to take the boy back to the mansion to investigate, we get the single inadvertently funny moment of the episode: The hick busts out of the house they are in and rushes off into the nearby woods like the Roadrunner escaping the Coyote. De Wilde, who many will remember for saying “Shane!” a thousand times in the film classic, also has the task of attempting to explain what happened to him in the mansion while being overcome with grief for his brother, and though his line readings might come off as hackneyed in another film, his innocent looks and inability to properly articulate himself actually works in favor of the character.

The Sheriff takes Timothy back to the mansion to investigate, and instead of a bunch of boo-scares and chains rattling, Newland provides viewers with a single, indelible image. Every time the duo enter the room where Johnny died, their kerosene lantern will not stay lit. The moment they exit the room, it comes back on. Any fan of a good horror movie knows the darkness is much scarier than seeing what is in the darkness, and that is never more obvious than here. Also, because there are no silly noises or faux-climaxes in the sequence, the viewer is consistently on the edge of his seat. There is no end to the tension until they leave the house – the threat of something bad happening ensuring the viewer cannot relax.

The atmosphere is only aided by the black-and-white cinematography, shot by Lionel Lindon (who also shot the incredible “The Manchurian Candidate” and the minor noir classics “Whirlpool” and “The Blue Dahlia”). I doubt there’s a shot in the film where everything in a given set is fully lit. Lindon uses the shadows to play with our expectations of terror, especially considering a character says early that the swampland is crawling with snakes. The lighting also makes some old-man makeup that would doubtless look hackneyed in color into something downright creepy.

Kneubuhl and Newland approach the episode’s climax with the same slow-burn mentality, refusing to ratchet up the pace for no good reason. As a result, Timothy’s slow, zombie-like walk up that decrepit staircase toward his destiny becomes excruciatingly suspenseful.

It's all about those eyebrows.
I got the “Thriller” boxed set for Christmas this year and have been consistently surprised at the quality of the episodes. It’s the only hourlong anthology series I’ve seen thus far that makes good use of its entire running time (unfortunately, “The Outer Limits” often feels like a half-hour show stretched to its breaking point to fill its hour) on a regular basis. I’ve watched about half the series (the first season is 37 episodes, so it’s not like I’m being lazy) and find that even the lesser episodes are still of legitimate quality, and Jerry Goldsmith’s musical scores are feature-film worthy, even eclipsing Bernard Herrmann’s scores for “The Twilight Zone.” The show pays homage to the Universal classic horrors of the 30s, especially with its use of host Boris Karloff (whose eyebrows here are epic, matched only perhaps by Larry Hagman’s in the “Dallas” reboot), but takes most of its inspiration from Lewton’s horror films of the 40s. Still, every now and then you can see the viciousness of the 50s Hammer films sneaking in. Since I love all those eras of fright, I feel like a kid in a candy shop every time I insert a new disc. “Pigeons From Hell” is my favorite, but I could have easily chosen “The Grim Reaper,” “Parasite Mansion,” “Late Date” “The Hungry Glass” or “The Purple Room”…and that’s just from the first season. It’s such a shame this show doesn’t exist in the public consciousness in the same way “The Twilight Zone” or “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” does, because it certainly deserves to be.

“Pigeons From Hell” is available on DVD and YouTube.