Case Study 37: Mister Ed, Episode 3–“Busy Wife”

Original Airdate: January 19th, 1961 on first-run syndication

Mister Ed was at the vanguard of a wave of high-concept sitcoms that were everywhere in the 1960s. People often confuse the phrase “high concept” with something highly conceptual or experimental. That’s not what it means. No, when a TV show or a movie is high concept, it’s something with mass appeal, usually with fantasy or sci-fi elements, that can be summarized in a short sentence. Jurassic Park: There’s a theme park with cloned dinosaurs. Big: There’s a twelve-year-old in the body of a thirtysomething. Snakes On A Plane: There’s snakes on a plane. In the 60s, sitcoms were so fanciful they make contemporary fare like The Big Bang Theory and Modern Family look even more boring. You had witches and genies and martians and monsters and dead parents reincarnated as cars. But before all of that you had a man and his talking horse. What could go wrong?

Strengths

Um, well, you see….hmm….

Weaknesses

  • Profound misogyny. Look, I realize it was 1961. I realize you have to overlook some of the more incidental symptoms of widespread injustice or else you’re not going to make it through anything from the period without gagging. Watch, here’s me overlooking the fact that Wilbur (Alan Young) pretends that a caller’s dialed the wrong number by adopting a wincingly racist “Asian” accent when he picks up the phone. But in this episode, misogyny is central to the plot of the show. In fact, it’s the entire plot. Wilbur’s wife Carol (Connie Hines) joins a club dedicated to lobbying for civic improvements, and Wilbur isn’t able to stand it for one goddamned second. How dare she take up an interest that keeps her from making him lunches and picking up his dry cleaning? The horse (Allan Lane, Stagecoach to Denver) impugns Wilbur’s masculinity. Wilbur’s asshole neighbor (Larry Keating, The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show) taunts him for doing his own grocery shopping. Wilbur manages to fix the situation by preying on his wife’s sexual insecurities and humiliating her in front of her friends. Hooray! It all worked out in the end! The worst part is that we’re supposed to sympathize with Wilbur, despite the look on Carol’s face when she realizes the consequences for daring to push even slightly against the suffocating confines of her home life. No, the real tragedy here is the scene where Wilbur can’t bone his wife right there on the living room rug because she wants to talk to her friend (Edna Skinner.) Instead, he sadly slinks up the stairs, trying to figure out a way to get his manhood back that doesn’t involve murdering Carol and turning her into a new saddle for Mister Ed.
  • Has nothing to do with its central premise. So there’s something else you may have noticed about that little cautionary tale about the dangers of unchaining your wife from the radiator. IT HAS SWEET FUCK-ALL TO DO WITH A TALKING HORSE. That’s what the people came for. They wanted to see the hijinks that ensue when you have a talking horse, but all the talking horse does here is tell Wilbur he’s pussy whipped and watch Leonard Bernstein on CBS. Oh, he also reprises Wilbur’s racist telephone bit. That’s it. Admittedly, the final act requires a woman wearing a bikini astride a horse (don’t ask) but that could have been accomplished with a standard nonverbal horse. I went into this halfway expecting Ed to offer Wilbur some wise counsel on how to have a healthy marriage, but instead he just makes fun of him, and the asshole neighbor is already doing that. Admittedly, Ed does complain that because Wilbur is off in the kitchen making sandwiches like some kind of unnatural monster there’s no one to entertain him, but this feels like fairly perfunctory horse usage, and if there’s one thing you don’t want from Mister it’s perfunctory horse usage. Well, I guess you also don’t want a field trip to the glue, Jell-O and leather factory, but presumably that’s not in the offing.

Motivation: I hesitate to describe this as an issue of love…that would assume that this form of marriage has anything at all to do with love. Since Carol’s essentially treated like a broken piece of property, we’ll call it money.

Final Episode Judgment: This presents me with an interesting problem, because while Mister evidences no strengths, it’s also not nearly as terrible as some of the dreck staining these pages. I’d hardly cite them as strengths, but there’s things this show could have done badly that would have made it worse. The acting is fine. The story is coherent, if repulsive. It’s not funny, but it also doesn’t try too hard at being funny–it’s very gentle. 2/10. Don’t watch it, but don’t bury it thousands of miles below the earth in a steel cask, either.

NEXT TIME: Our search for the dumbest sitcom of the sixties continues as we review Petticoat Junction!

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Case Study 37: Mister Ed, Episode 3–“Busy Wife”

Case Study 13: Hindsight, Episode 5–“Then I’ll Know” (also some meta commentary)

Original Airdate: February 4, 2015 on VH1

I’m so happy because I’ve finally found the first show I haven’t seen before that I can wholeheartedly recommend. I hadn’t even heard of Hindsight until it came up via my selection method. It aired for all of two months before vanishing into the abyss, and even when I did hear about it, I was dismissive–it aired on a network not known for scripted fare, it was a complete ratings flop and the critics ignored it. I think the biggest stumbling block was the network–if it had aired elsewhere it might have found an audience.

I have fond memories of VH1. My older brother got me excited about music at a young age and VH1 was his station of choice. We quickly became Pop-Up Video addicts. Of course, VH1 was intended as a softer version of MTV for an older demographic, so I was saturated with dreck like Natalie Imbruglia, The Wallflowers and Smashmouth. I tuned into VH1 occasionally through 2004 for things like I Love The 80s, and then I stopped watching much TV at all for several years. By the time I came back, VH1 was wall-to-wall reality shows and I haven’t payed very much attention since. Now that I look at their slate of shows, it seems that the demographic has decidedly shifted from aging white people looking for a Phil Collins fix to young black women. Which is great! There aren’t enough black faces on television and K. Michelle is bookable. The thing is, VH1 is also now known for reality shows. It is not known as a source of high-quality original scripted programming. It is not AMC or HBO or even FX. I do understand why VH1 thought this would be a good match for their audience and those who watched it when it was on the air probably enjoyed it. But the rest of us didn’t notice it, and that includes critics–I could only find two mentions of the show on the AV Club’s website and both included grumbling about its resemblance to Do Over, a WB series from thirteen years ago that aired 11 episodes. That is a complaint you’re only likely to hear from a profoundly nerdy TV geek, and look who’s talking. For the purposes of this review, I watched episodes 1, 3, 5 and 6 of Hindsight for context.

Strengths

  • Strong story. This episode uses the very common trope of presenting us with an end point in the story and going back chronologically to show us how events unfolded. This isn’t any kind of narratological innovation, but the execution is damn near flawless. It’s also thematically appropriate to use this trope, since Hindsight is about Becca Brady (Laura Ramsey, She’s The Man), a woman on the verge of turning 40 who regrets the decisions she’s made in her life. She gets a second bite at the apple when unexplained circumstances transport her back in time to 1995. She gets a job writing for a music magazine and predicting the next new thing. Here, she gets her first serious assignment: covering an R.E.M. concert in Chapel Hill, NC. So this is a road trip episode–complicated by the fact that the event we were shown in the opening moments of the episode is a grisly car accident. Joining Becca is her best friend Lolly Lavigne (Sarah Goldberg, The Dark Knight Rises) and Lolly’s friend Paige Hill (Drew Sidora, Step Up.) Misadventure follows on misadventure as the ladies endure a flat tire, getting pulled over by a cop and arriving at Chapel Hill only to find their ticket connection has fallen through and they can’t get into the concert. All’s not lost, however–they’re able to get a sweet vantage point amidst a bunch of college students partying atop a nearby parking garage. Interviewing young lovers for her article reminds Becca of another problem in her life: her relationship with Andy Kelly (Nick Clifford, The Opportunist.) Twenty years into the future, the night Becca travels back in time is also the night before her marriage to Andy, a family friend since childhood who has always carried a torch for her from afar. In 1995, the two had recently shared a clandestine kiss–behind the back of Andy’s girlfriend, Melanie Morelli (Jessy Hodges, Beside Still Waters.) The road back to New York City features an exit to Spring Lake, a town where Becca and Andy’s families shared a cabin and the site of Becca’s idyllic childhood summers. She decides to pull the trigger on her feelings for Andy and invites him to the cabin to discuss their relationship. He feels conflicted, so Becca gives him an ultimatum–drive to Spring Lake and move forward together, or stay in the city with Melanie. Andy heads to the cabin–and gets into the accident. The episode also sees Becca and Paige achieving a mutual respect for each other after getting off on a bad foot due to Paige getting involved with Becca’s first husband, Sean Reeves (Craig Horner, Legend Of The Seeker.) Overall, we’re given a tight package showcasing Becca’s ongoing quest to make good decisions in a world where she has extensive knowledge of but little control over events. The car accident we’re shown in the opening throws a pallor over a road trip already laden with tension and we wince as Becca locks eyes with Paige multiple times as she’s speeding on her way to the concert and as they careen down the highway on the way home. The hour also crams in subplots about Lolly’s relationship with her father, Harry (Alan Ruck, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) and Becca’s brother Jamie (John Patrick Amedori, The Butterfly Effect) tries to reconcile Andy and Sean in the wake of a fight over Becca’s affections. There’s not a wasted second here and all the pieces matter. It’s a great example of effective storytelling in action.
  • Well-drawn characters. The best example of this isn’t a single character but rather the interplay between Becca and Lolly. At the beginning of the series, Becca looks back on a failed marriage, a wasted career, disappointed and divorced parents and a brother struggling with addiction. But the thing she regrets the most is the end of her friendship with Lolly. Lolly is the yin to Becca’s yang. Becca diligently works long hours at a thankless job, whereas Lolly does everything she can to not be productive at the video rental store where she works. She’s a shit-stirrer while Becca is a people pleaser. Becca’s never been with anyone but Sean, but Lolly is adventurous enough to engage in a seamy hookup at Lollapalooza. They need each other. Becca keeps the cupboards in their apartment laden with food and Lolly gives Becca a necessary release valve from a stressful, button-up life. So Lolly is the natural choice when Becca needs to reveal her secret to someone and the chemistry between Ramsey and Goldberg is perfect. Here we get to see another side of Lolly and another contrast with Becca. Becca has close ties with her parents and is anxious at the prospect of their incipient divorce, though the show seems to drop this plotline after the pilot, probably because there was already enough on the plate. Lolly, on the other hand, had her childhood disrupted by a tumultuous divorce and is now estranged from both parents, especially her father. Much like Becca’s mother Georgie (Donna Murphy, Tangled) will be 20 years later, Harry is disappointed in his daughter’s dead-end job and failure to meet her ambitions–though Lolly calls him out on the fact that he doesn’t even know what her ambitions are, due to his chronic absentee status. Strong character based moments show up throughout the episode, whether it’s Paige explaining that she’s still dedicated to a career as an actress despite her parents stealing all the money she made as a child star or Andy drunkenly regaling Sean with the details of Warcraft.
  • Resonant thematic cohesiveness. Hindsight weaves a very compelling tale of retrospection and regret. Who hasn’t wondered how their life would have unfolded if they had made different decisions? Humans have been using narrative to contemplate fate, destiny and critical decisions since Oedipus Rex. This is something that will always hold our interest. Like its female-driven HBO cousin Girls, Hindsight delves into resonant and provocative questions about the awkward period of transition known as your twenties. This episode in particular makes a compelling case for the idea that taking provocative action is the best way to resolve conflicts and uncertainties, for better or worse. This crystallizes for Becca when one of her interview subjects (Matt Orlando, Pieces of Peace) says of the possibility of a relationship with a female character that “it’s an open road.” In addition to the obvious road-trip theme, it’s a reminder that for Becca, anything is possible now, including a relationship with Andy. Lolly confronts her father, and though she has every reason to be angry, she gracefully says that she doesn’t want them to grow further apart, and he agrees to try harder. Spurred by Lolly, Paige and Becca work out their issues and come to a mutual respect for one another’s abilities. Though Jamie has the ulterior motive of impressing Lolly, he tries to broker a peace between Andy and Sean, and while that doesn’t work both men learn something about themselves. We’re also given a counterexample of the toxicity of unresolved conflict–Melanie spends all night viciously sniping at Andy over his indiscretion. The viewer wonders why they’re still trying to work it out or if they ever will. Many shows try to tie all their subplots together with a unifying theme, but it’s seldom this successful.

Weaknesses

  • Thickly applied 90s nostalgia. I’m half-convinced this is why the show got greenlit in the first place. Much of VH1’s programming is still tangentially music related and it is all immersed in pop culture, so I bet they were hoping that viewers would come for the endless parade of eminently licensable 90s favorites and 90210 references and stay for Hindsight’s many charming qualities. Though it got toned down a touch, the constant Rhino-grade musical cues felt assaultive. In a historical drama that’s much more concerned with the psychology of its characters than with historicity, we’re beaten over the head with the 90s-ness of it all thanks to Montell Jordan, Collective Soul, The Gin Blossoms, Deep Blue Something and both goddamned Spin Doctors songs. The actual good music of 1995 from folks like Oasis, Radiohead, The Smashing Pumpkins, 2Pac, PJ Harvey and Bjork proved too expensive for deep cable, I suppose. This episode manages to keep its worse instincts mostly in check, partially through more high-quality offerings from R.E.M. and a concession to the fact that the 90s didn’t exist in a historical bubble via “September Gurls” and the inevitable road trip anthem “Life Is A Highway,” though no one will ever use that song more deftly than The Office. I’m not sure this makes up for Becca eyeing the Spring Lake exit while Del Amitri enjoins her to “look into your heart, pretty baby/Is it aching with some nameless need?” Woof. On the other hand, I could forgive a lot solely for this episode’s use of the melancholy “Nightswimming” over its tragic final scenes, as Becca waits alone and puzzled at the beautiful lake house.

I’m going to break the format a little and present some meta-analysis of the shows we’ve covered so far. I have two observations. The first was inspired by Hindsight: the three fundamentals of a good story, regardless of genre or tropes, are the three strengths discussed here: plot, characters and themes. Other things matter–style, execution, performances. But if a show can deliver the big three, chances are I’m going to be satisfied. Of course, as we’ve seen, it’s something of a tall order…

The other point I have is that I found myself thinking recently about The Sims 2. In that game, Sims have a set motivation that guides their wants, desires and fears throughout life. It’s occurred to me that the motivation of characters in every story corresponds to one of the five aspirations from The Sims 2, with one addition. Hindsight manages to motivate Becca with five of the six. Let’s review–Love/Sex/Romance. Becca has to decide between a relationship with Sean, Andy or neither. Money/Work. Becca is weighed down by a dead-end job and a demanding boss for 20 years, so she very quickly quits that job and embarks on a new career as a journalist. Family. Becca wants to prevent her brother from becoming a drug addict, and in the first episode, it’s implied that she’ll also try and save her parents’ magic. Maybe if there had been a season 2…Friends/Popularity. As mentioned, Becca’s greatest regret is losing Lolly as a friend. Perhaps the most interesting motivation is Knowledge/Self-discovery. By returning to the past and making new decisions, Becca is trying to reshape her life to become the person she wants to be.

The sixth motivation occurred to me while thinking about the plot of the Paddington episode I reviewed, of all things. Paddington isn’t motivated by any of that–he just wants to buy some pajamas, eat a marmalade sandwich and take a nap. That’s a bit farther down on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Hence we have the Survival motivation. This accounts for not only Paddington but also Ripley aboard the Nostromo, as well as things like the episode of Seinfeld with the Chinese restaurant. A survival narrative can just involve trying to get through the day.  

Let’s classify the shows that have been reviewed so far and see if a pattern emerges:

  • The Monsters We Met. Well, this is nonfiction, so it’s more or less guaranteed to be motivated by the promised knowledge of prehistory.
  • So Little Time. This is a tough case, since it was a shitty clip show with no story. We did get large chunks of storyline about the teen protagonists, however, and it all had to do with their love lives. Romance.
  • Comic Book Men. Since it’s a show about running a small business, money/work comes to mind. This episode is also about a bunch of bros pressuring each other to get tattoos, so friendship comes into play, as well.
  • Dead Like Me. George, much like Becca, is placed in the unenviable position of having to decide who she wants to be when confronted with an embarrassment of options. Knowledge/self-discovery.
  • Lupin the III. Lupin’s in it for the $$$. Money.
  • The Wrong Mans. In the superior first season, it’s a story about survival and self-discovery. In the crappy episode I watched, however, the characters are motivated by lurrrrve and family.
  • Paddington. As mentioned, survival.
  • Major Crimes. Procedurals are almost always a quest for knowledge, since a murder needs to be solved. There’s also the inciting issue behind the crimes, which is money here and in NCIS.
  • Danny Phantom. You could make a case for this being a survival narrative, but Danny’s survival isn’t actually in question. What is in question is his very identity, making this a quest for self-discovery.
  • Early Edition. The deadly plastic surgery is motivated by romance, but the protagonist’s actions are spurred by his unnatural knowledge of events yet to transpire. When used this way, the typical quest for knowledge is inverted–the problem is the character has knowledge and must act on it. I suppose this is the motivation for Janice in that NCIS episode as well.
  • Alcatraz. Knowledge, of course! What’s going on with the reappearing Alcatraz prisoners?! WE MAY NEVER KNOW
  • NCIS. As mentioned, the Crimebros seek knowledge about the murder, Celodyne faked safety data because they were greedy for money and Janice uses that knowledge to strike out at them. None of this would have happened without Celodyne’s lust for profits, though, so I’m going with The Weeknd on this. 
  • Hindsight. As mentioned, this show manages to cover all five top-level needs. 

Obviously, it’s a nifty and promising trick to cover so many bases in one story. I wonder if there should be a brighter line of delineation between knowledge and self-discovery, since I notice that I particularly enjoy stories that include that component, such as Dead Like Me or The Wrong Mans, whereas I don’t care so much about a general “we need to know the thing” type knowledge-quest. Phantom is great evidence of how thoroughly you can ruin a self-discovery narrative that could have been really interesting. I may keep track of this taxonomy as I review further shows.

Final Episode Judgment: 9/10. This is easily the best single episode I’ve covered for this project so far. I’d give the pilot an 8/10 and episode six a 7/10, but episode 3 was also very strong and deserves a 9/10 as well.

NEXT TIME: Another one-season wonder and our inaugural foray into sci-fi coverage, Space: Above and Beyond.

Case Study 13: Hindsight, Episode 5–“Then I’ll Know” (also some meta commentary)

Case Study 10: Early Edition, Episode 28–“Downsized”

Original Airdate: October 25th, 1997 on CBS

Early Edition is an intriguing example of a micro-genre I’ll call the “spiritual fantasy.” It involves  protagonists with supernatural abilities that give them unique foresight into the circumstances of their peers, often with an indirect or direct Christian theme. Other examples that leap to mind include Highway to Heaven, Quantum Leap, Touched By An Angel, The Pretender and Joan of Arcadia.

Strengths

  • Naturally suspenseful plot. The premise of Early is that recovering stockbroker Gary Hobson (Kyle Chandler, Friday Night Lights) starts each morning by mysteriously receiving tomorrow’s copy of the Chicago Sun-Times. Inevitably, tomorrow’s news presents Gary with some crisis that he must resolve. In this episode, the imperiled party is Gary’s former colleague, who has the rather on-the-nose name of Fred Meanwell (Richard Gilliland, Star Kid.) Gary learns that Fred is about to go through some mid-life crisis fueled plastic surgery and will die on the table. This makes for a straightforward and propulsive story—Gary must pull out all the stops to save his friend. A lot of time is spent on the understandably difficult task of establishing a chain of causality. A large chunk of the show hinges on Gary’s assumption that Fred is anxious because his boss Sandy (Barbara Howard, Friday The 13th: The Final Chapter) is laying people off and is transparently prejudiced against younger employees, but this turns out not to be the case. Watching Gary figure things out and then race to save the day makes for compelling television that keeps your attention. That should be a prerequisite for any drama, but sadly that’s not the case, so Early deserves credit here.
  • Thematic cohesiveness. It would be easy for this kind of show to fall into the trap of didactic moralism of the kind displayed in Danny Phantom. (It’s also worth noting that this show handles the issue of a dynamically mutable timeline much more elegantly than Phantom.) Instead, Early takes a social issue and explores underlying causes and factors without coming down too hard on individual actors. It turns out that Fred’s motivation is a desire to remain attractive to his girlfriend Joanne (Romy Windsor, Thief of Hearts.) Joanne doesn’t think this is necessary but initially opts to respect Fred’s decision. By being a big old snoop, Gary finds out that Joanne has a college-age son. It turns out she’s older than she appears because she, too, has had plastic surgery. Joanne regrets her decision. She felt obligated to have the surgery and conceal her status as a mother because it seemed like too much of a romantic and professional liability. Neither Joanne or Fred comes across as malicious or foolish. They seem like good people caught up in a larger crucible. Even Sandy’s superficiality is presented as being symptomatic of larger personality issues, and since she’s a one-off character used only in the service of this storyline, it might be charitable to read her as a personification of a shallow, greedy and blindly ambitious corporate culture. Fred is beset on all sides—the financial pressure of a job market that disproportionately values youth, media bombardment on how age is repellent, young couples in love on every street corner, and a May-December romantic relationship with what he thinks is a ticking clock. Early lays out a comprehensive argument for how society prioritizes vanity at great physical, psychological and economic cost. The show also ties a subplot into the theme: Gary’s roguish sidekick Chuck Fishman (Fisher Stevens, Short Circuit) needs to take publicity photos to promote the restaurant he wants to open with Gary, but is aghast at the version of himself he sees in the final product. This is presented as a comic foil to the serious A-plot, but it’s also meant as an illustration of another way a superficial society preys on the fears and anxieties of people with varying attitudes and outlooks towards life.

Weaknesses

  • Cheesy. Now, I took into consideration the fact that this show is nearly 20 years old, but even in 1997 it would have seemed horrendously dated. Compare it to Friends or ER or what have you and the overbearingly hokey soundtrack, haircuts, outfits and dad humor make this show about as hip as…well, anything airing on CBS, I guess.
  • Unrealistic. Seeing as how this show takes on the task of having its protagonist ~~CHANGE THE FUTURE~~ every week, it may be unfair of me to wince at seeing the boundaries of plausibility stretched to the breaking point time and time again. This is especially important for speculative fiction, since ideally you’d have the grounded realism of the mundane world throwing the fantasy or sci-fi elements into sharp relief. When combined with the 1980s-grade aesthetics on display, Early’s slippery grasp on reality breaks whatever spell it’s trying to cast. Time and time again Gary and Chuck wander into the stock brokerage where they used to work, into the plastic surgeon’s office and into the hospital with no one stopping them. One set piece involves Gary using a bit of “I know the future” insider trading to make Chuck look good at work, and when Sandy puts Chuck on the hot seat about how exactly that happened, Gary effectively communicates with him through mime and stage whisper from 100 feet away, regardless of the fact that there’s no way he’d be able to hear their conversation. The climax features Chuck trying to buy time by dressing up as a surgeon, wheeling Fred around the hospital and badly attempting to establish an air of authority when questioned by staff. At least the show has the decency to have Chuck faced with criminal charges for this horseshit.
  • Meddling-intensive. This is an inherent weakness of the spiritual fantasy micro-genre, and really of any narrative that places a lot of weight on moral judgments. I think this is mostly due to the demands of narrative. A story about someone who disagrees with a life choice made by someone else but decides to keep their counsel because grown-ass adults can make their own decisions and no one asked them and it’s none of their goddamned business doesn’t exactly have that textured conflict viewers have come to expect. The circumstances created by Early give Gary the unassailable moral high ground—in a normal world, Joanne would be absolutely right to tell him that Fred can make his own decisions about his body and Gary should butt the hell out. But the deck has been stacked. This unintentionally feeds into a particularly annoying strain of Christianity that insists on correcting the moral failings and realigning the religious views of other people, in lieu of removing the beams from our own eyes and so forth.

Final Episode Judgment: 5/10. Early makes for a reasonably light-hearted and entertaining hour of television, but it’s by no means essential.
NEXT TIME: Alcatraz!

Case Study 10: Early Edition, Episode 28–“Downsized”

Case Study 4: Dead Like Me, Episode 15– “Send In The Clown”

Original Airdate: July 25, 2004 on Showtime

This case study marks the first episode I’ve covered that’s part of a series with an overarching plot as opposed to the more episodic hijinks of a sitcom in the vein of So Little Time. Though Dead Like Me isn’t the sort of intricate mosaic where every episode leads into the next and the smallest of details is crucial to understanding the larger picture (I’m thinking of critical darlings like The Wire, Mad Men or The Sopranos) it did appear in the early stages of the “Golden Age” of TV and it aired on a laissez-faire pay cable network, so it wouldn’t have been unreasonable to have high hopes for the series. This is a good time to note that all my reviews which pertain to scripted TV with story arcs will contain spoilers both for the individual episode and the show at large, so beware.

Unfortunately, the show ran into trouble early on when the show’s creator, executive producer and head writer Bryan Fuller, left the show five episodes into its run. This is instructive and shaped my perspective as I viewed this episode, so let’s dig in a bit. My main source on the issue is this interview with Fuller from 2005 that chronicled his exodus. (The interview has been salvaged from the Internet’s bottomless memory hole by the good people at the Internet Archive.) Fuller lays the problems with his brief tenure on the show entirely at the feet of the show’s production company, MGM. He says that dealing with them was a “traumatic experience.” He accuses them of lacking professionalism and savvy. It does sound like there was also some homophobia there–Fuller characterizes the execs as part of a “gross old boy studio” and recounts being told that he didn’t know “what a pretty woman looks like” because of his sexual orientation. Honestly, that sounds more misogynist than homophobic to me–I don’t feel qualified to identify a “pretty woman,” but the bigger question that raises is why a woman has to be pretty to be on TV in the first place. Mandy Patinkin (Homeland) gives an indelible performance as Rube on Dead, but pretty he ain’t.

In my mind the interview makes Fuller look worse than MGM. Here’s a guy whose only previous project was the first of two thoroughly unnecessary remakes of Carrie, which appeared as a TV movie on NBC in 2002. (Fuller cut his teeth in the writer’s room for Star Trek: Voyager, a show I have a soft spot for but which nonetheless did not exactly take the world by storm.) So for the studio I’m sure it was an open question about whether or not he could successfully steward a show in addition to having the great creative ideas necessary to bring it to life. Make no mistake–Dead is crackling with energy and brilliance. Its premise is immediately compelling–a young woman on the verge of adulthood is killed in a freak accident. Instead of going to her universe’s version of an afterlife, she learns that her fate is to be a part of a gang of Grim Reapers who must harvest the souls of those about to die. The execution of this idea is also excellent, as we’ll talk about shortly. But it takes a lot more than a good idea to run a television show.

By storming off the show after a mere five episodes, Fuller proved his doubters at MGM right about his inability to run a show. The fact is, dealing with a difficult studio is simply part of the business. Any creative project that requires any kind of substantial overhead and working with a team of people requires compromise and learning to shine within the constraints you’ve been given. I’m reminded of the great scene in Louie where Joan Rivers tells Louis CK that she can’t tell him that showbiz “gets better,” because it never does and it’s characterized by ups and downs, victories and failures. She also tells him that the cardinal rule of their business is “never quit.” Despite the vagaries of the business, she says, “you do it because we love it more than anything else…what we do is not a job…what we do is a calling, my dear. We make people happy.” The conversation is about comedy, but the deeper truth is about art. I’ve loved all of Fuller’s projects (except Carrie, I suppose) but each and every one has died on the table. Now, I’m sure there’s a variety of things going on there, but Fuller’s stance on Dead in the above interview is…not a good look. It reminds me of the old canard about how if you keep finding yourself in toxic situations again and again, it may be that the common factor is you. It’s also cheap to chalk it all up to homophobia. Tiresome Hollywood power-queer Ryan Murphy makes shitty TV show after shitty TV show, and yet they’re all long-running hits. Murphy pushes the boundaries (past the point of good taste.) He does things on television that haven’t been attempted before (usually for a good reason.) He frequently includes queer characters and lurid tales of their sexual exploits. So I don’t think the deal-breaker for Fuller is that he’s queer and has new ideas, though I suppose I could see the case for an argument that the difference between the two is Murphy’s enthusiastic embrace of pandering to the lowest common denominator. I don’t want Fuller to do that. But in the case of Dead, it wouldn’t have hurt to play ball with the studio. Hell, even a gaping asshole like Dan Harmon managed to hang on with Community for three full seasons.

Two more things on Fuller and then we’ll get to the episode I’m allegedly reviewing here. Another key to being a successful showrunner is the ability to take notes, and Fuller offers up a case study in the interview. For context, George Lass (Ellen Muth) is the show’s protagonist and Fuller refers to a scene that transpires at her funeral involving her father Clancy (Greg Kean.) He says, “In the pilot episode, George’s father hugged a guy, setting up a future storyline in which George realizes her dad was gay and that her life actually wasn’t supposed to be. It was central to the theme that we don’t know the value of a life until it’s too late. But MGM cut the scene and storyline out.” Clancy is an English professor and the fellow he’s hugging is meant to be one of his students; in the shows that aired in Fuller’s absence the student he’s having an affair with is a young woman. Admittedly, the gender swap is a (slight) twist on the hoary cliche of professors fucking their students and causing personal ruin (Examples that float to the top of my mind include Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee, The Accidental by Ali Smith, Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen…) but the hard truth is that Fuller’s idea sounds rather stupid. Gay people have kids all the time, with partners of all genders. Why would this mean George “wasn’t supposed to be?” Not knowing “the value of a life until it’s too late” is hardly a profound observation, nor is it particularly well demonstrated by this proposed storyline. This sounds like a note well worth taking, but Fuller Took It Personally as a slight to his identity as a fragile gay creative genius. The sad thing is that he IS something of a creative genius! But not all his ideas are gold, and when there’s money on the table, you need people to give you notes.

This may go against the conventional wisdom of Dead fandom, but another strike against Fuller is that many of the show’s best moments came after he left! The first few episodes definitely show some growing pains, which I suppose is not unexpected in the beginning of a deeply creative program run by a rookie producer. But several of my favorite episodes aired after Fuller’s departure: “Reaper Madness,” “The Bicycle Thief,” and “The Shallow End” are some of the series’ high points, and the latter two even both include compassionate, non-sensationalizing portrayals of queer characters, which makes me a bit skeptical about the raw homophobia alleged to be on display in the offices of MGM.

Amusingly, Season 1 also includes a clip show with even less material to go off of than So Little Time’s “Look Who’s Talking.” (By the way, why the hell was the episode called that? No one ever says that and it bears no relationship whatsoever to the events of the show.) Anyway, Dead’s “Nighthawks” is surprisingly good for a clip show. Still, that’s not exactly saying much.

On to the good stuff!

Strengths

  • Strong characterization. One of the beautiful things about television is that characters who might come off as one-note in a movie have time to deepen, grow and blossom into fully-fledged, three-dimensional figures who feel like they might be people you actually know. This in particular is a great episode for character work with all the major players getting interesting material to play with. The show is also very well cast and the characters have a dynamic together that feels genuine, so it’s more the pity that for the most part the members of this great ensemble haven’t had much luck getting more work since Dead. I guess the TV industry works on the mentality that you’re only as good as your last project, and while Dead is very good, it did get cancelled after two seasons. One salient example of how a one-note character can evolve is on display here. When Daisy (Laura Harris, 1998’s The Faculty) first appeared on the show, she replaced the excellent Rebecca Gayheart (Urban Legend,) who left with Fuller in what I assume was a show of solidarity. Gayheart portrayed the very well written character Betty, and at first Daisy was a major let down. As Rube says in this episode, her conversation mostly consisted of “witless stories about star-fucking.” She would frequently toss off childishly provocative lines like “I once gave Errol Flynn a handjob in a convertible.” But as the show went on, the writers took this and built on it, and this episode is a great showcase for both Daisy and Harris. Daisy has excellent–and revealing–conversations with George and Roxy (Jasmine Guy, A Different World.) This episode also lays the groundwork for more stories about Rube and Daisy. In Daisy’s case, she collects a cross on a necklace from the effects of one of her reaping targets. This in itself isn’t taboo–reapers aren’t salaried and can only earn money by stealing from the dead or working in menial jobs–but it sets us up for an intriguing storyline a few episodes later where the family of the deceased wants the cross back and accuses the police of stealing it. This causes Daisy to do some soul-searching in a way that sheds new light on the character. Here she casually explains the cross as a flirtation with Catholicism, but ultimately this explanation winds up having more truth to it than we’re first led to believe.
  • Wit. This show is a “dramedy,” and while there are definitely poignant moments, the snappy dialogue and cutting remarks are a big hook along with the creative premise and thoughtful worldbuilding. The best examples are when the characters are given a chance to bounce off of one another. In one scene when Mason (Callum Blue, The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement) steals Roxy’s hash browns off her plate, she attempts to stab him and then storms off in a huff. Mason says he doesn’t see the point in getting so worked up over “small potatoes,” and Rube dryly comments that Mason’s remark was “almost clever.” Of course, Mason has no idea what Rube is talking about. One of the neat things this show manages to pull off is that even though all the reapers (except Betty–perhaps Fuller hadn’t twigged to this way of conceptualizing the main cast) are hard-edged people who are to varying degrees mean and callous on the outside–presumably this is what qualifies them for the job–we still end up enjoying the time we spend with them regardless. They engage in repartee, they’re quirky and as an added bonus, the more we get to know them the more we see their humanity and they become even more appealing. It’s hard to write a cast of angry, belligerent, sarcastic and otherwise cranky characters and have them not be off-puttingly obnoxious, but instead these people are actually likeable! Compare this with the characters on the much more widely beloved Mad Men. Don Draper is another in a long line of detestable television anti-heroes, and while he is interesting I never found him likeable at all. Even though he’s the center of the show and the character we spend the most time with, I can’t think of a single moment where I felt any affection for him or that anything he did was endearing. Often as a viewer of Men I got the sense that the show is high on Draper’s supply, that it sees him with a certain amount of awe and love that it didn’t successfully convey to the viewer. Admittedly, I did feel stirrings of compassion for him at various moments–but never affection. If the show were just about Don I never would have made it past the first season. Pete Campbell is equally odious, but fares slightly better because he is at least fun to laugh at and the show enjoys taking the piss out of him and clearly sees him as the prissy, pretentious little man that he is. Roger Sterling is also a jackass, but he’s easily the most likable of the three because he’s funny, not to laugh at but to laugh with. Every episode where Roger features in any substantial way is guaranteed to have at least one hilarious line from him, if not more.
  • A cohesive theme. The best episodes of television aren’t just a bunch of interesting or entertaining things happening, though you could definitely do worse–many excellent sitcoms don’t feel the need to embrace a theme and are still highly enjoyable and well worth watching. I suppose the standards are somewhat higher for a drama like Dead, and this episode nails its theme, which is the loss of innocence going hand in hand with missed opportunities for growth. It happens in many different ways–George was a virgin when she died, and when she is assigned the task of training a young man named Brennan (Steven Grayhm, House of Dust) at the temp agency where she works, she makes a move on him, despite the wishes of both Rube and her employer Delores (consistent scene-stealer Christine Willes.) She backs off of Brennan when Delores bribes her with a promotion, but Rube strongly advises her to turn down the promotion, since he doesn’t think she’s ready to take on the job and her duties as a reaper at the same time. Part of this is on Rube–he sees George as a surrogate for the daughter he abandoned when he became a bank robber to get money for his impoverished family, and her growing up and wanting to be independent is clearly painful for him. He gives George the same pet name he gave to his daughter, and when she snottily tells him not to call her that you can see in his eyes how hurt he is, along with his reluctance to betray those emotions to George. It’s a really fabulous moment from Patinkin that not many actors would be able to pull off. Rube is right, though–not necessarily about the promotion but George in general. She’s having a very hard time growing up, much as she has a very hard time accepting her new role in (after)life for the duration of Season 1. Daisy nails it when she tells George “You think you know everything; look how unhappy you are.” The episode ends with George laying a flower on her own grave to commemorate the sexual and emotional maturation she didn’t get to enjoy in life and isn’t enjoying now. We see Rube exploring this theme when he and Mason go to 6 year old Emily Sondheim’s (Jacklyn Kelly) birthday party to collect the soul of one Lloyd Sondheim, Emily’s father (David MacKay.) As a cover story, Mason accepts the role of the absent birthday clown. Emily asks Rube if he’s “the clown’s daddy” and he tells her no. Emily follows up with a question the viewer might be asking: “Then why are you here?” Rube: “I am somebody’s daddy…she’s just not at this party.” He then looks her right in the eye and says, “I want you to remember how funny [Mason] was, okay?” Rube’s daughter lost her innocence the night he left her, and Rube lost the opportunity to grow with her. Of course, the same fate befalls Emily and Lloyd. The newly departed Lloyd upbraids Mason for his typically crass behavior at the party–making penis shaped balloon animals, expressing his desire to ejaculate on the lower back tattoo of a party guest, etc.–and he wonders why Mason would try so hard to ruin the last happy day Emily is likely to enjoy for quite some time. The freshly sober Mason realizes that all his problems aren’t tied to his substance abuse–even when he’s not strung out, he’s still a crude, vulgar jerk who grabs food off people’s plates and teases effeminate little boys. He falls off the wagon, swiping the last of an unconscious bum’s booze to kill his shame and self-hatred with drugs, just like he always has (though at least he has the decency to reimburse the bum for his troubles.) Mason lost his innocence long ago, but here he’s also lost an opportunity for growth.

Weaknesses

  • The Lasses. I really can’t think of a reason we need to spend time with what’s left of George’s family every episode. People watched this show because it’s about Grim Reapers and one possible version of the afterlife. That’s unique! There’s nothing else on television like it (until Reaper, anyway, which had the twist of being about reapers who work for the devil.) There’s nothing interesting about spending two seasons watching George’s family cope with her death, even if their stories contribute to the overall theme. It’s great that the Lasses all share a family resemblance in terms of their personality and Joy (Cynthia Stevenson, Happiness) in particular is well-drawn and well-acted–another example of an uptight, angry character who still comes across as fully human and sympathetic. (Though only very briefly in this episode–she spends much of it attacking everyone around her, fairly and unfairly.) Despite that, though, the Lasses add nothing compelling and I found my attention wandering every time they appeared. If you want to watch a much more interesting take on how families deal with death, there’s always Six Feet Under.
  • Wildly inconsistent tone. It can be hard to invest in a show which attempts the unreservedly wacky alongside the poignant tugging of heartstrings. That’s not to say it’s impossible to do. Bojack Horseman manages nicely, and Futurama’s “Jurassic Bark” is the brutal apex of this sort of thing. Just thinking about it makes me want to go hug my own dog. Dead doesn’t come anywhere close to pulling this off. On the one hand, we have an endless litany of ludicrous death sequences, enabled by the fact that the show specifically focuses on a squad of Reapers who only deal in accidental and violent deaths. On the other hand, we have late Lloyd going over to his daughter, wanting to touch her one last time–and his hands pass through her since he’s no longer corporeal. You could excuse the wacky deaths as essential to the show’s premise, and also note the fact that Six was hardly immune to the impulse to disproportionately portray cinematic death by misadventure, but Dead’s comedic style is broader and goofier in general, stretching the plausibility of the world building. Consider the bit where George is trying to teach Brennan the phones and what seems like 40 different lines start ringing at once as he fumbles about, or the scene where George cuts herself on the paper shredder. Some context is needed there–the Reapers can feel pain from an injury, but their bodies heal and regenerate quickly. When George cuts herself, it severs the entire top half of her middle finger. Usually, paper shredders have safety mechanisms that prevent you from cutting yourself at all, but even if you managed to do it the shredder would hardly be able to saw through bone and tendon. This would be fine if the show were consistently this silly, but mostly it’s matter of fact and emphasizes the mundanity of its supernatural reality. It’s got a unique style to be sure, but when it takes things too far like this it’s jarring. I think this would work better if this tonal inconsistency happened on an episode by episode basis–if we got some episodes that were fairly serious and realistic and some episodes that were cheerfully absurd–but switching gears so often in one episode leads to a bit of grinding.
  • Unnecessary narration. Anyone working in television, please listen. If you are considering adding narration, don’t. It very seldom works, and usually it’s just irritating. Desperate Housewives is a great example of how it can drag down a show, and unfortunately Dead is as well. (Thankfully it’s not as ever present here as it is on Desperate.) I get that George is our viewpoint character and that she has a fairly flat affect and can be hard to read (when she’s not losing her temper, that is.) This may be why Muth hasn’t gotten much work since–she’s perfect as George but I also don’t get the sense that she has immense range. But there are a huge number of ways you can get across whatever you want to say by showing and not telling, even with George’s mostly closed outward personality.

Something new for this installment–if I’ve seen an entire show or a substantial chunk of it, I’ll offer a rating for the series as a whole as well as the individual episode. I was enamored of this show when it aired. This was back in the day where if you missed a show when it aired you were flat out of luck, though, so I didn’t see much of the second season. I was finally able to catch the whole thing in 2009 when it showed up on Netflix. Yes, even the wretched straight-to-DVD movie which Patinkin and Harris didn’t return for. Daisy was badly recast. Sarah Wynter (The 6th Day) took on the role abdicated by Harris and Wynter was not up to the task. Interestingly, Harris and Wynter played sisters on 24.

Final Episode Judgment: 7/10. While it’s not Dead’s best outing, it’s certainly well-done. With a show this good, you don’t want to skip an episode unless it’s really dreadful, and I don’t think even “Nighthawks” or the diminishing returns of Season 2’s back nine qualify for that status. That awful movie does, though.

Final Series Judgment: 8/10. Definitely worth your time, and it’s short and sweet. Fuller’s departure gives you the sense of missed potential and there are some rocky spots here and there, but as I’m sure we’ll see, there are many worse things you could be watching.

NEXT TIME: Lupin III gives this project its first look at anime!

Case Study 4: Dead Like Me, Episode 15– “Send In The Clown”