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”