Comprehensive Comments on “Tales From the Darkside”: Disk 2

If disk 2 of “Tales From the Darkside” had been disk 1 instead, I probably wouldn’t have gotten myself into this mess of commenting on every single episode, as while it’s still flawed disk 2 is quite a bit better.  Still, the good thing about it is that there are openly six disks and my watching them is happening over the weekend, so I should be able to find the time to at least do the quick commentaries on them.  And since disk 2 isn’t that bad, I’m going to do all eight episodes in one post.  I had thought that if I found an episode that I felt was actually good I’d give it its own post, but it turns out there isn’t much to say about a good episode, or at least one that’s just good, as that sort of episode would get to be good just by, well, not being bad.  If I come across a really, really good episode then maybe it will deserve its own post.

One thing that this disk shows is that they did manage to get a lot of big names on the show.  Harry Anderson of Cheers and Night Court fame stars in an episode, as does a young Christian Slater, and there are a number of other familiar faces and names.  That might explain why it is remembered enough to get a movie and a DVD release when some other shows didn’t.

Anyway, on to the episodes:

The first episode is “The Word Processor of the Gods”, where the plot is that a henpecked author has his brother, sister-in-law and nephew die in a car accident, but gets a computer/word processor that the young nephew built beforehand given to him after the funeral (because the nephew was building it for him).  There are a lot of comments about how nice the sister-in-law and nephew were and how much of a jerk the brother was, and also about how his wife and his son aren’t nice at all.  Anyway, after setting it up he discovers that it can change reality, and it is implied that the nephew knew that it would be able to do that and had to rush it to get it to his liked uncle.  Anyway, the author soon deletes his son and then his wife from reality, and then has to quickly try to get the breaking down word processor to make it so that he could end up marrying the sister-in-law instead and have the nephew as his own son, because it turns out that he always loved the sister-in-law anyway.  He manages to succeed, and the episode ends with him having a happy family with all of them.

This episode is all right, but it really needed more time to fill everything out.  It’s based on a short story by Stephen King, as we know that his short stories can sometimes be turned into entire movies, instead of a half-hour episode.  The problem here is that the author goes very quickly from discovering that he can change reality to get some money to eliminating his son and then wife.  It would have worked better to show him making small changes that improve things but don’t give him the life he wants until he realizes that what he really wanted was a life with the sister-in-law and nephew, which he then has to rush through before the computer breaks down.  This would have both made the progression seem more natural and less like he’s always wanted to get rid of them, and would also explain why the computer is breaking down because it would have done a lot more reality changing than we saw in the episode.  Also, the episode never explains how the computer came about and whether the nephew set it up as a plan to get revived, as he seemed to know that he was going to die and could easily have done that, but that’s a minor issue since we don’t really need to know that, but it would have been an interesting twist of that had been done.

The second episode is “A Case of the Stubborns”, which is a very simple story about an old man who dies of a heart attack but refuses to believe that he is dead, and so keeps walking around, much to the chagrin of his daughter-in-law and grandson.  Various people try to convince him that he’s really dead as he decomposes more and more, to no avail.  Eventually, the grandson goes to a voodoo lady who gives him some black pepper to hide in his napkin, and the old man then sneezes his nose into the napkin and toddles off upstairs to die and be buried.

I give this episode credit for being an attempt at a pure comedy.  There really is no way to make this premise horrifying or even coherent, even in this universe, so they really do have to make this a comedy, and so spend a lot of time doing comedy, even when the grandson goes to see the voodoo lady.  So it’s an interesting idea and they completely commit to it, but I just didn’t find the episode all that funny.  But humour is subjective so others might like it more than me.

The third episode is “Djinn, No Chaser”, which is another comedy episode where some struggling newlyweds buy a magic lamp from a suddenly appearing and disappearing tent and discover that the genie in the lamp is cramped in there and so is cranky.  He can’t get out and so won’t grant them any wishes, but will use his powers to torment them.  The framing device around the episode is the husband in an insane asylum telling the story to a psychiatrist, and after he finishes telling the story up to the point where he goes to the hospital he sneaks out and returns to find that everything is resolved as his wife has gotten the genie out of the lamp using a can opener, and so everything is fine now.

Again, I give it credit for committing to being a comedy, but didn’t find it all that funny myself.  Also, assuming that the order on the disks is either the broadcast order or the shooting or recommended order, two complete comedies in a row is probably not a good idea for a series like this.  Especially in light of the next episode.

The fourth episode is “All a Clone By the Telephone”, which is the episode that stars Harry Anderson is so is also more comedic.  A TV writer discovers that his answering machine is leaving messages on other answering machines and is answering the phone with different messages that are more or less problematic for him, so when he confronts it the machine says that its him from a parallel universe and that its trying to, well, live here.  The writer disconnects it, but then all of its friends — other automated systems — keep bugging him by calling him and so make his life miserable.  When he finds out that it had called a producer and gave a wonderful idea for a TV miniseries that the writer knows nothing about, he reconnects the machine and makes a deal with it to do the actual writing while the machine ends up getting fame for its writing, which is it seems a little bit less miserable than his life before that.

Anderson’s rants are pure comedy, as is the machine’s responses and, well, the premise itself.  But the ending is surprisingly dark for a comedy as he does seem to be somewhat enslaved to doing the machine’s will.  The acting and performances are good, but again I didn’t find it all that funny and am not sure if the ending fits in with the parallel universe idea.  So it’s an okay episode but could be better.

The fifth episode is the first one that I would consider good, and is “In the Cards”.  Here, a fake psychic and tarot card reader known for only giving positive predictions has her cards switched out for another set, and afterwards can only give negative readings about horrific deaths.  This ruins her career and freaks her out, so she eventually discovers the switch was by a rival psychic and goes to get an explanation, and it turns out that the cards had been doing those terrible things to her, and she had received the cards because she didn’t believe in the powers of tarot cards in general, and so gave it to the protagonist because she was an unbeliever, and so the only way she can get rid of them is to give them to someone else who is an unbeliever (otherwise the cards will return to her, as she discovered early on).  She goes to another psychic and distracts her before the reading, swaps the cards, and sits for the reading.  It’s clear that the cards were swapped from the other psychic’s reaction, and so she leaves and tries to destroy the swapped set … but then is mugged and stabbed, and the final scene is her lying there, presumably dead.

The protagonist is clearly pretty mercenary and so isn’t sympathetic, but it works because she really doesn’t deserve the treatment she got from the cards.  There’s also a bit of subtlety in the ending, which may or may not have been intentional.  It seems clear that the cards aren’t reporting these horrible things, but are instead creating them, and the psychic who gives the cards to the protagonist does the swap before the reading.  The protagonist, however, makes the mistake of swapping the cards and then sitting for a reading, which then it seems to me creates her own downfall by sitting for a reading with the cards that cause horrible deaths, and I could see it coming when the swap happened.  So if that was the intent, that was interesting, but they didn’t really explain that or even have her realize it at the end, so whether or not that was intentional is a bit unclear.  Still, overall even with that ambiguity, it’s a fairly good episode that works to get the story out that it wants to get out.

The sixth episode is “Anniversary Dinner”, which is another one that isn’t bad.  It involves a strange, older couple who talk about having a special dinner for their 25th anniversary, and also that the wife wants to have children in the house again.  A young couple drops by looking for directions to another house, with the girl being nice and the guy being a jerk.  The wife invites them to stay with them and do odd jobs, but the guy wants to move on.  Later, she leaves him and does return to stay with them, and it seems that they get really excited when they find out that she doesn’t have anyone who will miss her.  They show her their hot tub and invite her to use it, and the husband talks oddly about how a butcher should not cause fear before slaughtering animals because it ruins the meat.  Anyway, she putters around in the room while they are out getting things for their anniversary dinner, and the husband gets angry at this.  Eventually, he apologizes and they give her wine and get her into the hot tub again, and then the wife starts giving her vegetables by tossing them into the tub, but while the girl thinks it odd she is too relaxed to care, and it turns out that they are turning that into some kind of stew pot and kill her so that they can eat her.  At the end it is revealed that the children are the skulls of the people they have killed and eaten over the years, and that she almost found it which would have ruined the meat.

The performances are really good, especially that of the couple, which elevates the episode.  It also does manage to drop lots of hints about the twist — so much so that I knew it was coming — and so the story remains consistent throughout.  While the sympathetic young woman getting killed in the end was a bit of a downer, it also does flow naturally from the story.  The episode is lighter but not a comedy, but again it really does fit with the story as written.  So this episode was also a pretty good one.

The seventh episode is “Snip, Snip”, and I have to confess that for this one I fell asleep during it — I watch these in the evenings before going to bed — and had to rewatch it the next day.  Anyway, the plot is that a struggling professor or teacher tries to use black magic to guarantee that he will win a lottery — with the number 666666 — and then discovers — after he’s ruined his life in anticipation of not needing to care anymore — that the lottery was won with the number 666667.  He tracks down the hairdresser who won it who seems really nice, but it turns out that she also has powers and is stronger than he is, and so ends up sacrificing him and putting his head on her stand of heads (which I figured she was going to do but it takes quite a while for them to show that at the end of the episode).

This one isn’t as good, as it isn’t really clear why she won instead of him and yet why she seems to know about him and wants him to come here.  The implication is that she needed a sacrifice and he ends up being it, but whether she chose him with her powers or whether the spirits betrayed him is never made clear.  Since neither the guy who dies nor the hairdresser are ultimately sympathetic, we don’t really care which of them wins, and there’s no real motivation for them using magic to win the lottery other than that they wanted the money so we can’t choose sides based on that.  Again, this is a decent idea that isn’t executed that well, although it does do the shift from him being the threat to her being the threat pretty well, although I predicted it before it happened.

The last episode is “Answer Me”, which I have to admit I slept part-way through (following on from dozing off in the previous episode) and had to rewatch it as well.  The main plot is that an English actress who was normally living in L.A. comes to New York for an audition is staying in a friend’s apartment, but is kept up all night by the phone ringing and thumping on the wall.  This causes her to fail the audition, and so she keeps looking for work while the phone ringing and thumping continues.  She complains to the landlord, and discovers that the apartment is empty and that a young English girl killed herself in it by strangling herself with the phone cord.  Eventually, unable to take it, she goes to the apartment and discovers that it is empty, and finds the phone and talks to a very disturbing operator about all of this, and then goes back to her apartment.  When that night the noises start again, she goes back to the apartment and ends up being killed by the phone, which strangles her with the cord.

Whether or not you’ll like this episode will depend on how much you like the main character and actress and how she is written.  This is because the actress keeps up a running monologue about what she’s doing and thinking, and she isn’t a particularly pleasant person.  She’s often snarky and upset and angry, but then again in this situation she has some reason to be.  If you find her annoying, then you won’t like the episode, and if you aren’t as annoyed by it, you’ll find the episode interesting.  It also suffers from creating a commonality between the two victims — English women — but not explaining why that matters or what it’s doing.  So it isn’t as good an episode as the others, but structurally is more scary and less flawed in its execution than others.

Next up disk 3, which according to the box ends Season 1.

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