Comprehensive Comments on “Tales From the Darkside”: Disk 6

This disk finishes off the second season.  Now, while watching this I started to wonder if my reaction to the first season was unduly biasing my impressions of the second season.  While I wouldn’t say it left me in a position where I didn’t want the episodes to be good, maybe I was judging the later episodes by the former ones and so finding flaws in them that I probably would have ignored otherwise.  After all, I generally felt that the ideas were good, and what I did notice that the episodes did seem to flow pretty well and were generally paced all right so that I wasn’t sitting there thinking that it was dragging or waiting for each episode to be over.  Then again, that it gets the pacing generally right is actually pretty faint praise for a half hour show, since that’s so little time that if the episode is dragging then you have to be doing something wrong.  And at least a few of these episodes did feel like they’re dragging.

Ultimately, though, I think my assessment is pretty fair, because while there were episodes that didn’t seem to drag and even some episodes where at the start and even in the middle I was thinking that this might actually be a pretty good episode invariably the ending is confusing or raises a lot of unanswered questions and I find myself very annoyed by the episode.  And as discussed last time, the best episodes are mostly inoffensive ones where the story is simple and the episode doesn’t see fit to complicate it.  I’ll talk a little more about this at the end of the post.

Again, there isn’t any episode that really stands out for good or ill so I’ll do the entire disk in this post.

The first episode is “The Shrine”, where a woman returns to stay with her mother for a while whom she hasn’t really seen in six years.  She isn’t allowed to stay in her old room as her mother insists that she uses it for storage, but the daughter hears the mother’s voice and a little girl’s voice.  The next day, she investigates the room and discovers that it hasn’t been changed since she moved out, and seems to be a shrine — although the episode never calls it that — to her life.  It turns out that she and her mother are out of sorts because her mother doesn’t like that she isn’t a success, isn’t married, has no kids, and had a nervous breakdown.  Later, she goes up and sees her mother singing to a little girl.  The next day, she contrives to go into the room and call the little girl out while her mother isn’t home, and the little girl says that the daughter’s mother is her mother now and that it’s too late to fix that.  Later, she runs into the room where the mother is singing with the little girl again and confronts them, but the mother isn’t paying any attention to her, while the little girl simply taunts her.  Eventually, the daughter starts to get through to her mother and the little girl summons winds to push the daughter around.  Finally, the mother breaks free in response to the pleas of the daughter that she needs her mother, and then the little girl leaves and the mother collapses as if dead, but it turns out that she survives and presumably they’re reunited.

The problem with this episode and its ending is that the mother having a shrine usually plays to an idea of still loving and wanting her child, and not trying to replace her, when the daughter seems to imply that the mother doesn’t care about her anymore.  It could tie into the mother living a fantasy life ignoring the things that disappointed her, but the episode doesn’t play it as that and, in general, doesn’t explain how any of this happened or what any of this means or what the little girl really is.  That makes the ending totally unsatisfying.  It also doesn’t relate to most of the things in the episode, making them meaningless.  And the sad thing is that there was a really good ending they could have gone with, by having the daughter be breaking down again due to the stress of the meeting and imagining all of this, which would make almost everything make sense and also make it all be meaningful, as the daughter’s feelings of abandonment by her mother would be the very things that would be feeding into her stress and her fearful imaginings.  But it had to tie into the “Darkside” somehow, to the episode’s detriment.

The second episode is “The Old Soft Shoe”, where a traveling lingerie salesman — no, really — gets trapped in a motel by a storm, and has to get a room.  An attractive woman arrives and he immediately hits on her, but she isn’t interested and gets the last real room.  There is one room available, but the manager insists that he doesn’t rent it out, but does so for ten extra dollars.  The man goes in there, notes that there’s a peephole into the next room where the woman is undressing, and then runs a bath.  He falls asleep and is woken by an attractive woman in what seems like some of the lingerie he’s trying to sell.  She keeps calling him Henry and promises him a surprise, and he’s pretty interested until the woman from next door shows up to complain about the noise and later when he has to admit that he’s married.  Obviously, the strange woman doesn’t take that well and comes back with a gun and shoots him.  He stumbles back to the office but doesn’t appear to have been shot at all.  He convinces the manager to come back with him but no one is in the room.  Once the manager leaves, the woman appears again and plays on the fact that he used to be some kind of excellent soft shoe dancer, and so gets him to get into ballroom dancing, and eventually walks him into the bathroom and to the bathtub.  Later, he’s discovered having drowned and the police officer brings up the fact that the manager’s father died in that room and was drowned as well, and says that they should have torn the room down — it’s called a “cabin” — long ago.

This is an episode where none of the elements of the episode actually align with what’s happening, and so it’s really poorly written overall.  The manager doesn’t want to rent the room, and yet he is willing to rent it for a surprisingly small amount of money despite it being the room where his father died.  The woman in the other room doesn’t actually add anything at all.  The fact that the man was a dancer is barely referenced and doesn’t have any meaning or role in the final outcome.  Other than a suspicion that she killed them for cheating on her, we don’t find out anything about the strange woman/ghost or what she wants or why she’s still around.  It would not surprise me that the only reason for the story is to get an attractive woman in lingerie for a lot of the episode.

The third episode is “The Last Car”, where a young woman is heading home for Thanksgiving and to meet her boyfriend and ends up misreading the schedule and having to wait for a long time for a train.  When it arrives, she ends up in the almost empty “last car”, which surprises her because all the other cars are completely full.  The people in the car start acting strangely almost immediately.  The older woman doesn’t recognize her watch.  There is a young kid there who doesn’t seem to have any parents.  There’s also an older man who has a box of food.  They’re all scared of tunnels, even though she notes that there aren’t any tunnels on that line.  The conductor doesn’t come to check her ticket.  No one can leave while the train is in motion but the train never seems to stop.  After one tunnel, the kid shoots the older man with what should be a toy machine gun but it shoots real bullets, until the tunnel ends and everything is back to normal.  The conductor finally shows up but won’t let her leave the car and exchanges her round trip ticket for a one way one.  At another tunnel, she sees the other passengers as skeletons.  Finally, she seems to accept that she will be there forever and in another tunnel she is a skeleton as well.

The problem with this episode is that all sorts of questions are raised but none of them are answered.  What is this “last car” anyway?  How did she get in it?  How did the others get in it?  What is her ultimate fate?  What a good horror episode would do here is reveal what is going on to her so that she can be horrified by it, and then we can be horrified along with her.  But the episode never explains to her what’s going on and so we, as well, never find out what’s going on, and so we’re all supposed to be shocked by her turning into a skeleton as well.  But without the context that isn’t really horrifying, but is just a reaction to the special effects.  It’s a prime example of a decent premise ruined by a refusal to explain to anyone what’s actually going on.

The fourth episode is “A Choice of Dreams”, where a crime boss discovers that he has a fatal disease and is going to die, and is such an unpleasant person that the doctor only came to his house to tell him see the look on his face, so the crime boss says that he will ruin the doctor’s career.  Soon after, a man comes to see him promising him immortality, which turns out to be the ability to let his body die and keep his brain alive and dreaming indefinitely.  The crime boss eventually agrees, but it turns out that he has some bad memories of abuse from his father and abusing his wife, but the man insists that only the good memories will be triggered in the dreams.  He has to gather ten million dollars to pay it off, and then promises that money to his faithful second-in-command, but that’s just a trick to make him feel happy before he kills him.  Anyway, he gets the procedure done but it turns out the man is more interested in karmic retribution and instead of giving him good dreams locks him into his bad dreams indefinitely.

The issue here is that most of the episode seems to have no other purpose than to establish that the crime boss is a bad person, which we pretty much got from the beginning.  There is no reason for him to kill his second-in-command that is given in the episode other than just being nasty.  The episode doesn’t attach the dream thing to the doctor from the beginning so there isn’t a personal revenge angle.  So the crime boss acts nasty and then get put in a bad dream.  Ho-hum.

The fifth episode is “Strange Love”, which is a vampire story.  It starts off treating the first couple as mysteriously strange, but when the woman hurts her knee and they call a doctor to look at it they quickly reveal that they are vampires and enslave him so that he can treat her.  Of course, she’s quite attractive and he’s interested in her, and they make with the wooing while he’s out getting blood.  The doctor tries to defend her from the other vampire once and the vampire, of course, overpowers him.  However, while he’s out on the last night they are going to keep the doctor alive — he goes to get the doctor his last meal — she turns the doctor into a vampire and he defeats the other vampire and kills him, becoming the consort of the female vampire.

This is a vampire story, but as you can see not much happens.  That they are falling in love and that she will turn him to replace the other vampire is completely predictable and yet we get no idea or sense of why she wants to do that or what will happen to them over the centuries.  So there’s really nothing here other than someone wanting to write a story about vampires, which isn’t all that interesting since, again, there’s nothing else in the episode to focus on.

The sixth episode is “The Unhappy Medium”, where three people associated with an exploitative TV evangelist church meet to read the will of the leader of the church.  The one woman wants the money and control of the church, the man who was the assistant wants to get the glory of being the figurehead, and the last woman — the daughter of the first woman — is an atheistic humanist and pretty much just wants out.  When they view the video will, the preacher says that he will live on and briefly possesses the daughter, his niece.  They note that they can’t get out of the room and spend the time searching for the real will to find out what they will get, which when they find it is pathetic, at least for the mother.  The daughter and the assistant talk about how they seemed to love each other before things came between them, and later she gets fed up with being possessed on occasion and, noting that the room seems balanced between Heaven and Hell and runs out into the Hell side so that the Devil can take her uncle’s soul.  The assistant runs after her, and they disappear.  The mother throws the will out into that area as well, but then later the two of them return, and she is left with the real will as they leave, and the laughter of the preacher echoes in the room.

Again, there isn’t much of a story or episode here.  A lot of time is spent on them sniping at each other but we get the issues long before that, and we still aren’t sure at the end what happened to the preacher or to the mother.  But at least it had a happy ending for the couple.

The seventh episode is “Fear of Floating”, where a couple of Army recruiters are looking for a big recruitment, and think they have it when a man runs in claiming that a circus wants to kill him because he refused to be in their sideshow and demonstrates that he can float which explains why.  Of course, this seems like something the Army would be interested in, and so the man in charge promises to protect him, but only if he enlists.  The “circus people” show up and it turns out that a man wants to kill him because he got that man’s daughter pregnant.  They eventually negotiate that the floater will marry the girl in exchange for his life, which for some reason ends up ending his ability to float.  They leave, and he ends up hitting on the female recruiter, which gets her to tell him off and storm out, which triggers his floating ability again, but he floats into the ceiling fan — he almost did that earlier — and dies.

This episode is too silly — especially the ending — to be anything other than a comedy, but it isn’t actually funny.  There’s not enough of a story or interesting enough characters to care about anything and it is incredibly predictable.

The eight episode is “The Casavin Curse”, where a woman ends up with a dead man in her bedroom and screams that it’s the result of the curse.  When the police arrive — summoned by the assistant of this wealthy family — it is explained that there’s supposed to be a gypsy curse on the family that damns any they love until the Casavin name dies out, and she loved the man who died.  The investigator assigns a kinda doctor to investigate — it isn’t clear whether he’s a police officer or just some kind of psychiatric or medical doctor — and of course he ends up falling in love with the woman.  Meanwhile, her cousin who had been blaming the event on her says that the two of them should get married in Europe where cousins can marry because that would protect them from the curse.  She falls in love with the doctor and they make love, but then she transforms into a horrible creature and tries to kill him with a ritualistic looking dagger, but he ends up killing her by accident.  Then the assistant comes in — we’d seen her getting the dagger beforehand — and laughs that the curse of her great-grandmother has been fulfilled and the family name is dead (the male cousin had come in earlier and was killed, giving the doctor time to get the dagger that was dropped).

I really wanted the doctor to say that if her great-grandmother was the wife of the original Casavin, then that made her a Casavin too and so the curse lived on with her (although perhaps she was a child from a different relationship).  I also wanted them to note that if the cousin died and the woman married and too someone else’s name then that would satisfy the curse because the name would disappear.  But none of these clever things happen, and so we get an uninteresting and mostly predictable story with nothing of any real interest.

One thing that has struck me through the first two seasons is that I think the show is struggling with the format.  A lot of the episodes seem to be too big for a half hour show, and their penchant for focusing on other things as well only makes it worse.  This leaves those episodes with unsatisfying endings and ultimately, unsatisfying stories.  But on the other hand, a lot of the other episodes seem to be too small for the format, as they have premises and plots that can be summed up and resolved in a couple of sentences.  This means that they need to pad things out to cover off the necessary time, which shouldn’t be necessary for a half hour show.  It’s almost like some of the episodes are done by people who want to create a longer work and try to hack it down to fit, while some episodes are written by people who are so concerned with making their stories fit the time available that they end up with stories that don’t have enough meat to them to carry an entire episode.

Anyway, I’ll be moving on to season 3 next.  Will the series finally hit its stride?

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