'Plaint of the Playwright

'Plaint of the Playwright

[ Friday, August 30, 2002 ]

People say I spend too much time on the internet and at the movies.

This is false.

I spend too much time in front of the TV, too.

I was a TV Kid. I dreamed of television when I wasn't watching it, and when I was a film student, often I was the sole defender of TV.

(If one more pretentious film student tells me "Television is furniture," I'm going to skin them and turn them into a lampshade. And then I'll kill them. In fact, I'm not even going wait for them to say it. Fucking film students. All must die. All Must Die.)

Anyway, this list is not about "The Greatest Moments In Television History," or "Essential Viewing For Those New To The Planet."

No, it's about things that meant something to me, that I never forgot, and that I still think about from time to time.

So, in no particular order, here are...

Nine Personal TV Moments.

1. Homicide: "Three Men And Adina."
Okay, let's get this party started right.

This first-season Emmy-winning episode of Homicide is not only considered by many to be their best episode, but it's also well thought of as one of the best hours of TV in general.

I was a sophmore in college when it premered, and what I remember was being devastated by it.

Detectives Bayliss and Pembleton (Kyle Secor and Andre Braugher) interrogate a man (Moses Gunn, in his final performance) regarding the murder of a young girl named Adena Watson. Almost the entire episode is set in "The Box," which is the nickname for the interrogation room.

That's it. That's all.

But that's only because that's all it needs.

Here's why the episode works so well:

First, the show establishes Pembleton as not only someone who normally works alone, but who hates to work with other people. The most interesting thing about Pembleton is that he seems to only be interested in other people out of morbid curiousity.

Bayliss is the new guy--but he does like Pembleton. This episode was the first teaming of these two characters (who eventually became known for their spectacular interrigation teamwork on the series), and what makes it interesting is that it's an awkward pairing.

Plus, unlike other cop shows, we, the audience, don't know whether or not Moses Gunn is guilty. He could be--there is some evidence to support it--but we never know for sure. Even Pembleton isn't convinced of his guilt.

Oh, but Bayliss is, though.

So we've got level one, which is Get This Guy To Confess.

And we've got level two, which is Is This Team Going To Work?

And then there's the dialogue.

What's amazing is that it finds so many rhythms, and switches tactics so many times, that when Gunn rubs his eyes and tells them that he doesn't know if he's guilty, we know exactly how he feels.

One more word about Pembleton and Bayliss: They are, and continue to be, the most interesting police team to ever hit the airwaves. In interviews, both Secor and Braugher have refered to their team as really being a love story. That's about right.

Scott Feiner and I recently watched this episode (he had never seen it) and then afterward, we watched "Homicide: Life Everlasting," which was the reunion movie after the series had been cancelled.

When it begins, Bayliss and Pembleton return after years of no longer being cops (both of them quit the force during the course of the series).

They don't really bond at first, but both are curious about how the new breed of cops are doing in The Box. They watch a younger cop (Jason Priestly) interrogating a homeless man so badly that the man won't even give him his name, much less confess to anything or give him information. In fact, all he can get out of him is "Can I get a dollar?"

Priestly, frustrated, threatens to beat the man, and when he tries to, learns that the homeless man is a much better fighter than he is.

Bayliss and Pembleton look at each other.

Wander into the box.

With two fingers, Pembleton slides a dollar bill to the man, (I've caught myself emulating this at my job at the bank, by the way) saying, "You asked for a dollar?"

The commanding officer orders Priestly to leave...leaving the homeless man alone with Pembleton and Bayliss. They close the door.

The camera switches to a lower angle to show Pembleton and Bayliss, sauntering towards the homeless man, taking all the time in the world; Two old gunfighters coming back to town for once last piece of justice.

And Scott and I cheer: "YEEEEEEEEEEEEEEES!!!"

2. Pink Panther: "A Pink Christmas."
This requires some explanation, I think.

See, I really don't remember anything about this special, save one thing:

It has a very sentimental, very sappy ending.

And at age 7, when I see this, I lack the sense of irony and context that I have today, and so I react in a very unjaded manner.

I bawl like Nancy fucking Kerrigan.

I cry like a little sissy girl.

Bobby wept.

So my dad hears this and walks in to find me in tears.

Now, as much as my dad prides himself on the concept of "tough love," and wants to instill in me the idea of discipline (which he did, and I actually think it's a very under-rated trait to teach children), it's not like he's The Great Santini. His kid's crying and he wants to know why--he's really concerned.

So he asks me, the bawling seven year old, why I'm crying.

I explain to him through sobs that I just watched The Pink Panther Christmas Special.

So, he asks me: "What...what happened to The Pink Panther?"

Okay, me, the 30 year old, has to take a little break here and stop laughing before I can type anymore.

This is a memory that never fails to kill me.

What happened to The Pink Panther?!?!?

Like I'm crying my eyes out because Insector Clouseau finally reached his threashold for shenanigans.

Later on, I'll be in tears because Jerry just made Tom eat a shitload of pool balls.

And later, when Jabberjaws gets speared to death by Robert Shaw, there won't be a dry eye in the 70's.

3. "You Can't Do That On Television."

What is it about this show?

Oh, yeah.

That's right.

The girls.

(And don't give me that look, I'm talking about the age I was when I watched this show.)

(I was 29.)

(Just kidding.)

(Let's move on.)

So when I first saw this show, the girl that had me saying "whoa," for some strange reason was Lisa Ruddy. Not sure why, but I think this shot has something to do with it. (Looking back, Lisa looks a lot like Amanda Bearse from Married With Children, who I only thought was attractive when she was in "Fright Night," and just in one shot. You know the shot.)

So, anyway, at the time, I think she's cute.

And then...

In walks Christine "Moose" McGlade.

And, pre-teen that I am, little hearts start floating up around my smiling little kid face.

I was in love.

Now, reasonably, you may well ask...WHY?!?

Well, who can say?

I mean, there was nothing dirty about it, it was just my first notable crush on a TV girl.

I'd like to think it was because she was funny. More and more people have admitted to me that they used to have a crush on her, too.

It's sort of like that crush that most guys have on Janeane Garofalo that they won't cop to unless you do first.

Moose was the first girl I liked on total--personality as well as, uh, everything else.

Plus you always had to wonder what was going on with her and Lisa. Bwah Chicka Bwah Bwah.

I used to fantasize that I was a hip private eye, visiting the set of "You Can't Do That On Television," trying to catch a psychotic cast member putting sulfuric acid in the buckets of water used to pour on the kids, horribly killing the cast.

Moose and I would team up, fall in love, and fight crime.

What would be the result of a Matsushita/McGlade team up?

A safer America, and to some larger extent, Canada.

4. Night Gallery: "The Class Of '99."
Okay, back to being serious.

I first saw this in reruns during the seventies, when it haunted me.

Then I saw it again in the nineties, where it still haunted me.

This story, by Rod Serling, is chilling, well-written, and years ahead of its time.

I'll just let you read the script and see for yourself.

Serling predicted the 80's. Wow. I tell ya what: WOW.

5. The Outer Limits: "The Zanti Misfits."
This is another of those cases where I was seven years old, watching TV with my best friend Charles Denny.

This episode came on.

I was about killer bugs.

And I hate bugs.

These bugs looked like Rankin-Bass induced fever dreams. They're goofy looking now, but to us, they were really disturbing.

So Charles and I started making ourselves as scared as possible.

Everytime one of those bugs jumped out at somebody, Charles and I would run out of the room as fast as we could: "AAAAAAAAAAAGH!!!"

No idea where our parents were for this.

I remember at one point, where someone gets out of their car--and we know it's coming--looks around, and then turns around and sees...


We made it all the way into the backyard with that one.

6. OZ: "A Game of Checkers."
This one, along with "Three Men And Adena," is right up there as far as being one of the best hours in television.

This is the season finale of season one of OZ, and it's the riot episode.

See, OZ had already established that they were willing to kill just about anyone.

Hell, in the first episode, they killed the star.

What's great in this episode is how everything in the show really leads up to it.

Plus, it has what we all want to see--the convicts really let loose.

Plus, as previously stated, the show's willing--and eager--to kill off a main character every week (the turnover rate on the show is staggering)...but you figure they can't kill some of the non-prisoner characters, right?


This season-ender was the culmination of every frustration, every spiteful deed, every wrong, and every need that all of the characters have. All the walls come down (literally and figuratively) and all the cards go on the table.

I watch this episode from time to time just to remind myself what good writing (and good TV) really is.

7. Tales From The Crypt: "The Man Who Was Death."
This, the first episode of Tales From The Crypt (or, at least, the first story in the pilot) really floored me.

This, the story of Niles Talbot (love that name), played by an amazing William Sadler. Niles is the guy who pulls the switch on the electric chair. He also narrates the episode.

Early on, he tells us, "The current's s'posed to hit the brain the second the switch is thrown; the victim never feels a thing.

"Gee, I'd hate to think that was true."


Niles is so much fun that some of my friends, like Media Yenta, wanted him to have his own series.

There are so many lines in this episode that I still quote, or at least remember. Like his response to a bartender who tells him that most of the people who get executed are minorites:

"Well, they're all pretty dark when I get through with 'em."

Or his riff on a biker he's about to fry:

"I got nothin' special against bikers. I, myself, used to own a hog once upon a time. Bikers believe in freedom, and what the country used to stand for, 'fore ev'rythin' went to hell. There's a lot to be said for said. Those ain't bad ideas.

"But this biker, Jimmy Flood? He went way out of line.

"And he ought to pay."

Or his musings on death:

"We eat shit and shit eats us. Death is all around us. We all pregnant with it.

"Like them junkies over there. Look at 'em.

"You know, in a way, I respect them. They throw it all away, just to shoot a little death into their arm.

"See, they know it's coming.

"So they tease it.

"I like that.

"'Course, at the same time, junkies are shit. Two-bit criminals..."

See, we might not like Niles, but he's so much fun it's hard to hate him, and the real horror is that when he gets his standard Tales From The Crypt comeuppance, we actually understand him.

Walter Hill directed this episode, and it's a great job. It looks like a comic. The editing is pretty great great, too.

And then there's the really cool score by Ry Cooder. (The opening calliope bit still gives me the chills.) The tone set by the music is dark, dark, dark. The music seems to be laughing with Niles...and then we realize it's laughing at him.

8. The Sopranos: (TIE) "I Dream Of Jeannie Cusamano," "The Knight In White Satin Armor," and "Employee Of The Month."
There are times when TV forces you to do The Yell.

You know what The Yell is.

The Yell is when you're so sucked into what's going on that you yell at the screen.

This is best when a big group does this at once. This is probably why sports is so popular.

I did The Yell when Howard Hunter shot himself on "Hill Street Blues."

My mom and I both did The Yell during the second half of "V," when Donovan tore off the visitor's mask and the visitor shot his tongue out at him.

The Yell doesn't happen that often.

But "The Sopranos" has gotten one from me every season.

I'm aware that there are friends of mine who haven't seen the whole series so far, and don't want things spoiled for them, so I'll be artistically vague. No spoilers here.

"I Dream Of Jeannie Cusamano." The first season finale. The Yell comes when a son fluffs a pillow and his mother smiles.

"The Knight In White Satin Armor." The penultimate episode of the second season. The Yell comes when a character asks for his dinner and gets dessert instead...a full episode earlier than we thought. (Watch Tony's face when he finds out--I can't be sure, but I think he's actually suppressing a laugh.)

"Employee Of The Month." This third season episode won an emmy for writing, and deservedly so. It's not only the best episode of the season, but of the series, and it's one of the best hours on television in general. The Yell comes with the last line--the last word--spoken in the episode.

9. "The Kids from C.A.P.E.R."

Why was I so obsessed with this show when I was a kid?

It was on for less than a year. It's sort of a cross between "The Monkees" and "The Man From Uncle," a show I wasn't even familiar with at the time.

C.A.P.E.R., by the way, stood for Civilian Authority for the Protection of Everybody, Regardless, and someday I'm going to start telling people I work for them.

I really don't remember much about the show, save one bit where two guys get in a bar fight. One of them wields a kosher pickle threateningly, and the other breaks a milk carton over the bar and brandishes it fiendishly.

"Look out," someone yells, "He's got a broken milk carton!"

I think I liked it intially because I thought it was funny (I'm now understanding why "Scooby Doo" got decent box office), and then became obsessed because it was cancelled and couldn't see it any more.

The strangest thing of all, is the link I put up there. I wasn't the only one who remembered it.

I think everyone in the world has, or should have, a weird obsession that they never let go of. I have several.

What's yours?

posted by Rob on 10:37 AM | link



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