“The Trouble With Templeton” (season 2, episode 9; originally aired 12/9/1960)
In which nothing is lost forever…
Variety is the spice of the anthology series. Once you watch enough Twilight Zones, you realize there are certain touchstones which connect nearly every episode; the opening credits, and Rod Serling’s tone-setting narration, but also recurring themes, motifs, and basic plot-points. Yet even the most familiar episodes contain distinct touches to separate them from the pack. One of my favorites of these is the way the show can present us with different professional worlds. Its settings offer glimpses into the past which are all the more evocative for their casualness. Storywise, I wasn’t a fan of “The Mighty Casey,” but spending some time with a middle-of-the century baseball team made up for a lot. Maybe someone will get the same kick out of watching an episode of CSI 50 years from now. “This murder mystery is trite, but it's a fascinating glimpse at people who like to dress up in animal costumes and have sex.”
“The Trouble With Templeton” doesn’t need any extra help; while its premise is one the show has played with before, the execution, and final reveal, are unexpected and powerful enough that the episode would work just as well if Booth Templeton was just another generic businessman. But he isn’t, which means we get a few glimpses into the life of a famous actor. There’s nothing remarkable about that, but the fact that Templeton is a stage actor makes him distinct, and sets the tone for the half hour. Given its age, it’s not surprising that the Twilight Zone often serves as a time capsule; it’s never a show that shoots for documentary realism, but its attitudes (like its ongoing struggles with the ghosts of World War II) and assumptions intentionally and unintentionally connect us to what television, and America, used to be. To pull that back to less loftier terms, Templeton as a stage actor with the same level of clout (including the hot young wife) as we’d expect of a screen actor today isn’t something you really see on TV anymore. Sure, there are exceptions (one springs to mind), but those exceptions are of the rule-proving variety, created at least in part because of their uniqueness. “The Trouble With Templeton” uses “distinguished gentleman of the theater” as thought it were a template so common it barely deserves explanation. I find that neat.
Neater still is how writer E. Jack Neuman, in his only script for the Zone, uses the theatrical world to help frame and define his story. Booth Templeton (Brian Aherne) is not a happy man. He’s wealthy, and married to a beautiful woman, but the money doesn’t satisfy him, and his wife isn’t particularly fond of him. Despite the respect of his peers (even his valet adores him), Booth is distant, lonely, and more than a little lost. He knows his wife is cheating on him; she barely bothers to conceal her long run of affairs, cavorting with her latest beau by the pool in clear view of her and her husband’s bedroom. All Booth can think of these days is his first wife, Laura, who died when she was 25, leaving him a long life of memories and, it seems, perpetual dissatisfaction. He goes to rehearsal for his current play, only to learn that the original director has been fired by the backer, and the new director, Arthur Willis (played by an unrecognizably young Sydney Pollack), is forceful, confident, and imposing. Cuckolded by his wife, lost in nostalgia for his past, and full of a self-loathing he can’t quite put his finger on, Booth first falters, and then flees in the face of Willis’ aggression. He heads out the back stage door, and walks straight into the Twilight Zone.
It’s not surprising that Booth winds up in his own past. Given that he’s already spent part of the episode talking about his lost love, there are only so many possibilities here. If I have any criticism of the episode, it’s that this reveal is so routine by now that one could easily mistake it for the show’s premise: each week, we watch a guy feel bad about his life, and then travel back through time as easily as the rest of us walk over to the next room. That’s one of the downsides of the anthology show. Because each week can be completely new, we expect it will be new, and it’s hard not to be disappointed when writers turn out to be human and, inevitably, reuse the same ideas. (Non-anthology shows can obviously be just as repetitive, but when it’s repetition with recurring characters, we call that “realism.”) But if that first twist is too old hat, “The Trouble With Templeton” redeems itself by what happens next.
Booth goes through the usual TZ Two Step, as he’s first confused as to what’s happened to him, and then fixated on making this time travel work to his benefit. Thankfully, he doesn’t get locked into asking everyone what year it is, or constantly repeating, “This isn’t possible!”, or any of the other ways the show has tried before to kill time. Booth realizes what’s going on when he sees a poster from a show he did in 1927; someone tells him Laura is waiting for him at Freddie Iaccino’s, and he hurries over. (There’s a nice moment here when Freddie, the owner of the bar, talks about the threat of raids. For him, Prohibition wouldn’t be repealed for another six years.) Once Booth finally finds Laura, drinking booze and laughing it up with their mutual friend Barney, he’s overcome, and then becomes intent on getting her alone so he can tell her how much she means to him. That’s when his troubles begin.
Have you ever tried to tell someone how you really feel about them? It’s almost always impossible. Sure, if you’re in love, and your boyfriend or girlfriend loves you, you can go all sappy and spout bad poetry and making kissy noises, or even go in for the deadly serious, “I really love you, you know,” and that can be okay. But it never feels complete enough. There’s always some extra portion of emotion you can’t adequately express, no matter how eloquent you are, and the more you try to explain yourself, the more desperate and inarticulate you become. That’s what happens to poor Booth, and while Laura initially humors him, she soon grows impatient. She wants to hang out with Barney, drink a few drinks, maybe dance and have some laughs, and this crazy old man who’s supposed to be her husband acts like it’s the end of the world.
Given how this show often struggles with its female characters, Laura (Pippa Scott) is a pleasant surprise, as the character, and the actress, are able to walk the line between off-putting and human without becoming a caricature. She’s irritated, but she’s never shrewish or inordinately cruel, and by the time she gets around to yelling at her husband that he doesn’t belong, and that he needs to leave, it’s not at all difficult to see things from her point of view. Granted, this is partly because of the episode’s final, and greatest reveal: what we’d initially taken for time travel is something at once more complex, and more profound. This version of the past has been created for Booth by Laura and the people who love him, to convince him that he needs to move on with his life. Laura is off-putting because she’s intentionally distancing herself, and it’s impressive how well Scott is able to sell the character’s complexity even before we know this complexity exists. If the episode had stuck to a more straightforward, “You can’t go home again” theme, the character would have been just as well-drawn. The people we miss don’t belong to us, after all; just our memories of them, and how we shape those memories to fit our own needs. When faced with a contrast between reality and nostalgia, reality always disappoints.
That would’ve been a grim, and not exactly inspiring, conclusion, and “Trouble” has more optimistic aims. After Booth flees the speakeasy, the lights dim, and everyone falls silent. It’s a beautiful, haunting scene, and as Laura steps after her departed husband, you realize that maybe the dead aren’t as uncomprehending as they appear. The last twist drives the point home: Back in the present, Booth finds a stack of papers in his pocket. He grabbed them from Laura, and, flipping through them, he sees that his trip to the Land of Ago was scripted. He wasn’t thrust blindly into a nightmare—he was guided, intentionally and with great love. Laura and the others were trying to tell him that he needs to live his life as it happens. The Twilight Zone is often a cruel show, where capricious, unseen gods (i.e. Rod Serling) use their powers to torment the foolish or innocent, and there’s something beautiful in occasionally allowing the supernatural to provide the living with moments of grace. “The Trouble With Templeton” plays a familiar tune for most of its running time, but by giving its hero—and the forces which manipulate him—their dignity, it transcends familiarity. All that happened is that an older gentleman had a better day than usual. But that’s enough.
What a twist: Booth Templeton goes back to his past, and finds out it isn’t as perfect as he remembered. But in a further twist, he learns that his loved ones are alienating him on purpose, to inspire him to live more fully in the present.
- Brian Aherne is very good; he reminds me of a more British Ray Milland. (Man, how great would it have been to get Ray Milland on this show?)
- I like how the episode doesn’t bother trying to resolve Booth’s relationship with his current wife. He’s more confident, and he takes command of the theater, and that’s about it. Maybe he goes home and gives his wife an ultimatum, maybe he doesn’t. It doesn’t really matter.
- Not only does Booth go back in time, he learns that a.) there is an afterlife and b.) that afterlife is, at least in some small way, working towards his benefit. That would certainly ease my peace of mind.
“A Most Unusual Camera” (season 2, episode 10; originally aired 12/16/1960)
In which they can’t all be winners…
This episode got me thinking for The Ladykillers, the 1955 Ealing Studios movie about a group of feckless thieves who murder each other while trying to bump off a harmless old lady. (The Coen brothers remade it in 2004, with mixed, at best, results, but let’s stick to the original.) It’s not the best movie Alec Guinness made with Ealing, but it’s quite good, and the premise has always held a weird fascination for me. I get bothered when protagonists are excessively punished for their behavior, and while, yes, Guinness and his band of thugs were intent on killing poor Mrs. Wilberforce, they’re so cartoonish and inept that their fates always struck me as horrific, as though the fact that it was all a dark joke made it more unsettling than it would have been otherwise. I’m never sure if that’s a personal response, or something inherent in the film itself, but it creeps me out; the idea that death is just as much a punchline as anything else never sits right with me, and makes what should be a morbid farce into something more than a little sinister.
“A Most Unusual Camera” is clearly trying for that same ghoulish absurdity, and yet it fails to be either funny or affecting. For most of its runtime, it’s passable: a trio of idiots stumble onto a camera that tells the future, and decide to use that camera to make money for themselves. In the last five minutes, their plans go awry, and everybody winds up falling out a window that apparently has the gravitational pull of a minor black hole. It’s that finale, and that damn window, that wreck everything. This was never going to be a tightly plotted half-hour of television, or one that has much insight into the horrors of the human condition, but it’s at least entertaining and amusing in spots. Then it decides to get all heavy-handed and show how greedy people turn on each other in a crisis, and all considerations of basic common sense get tossed out the, well, you know.
Chester and Paula Diedrich (I didn’t get the gag in the name until I wrote it down) are a pair of squabbling larcenists, and the episode begins with Paula reading a newspaper account of their latest score, with Chester providing the commentary. It turns out robbing an antique store wasn’t the quick road to riches either of them thought, as much of their haul is fake junk done up to look like treasures. There is one oddity, though: a cheap-looking camera, with foreign writing on the front and no place to insert the film. Chester takes a picture of his wife, and when the photo comes out of the box, Paula is wearing a fur coat in the image, even though she wasn’t wearing one when Chester actually took the shot. Soon after, they find a fur coat in a locked trunk they grabbed from the store, and Chester, being surprisingly smart for such a stupid man, puts two and two together: The camera can tell the future.
The main reason the climax of “A Most Unusual Camera” is so irritating is that, up until everything falls apart, the episode is by no means a bad one. Fred Clark and Jean Carson play off each other well, and when Paula’s brother Woodward shows up (played by North By Northwest thug Adam Williams), all three actors keep things moving at a good clip. The script does well not to belabor the main twist; we don’t waste a lot of time on anyone not understanding what the camera does, or denying anything like it could exist. If you want to get heavy, you could say that this is a group of people who’ve spent their whole lives thinking that some imaginary perfect score was being held just outside of their reach. It’s not a huge surprise to them, then, to find that magic future-seeing cameras exist; the game has always been rigged, and they finally got their hands on a tool that shows the rigging firsthand.
That’s reaching, though, and I doubt the episode has more in mind than just showing us some venal morons dooming themselves with their own limitations. Chester pays some lip service to the idea of using the camera to benefit mankind, but the moment they realize they can use the device to win big at the racetrack, all philanthropic notions are put aside. They have a clever-enough approach: Chester photographs the board at the track where the winners come up after the race, and uses the photo to know which horses to bet on. I’m not sure this is the most efficient way to earn money with a machine that tells the future, but it works in context, as none of these characters has much in the way of imagination.
Then we come to the ending. The only explanation for this mess is that Serling had hit his credit limit at the Ironic Fate Department, and was forced to make something up on the fly; whatever the reason, this is one of the laziest, most tossed-off conclusions I’ve seen on this show. Clearly, Chester, Paula, and Woodward have to pay for their crimes. (The Diedriches robbed that antique store, and Woodward escaped from prison.) That’s hardwired into the structure of this kind of story, and, while it would’ve been neat for Serling to try and surprise us, I certainly don’t hold it against him that he decided to follow tradition and have villainy, even goofy, childish villainy, punished. The failure here is that the way the trio (plus a waiter) meet their ends makes no sense. It’s so blatantly an act of authorial contrivance that it ruins whatever meager suspension of disbelief the rest of the half hour was able to maintain. Hell, in the last death, the camera actually cuts away before we know what happened, as if to say, “Er, there’s no way I can make this work, so, um, LOOK OVER THERE.”
Back at the hotel, the three are counting up their winnings for the day and planning their next big score. A hotel waiter comes by, sees the future camera, and is able to translate the words on the front. Turns out there’s an arbitrary limit on how many pictures each person can take with the machine: ten to a customer, and after that, well, we never really find out. (It’s even possibly that the “10 pictures” rule is a complete hoax, as no one survives long enough to test it.) There’s a fight, someone accidentally presses a button, and in the photo that comes out of the camera, Paula is screaming. Chester decides this is as good a reason as any to attack Woodward, and the two men struggle before falling out the window.
There’s no easy way to describe how awkward this looks; it’s blocked as though the director wanted to convey the idea that the two actors wanted to fall to their deaths. And it gets worse. Paula is initially horrified, but soon recovers from her grief and takes comfort in the money the men’s deaths have left her. She even goes so far as to take a photo of the two men on the ground below—and this makes no sense, in any way, shape, or form. The only real reason she does it is so there can be a picture of the corpses, one which will allow the waiter, when he returns to shake Paula down for cash, to note that there are more than two bodies on the sidewalk in the photo. Paula freaks out at this information (?), and runs over to the window (??), where she trips over a cord and falls out (??!?!?!??!?!?!?!?%#$DOESNOTCOMPUTE). The waiter gloats at his good fortune, wanders over to window, and realizes there are actually four bodies in the photograph. He panics, drops the camera, and we cut to a shot of the carpet as he screams and falls, presumably, to his death.
Unless this episode was intended as a public service announcement against the death trap that is the Open Hotel Room Window, the ending undoes any goodwill the rest of the story had managed to build up. Staying with the predictable conclusion is bad enough, but not even having the energy to deliver on that much is simply embarrassing.
What a twist: A magical camera can see the future, but somehow falls to warn us before everything turns to crap.
Next week: Todd gets his Christmas on in March with “The Night Of The Meek,” and shows you fear in a handful of “Dust.”