TV Review: Tales from the Darkside – Distant Signals

Posted: June 20, 2010 in Movie Review, Reviews
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Tales from the Darkside – Distant Signals (Season 2, Episode 8; First Broadcast November 17, 1985; Laurel Productions; Dir. Bill Travis)


I always meant to have more TV reviews, but the truth is I don’t watch much TV. Is Lost still on? I don’t know. That joke’s gonna just get funnier and funnier the longer I put off actually posting this particular review. The thing is, I’m not all that into TV shows. Some people really like post 90s TV, with their continuing storylines that can stretch the entire season or even further. Me? I like the stripped down storytelling that a movie forces on the filmmaker. I don’t have to invest a huge amount of time, or examine each and every character in detail. I will admit, when I watch a TV show with a continual storyline, I like those shows better. Having everything tie up in a neat little package at the end of every episode bugs the hell out of me. Still, I’m a short story fan, even reading I prefer short stories to extended novels. Is it any wonder then, that my favorite kind of show is the anthology series? And is it any wonder that my favorite anthology series is Tales from the Darkside?

You don’t mind if I drink myself to death while you watch, do you?

Tales from the Darkside was the brainchild of Richard Rubenstein and George Romero. After the success of Creepshow, the idea of a series based on the anthology idea was played with for a while. You might remember there was a spate of shows in the mid ‘80s. Amazing Stories, The Hitchhiker, and Ray Bradbury Theater, as well as new iterations of The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Darkside managed to get its pilot episode in about two weeks before The Hitchhiker’s first episode, but all the rest came about a year after Darkside proved that it could be done. Seriously, 1985 was just the year horror/fantastic story anthology shows all exploded. Then, by 1988, they were all gone. The Hitchhiker was revived in ’89 on the USA cable network, but mostly the idea had run its course by then. After that you had to go to HBO’s Tales from the Crypt if you wanted to see an anthology show. Out of all of them, Tales from the Darkside was and still is my favorite. I liked that the episodes could end on a complete downer, or that sometimes you were just left scratching your head. I also liked that there was quite a bit of dark humor in the show. And most of all I loved how damn cheap the show was. Some episodes only had three or four speaking parts, some were confined to a single room, and some were even cheaper than that. However, that’s probably enough of a primer for the show, let’s get to the episode I want to review.

If only some synth-pop were playing right now we’d have a music video.

Like a lot of episodes of the show, Distant Signals is based on a short story. This time by Canadian writer Andrew Weiner. A lot of Darkside episodes, almost all of them as far as I remember, are based on short stories. Sometimes, you can really tell because the structure feels more like a short story than a TV episode. I can’t explain that sentence without getting badly sidetracked, but maybe you know what I mean and I don’t have to. This isn’t my favorite episode or anything, but I just watched it and I want to talk about the show and review a TV episode for something other than a holiday special so let’s go with it, huh? Thanks. You’ll be able to spot the end gag almost from the beginning of the review, but try to hold off your excitement. It’s a really bad example of the sort of surprise ending, since it’s an idea that lots of people had in the ‘80s. This is, however, one of the more expansive episodes, with six actual speaking parts. Count them! There’s even an exterior shot at the end, which is more expensive than studio shooting.

Gonna be honest, not sure about the bit with the girl and the ping-pong balls.

We begin with a young man named Smith (played by Lenny von Dohlen) coming into an agent’s office, asking to have a meeting with a TV producer that the agent represents. He offers a suitcase full of gold, worth about $35k as a fee. The TV producer, Gil Hurn (David Margulies), made a show in the mid ‘60s called “Max Paradise” that got cancelled mid-season. Smith offers to put up all the money to finish the show and answer all the questions left lingering from the shows cancellation. Everyone is sort of dubious but Smith has money and he has such a great enthusiastic love for the show that he sweeps everyone up with him. They also find Smith a little strange, like the fact that he never once blinks during the program. While they try to explain all the problems involved, he manages to convince them all and solve the problems that stand in the way. He had money and he claims to be an inventor, so he has things that can make everything better.

Sponsored by Urb’s Cafe!

One of the major problems he solves is with the main actor, Van Conway (Darren McGavin). Van quit acting a long time ago and started to drink heavily. Smith talks him into coming back for the six episodes, and gives him some vitamin pills that help him stop drinking. It doesn’t work entirely, as Van is still nervous and can’t manage his lines until Smith does a laying on of hands and solves his problem with nerves through the power of SCIENCE! Of course, it works and he gets everyone back to the way they were. They even shoot the show in black and white to capture the original feeling of the Max Paradise program. The whole time, Smith is worshipful about this program, being so earnest that he catches everyone else up in his enthusiasm. Whenever asked where the money comes from, he simply says he represents a group of foreign investors who want to see Max Paradise finished. Thing is the way he says it is “I represent… (then we wait with antici… *Say it! Say it!* pation!) foreign investors.” He then never blinks, looks otherworldly and leaves in his flying saucer. Well, no, they couldn’t afford a flying saucer.

Well, we’ll just never speak of this night again. That’s all.

When the show is done and they deliver it to Smith, he explains that the show won’t be in broadcast in America, it’ll be show far, far away, but seen and loved by millions of viewers. After he’s gone, Gil and Van discuss the show and their benefactor. It’s then that Van explains his theory that Smith’s people are aliens that come from a star just to the left of Orion. He further postulates that they saw something in Max Paradise that no one else on Earth ever saw in it, but that it doesn’t much matter. It’s a sort of wish fulfillment that charms this episode along. For both TV producers and consumers there is a wish that this could happen. Everyone wants to have that one thing revived so they can find out how it ended. A comic book, a TV show, a book series, whatever. It’s a charming idea, perfect for a fantasy anthology show. This one ends on a high note, and it ends on the roof of a parking lot which means someone decided to spring for exterior shooting. Seriously, they paid out big for this one. So that leaves us with the big question, how does it score? Well, it’s not the best Darkside episode ever but I like it.

They had never seen such a thing before and hoped they never would again.

Official Score: 45 Degrees on the Graffiti Bridge Scale.

Oh, I see. You’ve already cast the next Bond movie.

AND! Bonus still because I miscounted!

Visit beautiful Pittsburg Pennsylvania. Because it looks nothing like L.A. where this story is supposed to be taking place.

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