I confess I’ve had a hard time of it lately. My shows have all been doing some dumb things and I’ve been mightily upset by that; a fact recently noticed by my cowriter, Roger. The issue I take with these shows is the same I take with people on the road: I hate stupidity. That might sound like a harsh statement, but people who are looking down while driving, petting their dogs, texting, playing backgammon… whatever people get up to while driving that is not looking at the road, really bugs me. Sure, watching TV doesn’t have the same dangers, but I want my shows to make sense, not have a stupid plot element that no one in the real world would even go for. Now let me clarify that too because it is a fact that Science Fiction and Fantasy don’t always make sense. That’s ok if the story is good; I don’t mean sense in the strictly scientific sense. I mean, would a man or woman really do X to achieve the plot of Y? The plot could be time travel; how they time travel doesn’t matter if the story uses it to the right effect. (Think About Time). Would a team of trained negotiators really start a relationship on a lie? Would a communications specialist not be able to vocalize a problem that could save the world if she just said some words?? Would a show whose premise is that each episode takes place over one real hour really depict a main character getting in a car to drive from say San Francisco to San Diego and actually turn up in both places in the same episode? (Google maps update: it’s an 8 hour drive!) Would a writer try to give us a character that we despise and hope we’ll feel for his plight? That last one seems to be a love of Rod Serling’s, so I was surprised to see another writer behind The Trouble with Templeton. E. Jack Neuman opens up his story with a man watching a woman playfully flirting with another man down by the pool. We learn that this is the man’s wife and he, Booth Templeton, is pretty tired of the life he’s leading.
Templeton is an actor who spends too long lamenting the days of his youth and the good times with his ex-wife who died some years earlier. He goes off to work where he is berated by the new director. He runs off and seemingly appears in his past, 30 years ago. At this, I rolled my eyes. We’ve been here twice before at least. A Stop at Willoughby comes to mind, as does A World of his Own, where a character wants something more from life. We saw something similar with A Passage for Trumpet too, although that one is the first to have a positive outcome. So here we have Booth at a point in his life where he has self-doubt and much recrimination. When he appears in his own past, he enters a bar and sees his ex-wife, Laura and his old best friend Barney. He tries to talk to them but Laura is depicted as a fun-loving floozy and I very much suspect something was going on with her and Barney too. Booth tries to explain himself, but gets nowhere; they don’t care what he has to say. This love-of-his-life was a real rotten apple, I can tell you. Laura gets up and dances a ridiculous, attention-seeking dance and Barney does nothing to help. They tell Booth to leave and off he goes.
At this point, with not a character in sight to even mildly root for, I was ready for this to add to a run of bad episodes of shows lately. But then Booth goes back through the door he entered and the jovial atmosphere of the bar dies; all the characters stand still as the lights fade. It was like a stage play and it’s noticeable in the filming. Booth finds a script in his pocket and reads it, finding the dialogue happened exactly as it was written. He realizes the whole thing was an act. Now, this doesn’t jive fully with reality because he’d probably go right back through that door to see what was going on. Or he’d rightfully question the act of meeting someone who looked so much like his ex-wife that he couldn’t tell her from the real deal but the whole thing has a surprising and genuinely refreshing outcome…
Upon realizing what his past was like, he lets go of the ghosts he’d held onto all this time. He seems revitalized and renewed. He tells the new director, who calls him by his last name, that it’s “Mr. Templeton” and he comes across like a wholly different character. He gains some self-respect and that was a delightful change to the typically sad outcomes we’ve seen so far. Now if Neuman really wanted to wow me, we’d have seen him go home and reclaim his current wife and show her falling in love with her confident, self-assured husband again, instead of running around with the dude at the swimming pool, but that’s a limitation of the 25-minute format. Maybe a little nip here or tuck there could have eked out a few minutes for this, but for me, this still makes a good story, despite some gaps in logic, because we see a message of hope. Don’t hold onto the past. Learn from it and move on. Grow. Improve. Bring about a brighter tomorrow. That’s a truth everywhere you go, both in our world and in The Twilight Zone. ML
The view from across the pond:
What a brilliant episode. I think this is the only episode so far that has completely surprised me, and has done so thoroughly but with subtlety. This seemed to be leading towards a morality tale: the grass is always greener on the other side. Booth Templeton longs for a lost past, one of the few times in his life when he was truly happy. When he gets his wish, it’s not what he was expecting.
It’s all too easy to look at a man like Booth and wonder why he isn’t sublimely happy, but our external view is superficial. He’s a successful actor, with a big house, a butler, a young wife… how can a man like that not be content? And yet he says he hasn’t had many contented moments in his life. Scratch the surface of his enviable existence and we can see a man who married a much younger woman who soon started cheating on him, so basically he’s lonely and pining for his first wife, who died young. He has never really got over her loss. It’s unspoken, but perhaps his grief stopped him from committing emotionally to his second marriage, so he may not just be the victim there. Either way, he doesn’t seem to want much from his wife any more, but why doesn’t his work satisfy him? He is perhaps not the powerful figure in the world of acting that he used to be, and is getting bossed around by a young director (who is disrespectful towards him, let’s face it), but he deals with that by running away. He runs right back into the past.
What happens then is fascinating, because his wish comes true and he gets to see his dead wife Laura again, and here’s where I was thinking his view of the past had been rose-tinted. She is virtually flirting with his best friend when he arrives, and is very dismissive of him, as if she’s bored of his love and just wants to have fun.
“Laura, why are you so different?”
And then comes the twist that makes the episode so amazing, with Booth sent back to the present day with the cruel words, “why don’t you go back where you came from? We don’t want you here.” The music stops, the lights go down, and Laura remains in the spotlight for a moment, a look of desperately sad longing on her face. The penny drops. Not only was Laura dead, Booth’s best friend Barney was, and also the club steward. This wasn’t the past. It was heaven, and Booth had to be turned away so he could live his life first.
“Acting. They were acting for me. They wanted me to go back to my own life, and live it.”
We are left with the thought of how hard that must have been for Laura. She wanted Booth as much as he wanted her, and had to pretend she didn’t, for his sake. What a moment.
Twilight Zone episodes so far have tended to be good ideas with flawed executions, to varying extents, but this is perfection. Even the incidental music is sublime, particularly the beautiful harp theme known as Cerebellum, composed by Jeff Alexander. The loose ends are tied up beautifully as well, with the director dealt with firmly but politely. Booth doesn’t have the diva moment we might have otherwise expected from an actor in his position. He merely commits to working hard for the young director, but also insists on being treated with respect, a masterclass in how to deal with a negative situation in a non-confrontational way. And the episode offers us an uplifting story with a happy ending, and a moral that is much more positive than the one it first seemed to be leading towards. Forget the rose-tinted specs, this is about living in the moment, making the most of what you have, giving something your all, and being rewarded with the one thing that was eluding Booth: contentment. RP
Read next in the Junkyard… The Twilight Zone: A Most Unusual Camera
For any story that dramatizes how revisiting the past, even for all its obvious pleasures, may not be as personally healthy as we might have thought, this one may be the most spot on from all that The Twilight Zone could give us. Even if I like to imagine how refreshing it would be to enjoy the many wonders of my childhood again, like how I most excitingly enjoyed Star Trek, Doctor Who and Star Wars for the first time, or all the energizing long walks and bike rides that I took at night in my 20s when I was in much better shape, I must temper that desire with wisdom. I can still of course have good walks even though I don’t bike anymore. I may now enjoy all my favorite sci-fi from a clearer perspective. And as with Templeton, many things in my life have improved over time compared to much difficulty in my younger years. So if the realization that the old days were not as great as we might have thought is one of our traditional messages for the time travel genre, it can indeed work here. The serenity to embrace what we can always change and let go of what we can never change is thankfully one of The Twilight Zone’s enduring messages. Thank you both too for your reviews.
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