The Twilight Zone: A Game of Pool

The Twilight Zone Original Logo 1959A Game of Pool is one of the prime examples of Rod Serling having an idea that maybe fills 5 minutes while what we get is 20 or more where the idea is padded out.  Jack Klugman, best known as grumpy Oscar Madison in The Odd Couple, plays another grump.  Another guy struggling to make it big, like the trumpet player in A Passage for Trumpet.  This one has him playing pool pro Jesse Cardiff who is sick and tired of being told he’s not the best.  This might be a good point if it’s going to push people to strive to do better in their career choices, but he’s being compared to a dead guy.  Who cares, I say?!  Why would he be bothered??  If someone says “you’re not as good as that dead dude”, you just reply, “shame he’s not here to prove it!”  If you can beat every other living person, why would it even matter??  But Jack Klugman is good at playing these roles and so Serling is going to cast him.

Jesse makes a “big tall wish” (see what I did there?), and Fats Brown, the aforementioned dead pool king, appears ready to go toe to toe with Jesse.  Fats is played by the great Jonathan Winters and I don’t think I ever really realized how expressive that mans eyes were!  Through the 25 minutes, he makes a few good points; takeaways, if you will.  Takeaway number one was a nice one: you’re not really dead as long as someone remembers you and talks about you.  Sure, we have no way of proving this, but it’s a nice sentiment.  Takeaway number two is that you’ll never be the best at anything if you play it safe.  I’m reminded of my favorite starship captain when he says, “Risk is our business.”  Nothing worthwhile is ever easy, but that could be said in the same 5 minutes as the initial good idea without drawing it out for 20 more unfulfilling minutes of watching two people play pool.

Now, having said that, I have to acknowledge that, despite not wanting to watch two people play pool for 20+ minutes, I was thoroughly enjoying watching two people play pool for 20+ minutes.  I was recently at a friends house and I watched them play a few rounds.  My cousin had a pool table when we were kids but at the time, I couldn’t even hold the cue, so playing meant rolling the balls into one another.  I’ve never been one to play after that, preferring air hockey as I got older, but watching two friends play at their house was deeply engrossing.  (They did offer, but as I haven’t played since I was 6, I opted to watch instead, admittedly fearful of them laughing as I rolled the ball.  I’m just kidding.  Or am I?)  The point is, while I don’t feel Serling had enough material here to keep us afloat for 25 minutes, he selected a game that is strangely addictive to watch.  I’m not saying that makes a good episode, but he made a good choice with the choice of game.

Of course Jesse does beat Fats and is now relegated to being the best which comes with a heavy price tag of always being summoned in heaven when someone wants to go a round or two against you.  Another good takeaway: be careful what you wish for.  I don’t doubt it.  A good message even if the episode ran on like a bad sentence.  Of course, another good takeaway should be around not putting all your eggs in one proverbial basket.  Jesse becomes the best by doing nothing else but playing pool.  He hasn’t seen a movie in years, and doesn’t love anyone.  So what’s the value of being the best pool player?  Just to say you’re good at something?  No, not for me!  I want to have a life that I can love.  That’s an important takeaway for us all.  Do things we love and develop relationships.  Don’t pin all your hopes on one thing like that.

One brief observation that I didn’t like was the fourth wall break when Fats vanishes and Klugman asks an empty room if we saw his victory.  Was that at the audience?  Was he losing his mind?  Was he worried that the pool hall human resources staff was going to come for him because he kept calling Winter’s character “fat boy”?  (And I didn’t really think Winters looked that fat.  There are far larger fellows than this guy!)   I never really clicked with Jack Klugman as an actor.  I always found him that obnoxious grump and he’s really not much different here.  Serling barely skates by with a serviceable episode only because the game he chose to use is weirdly watchable.  If not for that, he’d have been thoroughly behind the 8-ball.   ML

The view from across the pond:

I’m not a big fan of sport, but I’ve always loved watching snooker, a game that takes an incredible amount of skill to master. In pubs around the country, what looks like a child’s version of the game is popularly played on tables that are considerably smaller. I’ve played both games a lot, and both of them are a huge amount of fun. Snooker is horrendously difficult, whereas pool is almost laughably easy in comparison. For that reason, I think a British viewer might have a very different experience of watching the Twilight Zone episode A Game of Pool than an American. Seeing four balls lined up in the middle of the table and the supposedly greatest player who ever lived failing to pot them all seems like an absurd plot development to me. I’m not qualified to say whether it would make any kind of sense to somebody who has played and watched a lot of pool and is not familiar with snooker, but I’m fairly sure the standard can’t be quite that low. Then again, it is possibly a deliberate way of raising a couple of interesting issues.

Firstly, there’s the extent to which any sport is a mental battle as much as a game of skill or physical ability. There is a lot at stake here, to say the least, and that’s why the talking is actually more important in this episode than the game itself. We will come back to that one, but also the mistakes Fats makes raises the question of whether he deliberately throws the game. He doesn’t want to win, after all, but then again maybe a part of him still desperately wants to be the best (the part that cheats towards the end of the game). It’s hard to let go of a reputation like that, even if it’s making you suffer. I think it’s an unanswerable question, but perhaps he’s conflicted in that moment and that’s why he doesn’t play at his best. Jesse has another reason not to play at his best, of course: his life is on the line. That’s some intense pressure.

But to return to what’s said rather than what’s done, this episode does what the very best of The Twilight Zone always does: it makes us think deeply about something, and the big question here is one of life balance. Jesse is desperate to be the best who ever lived, and we get a clear reason why: his past is full of belittling and unkindness, and he wants to prove everyone wrong; he wants to send out a clear message to everyone who ever doubted him or called him a nobody. He might not be good at anything else, but this one thing is his skill, and he’s better than anyone. It’s an obsession, and he has allowed his quest to be the best to exclude all other hobbies. It’s a lonely, friendless, loveless existence, which has left him angrily talking to himself in an empty room, which is how we find him at the start of the episode. Fats, in contrast, tries to get Jesse to see what he has been missing, listing some of his other pleasures in life that mattered just as much, or more, than being the best at a sport. It falls on deaf ears.

The consequences for Jesse might seem like a fairly kind version of purgatory, compared to some that TZ has shown us in previous episodes, but when you really think about it you can understand why he looks like such a broken man when we see him slumped over the pool table in the clouds. The obvious question is this: why can’t he just allow himself to be beaten and find peace at last? I don’t think we even need to construct some kind of a theory about the rules of his purgatory to answer that question, because he would never want to do that. This is a man who is nothing like Fats, who can take pleasure from going fishing instead, as Rod Serling informs us in his ending narration. Jesse has nothing else in his life other than being the best at pool. Lose one match, and his life no longer has any meaning. On the other hand, playing pool has lost its joy for him as well. Note that when we first see Fats he is spending his afterlife playing pool on his heavenly table. Jesse is just hunched over the table, a portrait of a man who has lost his love for his only hobby, and has no others. It’s one of the saddest pictures the Zone has ever painted, and it has a clear message for us: the path to happiness is a meandering one, which branches off in many different directions. Don’t get stuck walking endlessly back and forth down a road that leads to a dead end.   RP

Read next in the Junkyard… The Twilight Zone: The Mirror

About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on Author of Editor of
This entry was posted in Entertainment, Reviews, Science Fiction, Television, The Twilight Zone and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to The Twilight Zone: A Game of Pool

  1. scifimike70 says:

    Playing pool with my father, and enjoying it just for the fun, convinced me sufficiently that pool is a game that should just be for fun. If this episode has anything profound to say, it’s about how a need to make a name for oneself may become a burden rather than a sense of achievement. Great acting by both Klugman and Winters. I will always appreciate stories like this to remind us all of what can truly matter in our lives. Thank you both for your very thoughtful reviews. 🎱

    Liked by 2 people

  2. epaddon says:

    Correction. This script wasn’t by Serling, but by George Clayton Johnson. And he originally wrote a different ending where Jesse loses to Fats. That one was also shot but they decided to use the ending we see. The original Johnson ending was used in the remake of this episode in the late 80s.

    Liked by 1 person

    • DrAcrossthePond says:

      It would be interesting to see the different ending, but my point I still stand behind: Serling seems to enjoy writing about characters who are difficult to like. Maybe this one wasn’t his, but many of his stories do feature less-than-likable people. Still, thanks for the correction; always better to have all the facts.

      Liked by 2 people

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