The Twilight Zone: Two Games of Pool

Tonight, we switched things up a little and enjoyed a small experiment. In the late 1980s, after CBS had cancelled the revived Twilight Zone, the production company decided to shoot thirty more half-hour episodes as cheaply as possible to make a syndication package. One of these was a remake of George Clayton Johnson’s “A Game of Pool.” We watched the original version of this, starring Jonathan Winters and Jack Klugman, a couple of years ago.

We started by talking about what it meant to the world of the past to have enough episodes for a syndication package. This was a huge problem for studios and production companies in the past, but it doesn’t mean anything anymore. On streaming services, it doesn’t matter if you have 65 or 100 episodes or just two. I don’t know whether CBS Access has ordered a third season of the modern version of Zone, but if they don’t, nobody’s going to shell out for six more episodes to beef the total to 26, are they?

“A Game of Pool” was remounted in 1988 with Esai Morales and Maury Chaykin in the roles of Jesse Cardiff and Fats Brown. I’m going to quibble about this Fats being dead for fifteen years with a late eighties haircut like that, but otherwise it was very interesting to see the choices the director and actors made. The original ran a couple of minutes longer, since TV had fewer ads in 1961, so the color version moves faster and loses some of the monologues. There are almost no two-shots, and far fewer closeups. I’d really recommend any aspiring filmmakers take an hour and watch this more closely than I did; I’m sure they will learn a huge amount about the choices made to present this story.

I’m also sure that, even with the possible presence of a shark to manipulate the tables when the camera is not on the actors, there is enough visual proof of all four actors sinking shots for me to know that I would have lost a game of pool against any of these four men.

The most interesting change about the remake is that they restored the ending of Johnson’s script. It was changed for the black and white run so that Cardiff wins the game, beats Fats, and gets to spend eternity being called down to pool halls from Sandusky to Statesboro to defend his name. In the color version, Cardiff loses, expects Fats to murder him or claim his soul or something, and Fats has a more spirit-crushing fate in mind. Either way, I think the lesson I take from “A Game of Pool” is that playing games to have fun with friends is probably going to be more fulfilling for me than playing against a legend’s reputation.

Our son was attentive but not really appreciative of this experiment. Rewatching the original was all he needed; doing it again felt like work. I confess I’m a little curious now to compare the original version of “The After Hours” to the 1986 one with Terry Farrell, but maybe I won’t make him sit through both of those with me!

This is our 2300th post! We haven’t run out of steam yet though; there are plenty more TV shows and movies to watch!

What We’re Not Watching: A Nero Wolfe Mystery

We’re not watching the delightful A Nero Wolfe Mystery for our blog, because our son’s six and wouldn’t get it, but the grown-ups are watching these delightful episodes for the second or third or fourth time after he’s gone to bed, and I wanted to give it a brief recommendation for any grown-ups in your own house.

The series was made for the A&E Network between 2000-2002, and was the last thing worth watching on the channel. It doubled the network’s average ratings for the hours it was on, but it was also extremely expensive and “reality” teevee was cheaper. So there was only an initial movie of the week, twelve hours in the first season, and sixteen in the second. That’s thirty fun hours set in a nebulous and whimsical post-war New York, with part of the peculiar charm of the show built around its deliberately timeless setting.

Nero Wolfe is a very wealthy and very lazy private detective who lives in Manhattan and does not leave his home on business. He’s an epicure who grows orchids and enforces a firm daily schedule. The stories are narrated by his assistant and legman, Archie Goodwin, whose main job is not actually the collection of facts and testimony, but aggravating his boss into action. The characters are played by Maury Chaykin and Timothy Hutton. Other recurring parts are played by Saul Rubinek (reporter Lon Cohen), Bill Smitrovich (Inspector Cramer), and Conrad Dunn (a field operative called Saul Panzer who’s even better at his job than Archie could be, not that Archie’s ego would allow him to admit that out loud).

Famously, the producers assembled a repertory company of about fifteen actors and employed them to fill almost all the guest roles across the series. These include the beautiful Kari Matchett, who plays the minor recurring role of Archie’s main flame Lily Rowan along with about a third of the leading guest parts for women, ex-Intellivision spokesman George Plimpton as many of the grouchy old men, and bug-eyed Boyd Banks as most of the in-over-his-head imbeciles who end up in Wolfe’s office.

Using the same faces for guest parts really heightens the unreality of the show; you expect the players to all come out and take a bow after the performance concludes before they all go rehearse next week’s show. I can’t help but feel that’s a strike against it, and the music is another. They went with a period-ish accurate big band jazz score, the sort of music played in the big ballrooms where Archie would take Lily dancing, and it’s often far too jaunty and silly for the action, accentuating the amusing dialogue and witty narration more than the drama.

But otherwise, good grief, this show is entertaining. The scripting is sublime, ignoring conventional three-act structure in favor of following the original stories’ flow, and paring down the action to fit the hour while using as much of the original dialogue and language as can be included. Chaykin is incredibly watchable as the bad-tempered Wolfe and Hutton is absolutely flawless as the sharp-dressed Archie. They make a terrific team and since the adaptations are far more faithful to the source material than any other program in the genre, the actors make the stories and the dialogue just glow. You can read Raymond Chandler and picture a dozen actors as Marlowe, even if you try very hard to stick to James Garner. But these actors are the Nero Wolfe cast. I can’t read any of Rex Stout’s novels or stories and envision anybody else in the main parts, even if I do change the music in my mind! If you enjoy classic detective fiction, this series is a must.

Oh, and if you enjoy Nero Wolfe, then you should definitely follow him – @NeroAugustWolfe – on Twitter. The great detective doesn’t post all that often, but as he reads the literary versions of his cases, he usually has some very grouchy and amusing commentary to share. He probably types the tweets very slowly, using just his index finger, on Archie’s computer.