Tuesday, March 13, 2012

TV Obscurities #1: The New Twilight Zone: "Dealer's Choice"

Although this is a blog primarily about movies, from time to time I post about particular television programs. In this new series, called TV Obscurities, I’m going to revisit shows from yesteryear that I think are noteworthy, or just plain amusing. This one is a bit of both:

TV Obscurities #1: The New Twilight Zone (Broadcast on 10/15/85): “Dealer’s Choice”

When CBS resurrected Rod Serling’s classic creation The Twilight Zone in 1985, it really didn’t catch on. Sure, it wasn’t given much of a chance to build an audience with its Friday night timeslot, but I remember watching it well into its second season (after it was cancelled it was revived for syndication for a third season which I didn’t see), because, well, as a 15 year old loser I didn’t have anything better to do on my Friday evenings.

As the critics at the time said, the ‘80s re-boot of Serling's immensely influential show that originally ran from 1959-1962 was extremely uneven, but there were some real gems. The Wes Craven-directed “Dealer’s Choice,” revolving around a game of poker in which one of the players is Satan himself, is one such episode.

To begin with, there’s the incredible cast: Morgan Freeman, M. Emmet Walsh, Barney Martin (Jerry’s Dad on Seinfeld), Garrett Morris (original Saturday Night Live cast member from 1975-1980), and Dan Hedeya (named Nick here - the same name he had as Rhea Perlman's ex-husband on Cheers).

It’s awesome to see Walsh and Hedeya just a year after they both appeared in the cult classic (and one of my favorite films ever) Coen Brothers’ debut BLOOD SIMPLE.

This group of great character actors is gathered together for a night of poker at Walsh's shabby abode, but things get a little dicey when the fellows suspect the new guy (Hedeya) is the Devil because he always has three sixes (get it?) in his hand when he wins. 

Of course it turns out that Hedeya is the Devil, and the guys are caught up in a game with severe consequences.

“Dealer’s Choice” is one of the comical episodes of The Twilight Zone; it doesn’t have a creepy vibe, and a crazy twist ending, it consists of five working class guys in a 2 room set, with wall paper out of BARTON FINK, reminiscent of the poker guy’s nights that John Goodman would host on the sitcom Roseanne during the same era.

I’m sure a modern update of this script, concerning playing poker onlinecould be effective, but I bet it'd be nowhere as good.

Written by Donald Todd, who would go on to be involved in shows like Caroline in the City and Ugly Betty, this segment has a number of funny lines like:

Peter (M. Emmet Walsh): “You know, a guy wants to settle in and play poker with some guys, he should come up and say, you know, ‘Hello...Hi, I’m the Prince of Darkness - can I sit in for a few hands?’”

And this priceless exchange:

Tony (Morgan Freeman): “What's the devil doin’ here in New Jersey?”

Jake (Garrett Morris): “What’re you talkin’ about, Tony? I think he lives here!”

The actual game, that comes down to Walsh Vs. Hedeya has the expected up-the-stakes suspense, but it's not really why this episode stands out to me. It's the back and forth banter between this bunch that gets me.

And you gotta love a show that ends with the protagonists finding free beer and food in the kitchen - courtesy of the Devil, who turns out to be a gracious loser.

That's another beauty of this story - the Devil is just another schmuck not unlike the guys he's gaming with, and one that will actually honor the game.

I was always a fan of these kind of episodes of The Twilight Zone, in which regular Joes dryly deal with deadly demons, and win out in the end. Sure, these may be the most trivial of the series, but they’re the ones that stick with me longer than the scary ones.

Narrator Charles Aidman sums it up sweet and simply in the outro: “Just a friendly game of cards among a friendly group of guys, who have just come back...from the Twilight Zone.”

This episode is available on DVD, and in 3 parts on YouTube: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.

More later…

1 comment:

Colin said...

I have to say that I have always thoroughly enjoyed the TZ - both new and old. If I had to pick a favourite, it would be Craven's 'Shatterday'. Always stuck in my head for some reason.