Thursday, November 10, 2016

"The New Man"

Original Airdate: September 30, 1984

Directed by Frank De Palma.

Teleplay by Mark Durand, Based on the story "The New Man" by Barbara Owens.

Starring Vic Tayback (Alan Coombs), Kelly Jean Peters (Sharon Coombs), Chris Herbert (Jerry), Billy Jayne (Petey Coombs), Paul Jenkins (Robert Johnson).

SYNOPSIS: Alan Coombs is a real estate agent who has just resumed control of his life after a raging bout of alcoholism almost marked the end of his family. On his way home one day, Alan's son Jerry comes to the office to escort him home for dinner. But Alan doesn't have a son named Jerry. He desperately tries to convince his wife and teenage son Petey of this but they just suspect that Alan has returned to his old ways. But if Alan is right, then who is Jerry? And what does he want? 


CRITIQUE: If there was any episode that showed TFTD's allegiance to The Twilight Zone, this one would be it. While other entries from the series are similar to episodes from Serling's anthology, "The New Man" carries quite a few tropes that were made popular in that earlier program. Barbara Owens' original short story, as a matter of fact, like many of Darkside's sources was culled from the pages of Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone Magazine.

Coombs is the suffering and recovering alcoholic we find in "Mr. Denton on Doomsday" and "The Night of the Meek," his grasp on reality gradually revealed for how tenuous it is like William Shatner in "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" and Cliff Robertson in "The Dummy," characters who had their sanity and reason called into question after witnessing their inner demons take form. Jerry is the same breed of enigmatic, diabolical child as Anthony from "It's a Good Life." And the general, skeptical disbelief from the rest of the cast is a device that was par for the course in countless vignettes from TZ. Coombs' alcoholism is a hallmark that even calls back to noir tendencies in film and literature, recalling protagonists like that of Cornell Woolrich's Black Alibi whose bender-blackouts made him a prime murder suspect.

Alan's other, normal child

The paranoia of Coombs' situation is where "The New Man" gets its mileage, though the rest of the affair may seem kind of humble. At its weakest, the family drama looks like something that was shot at the local community theater where the actors are glancing in the wings at cue cards that read "Approximate turmoil." Vic Tayback is the glue that keeps it all together. He's one of those great, no-nonsense actors who's instantly likable for how real he looks, paunch and jowls and all. He's got a nicely grounded presence, and the confused rage that boils inside of him builds to a nice climax at the end of the episode. The way his wife and Jerry talk about him at dinner the same way they would for a dog that's made a mess while he stands there just listening is particularly effective.

Not quite as effective is Kelly Jean Peters as Coomb's wife. She has too much of a Mrs. Cleaver-cuteness to her that keeps her conflict and anger from coming off as strongly as it should. Her descriptions of their past struggles like having to go without shoes while Alan spent all their money on booze just sound a little phony, but her small aside while she tries to sit everyone down for a peaceful dinner ("The grocer's so nice when you don't have to buy on credit") hits the message home perfectly.

The paranoia loses some of its oomph after the episode delivers its final "twist." After Coombs tears Jerry's room apart, he finds a bottle of happy in the top drawer and then chugs himself into a stupor. Later at the agency where Coombs worked, a new hotshot salesman (who just so happens to have recently adopted the status of tee-totaler) is accosted by none other than the very same young Jerry, claiming to be his son. For whatever reason, Coombs' checkered-suited, cigar-chomping boss doesn't recognize the little demon as having been Alan's kid, but that's probably due to all the congratulatory liquor he keeps having to drink by himself.

Other logical inconsistencies abound as well. For instance, if Alan really did miss two days of work, why didn't Sharon mention this during the preceding breakfast scene?  Did Alan walk through a wormhole on the way to the office? And after Sharon clears out with the kids, why are so many of Jerry's things left in his room for Alan to tear to pieces when there isn't even a can of Who-Hash in the rest of the house?

But it's the ambiguity that drives Coombs' plight, the uncertainty of the supernatural the element that holds our interest the most. When we find out that the boogeykid is real, what came before doesn't seem so scary. The idea of a monstrous, otherworldly child who lives solely to push weak men off the precipice into the darkness of their own inhibitions just doesn't have the same chilliness as those characters living in constant doubt as to whether they were the real monster the entire time. (Proof that Jerry really is an alien? He owns shirts with his own name on them. - Ed.)

 And has no chin

When we see Coombs show up at his office a disheveled mess with no memory of the last two days, we can't be sure if he really is just slipping off the wagon. It's an engaging arc, but "The New Man" sadly wimps out at the last minute and says "Yeah, it was this ghost-boy all along." When it turns out that Shatner was right about the gremlin, it's eerie and invigorating. When we find out Tayback was in fact the victim of other forces, it feels limp and cheap.

However, it's clear that the lesson to be learned at the end of the day is that these guys just need to find another agency to work for.

"Who's the lucky father of this young, little... creep?"


RATING: 2 1/2 Lizzies

COMING UP: Keenan Wynn finds out that there's no soul in business in "I'll Give You a Million."

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