Season 1, Episode 16: “Tattoo” (Lyndon Chubbock, director; Dan DiStefano and Stephen Katz, writers)
Forget it, Jake; it’s Friday the 13th: The Series' version of Chinatown.
FULL EPISODE BELOW!
The Goods: An unlucky gambler finds the secret to success when he steals cursed tattoo needles.
The Cheese: Racism and sexism are too serious to be cheesy, but apparently not bad enough to play major roles in this episode.
The Sins: To no one’s surprise, GREED. Pride makes an appearance as well.
Kristopher: This was another relatively weak one for me, but with some interesting lines that work around the series’ thematic concerns. Tommy puts things rather well when he says that “In America the only shame is to lose” and later, “This is America. Everybody wants money.” Pride and Greed run the show here. The Grandfather offers a more biblical though no less masculinist and patriarchal version when he says to Tommy: “Fruit either ripens and falls to earth, or it rots on the branch.”
In keeping with this patriarchal formulation, there’s a serious virgin-whore thing going on with the women in this episode, with the gambling molls all hanging around silently, or in the one death scene all spread out with garters and in red, and the granddaughter, Tommy’s sister, submissive and dutiful, protective. The misogyny is tied directly into the episode’s racism, though it is interesting to see the constant references by Tommy to himself and his family as American, as against his father’s more traditional Chinese ties (he reveres the family’s Ming vases … um, they have Ming vases?! … and is an herbalist who ends up finding ties with Jack at the episode’s end … which was kind of weird).
On another not-that-related note, Micki’s hair is relatively subdued in this one. I wonder if this is to set her off from the wild hair of all the Asian women?
The episode’s pervasive racism continues in the interesting confrontation of the team by the Asian gangster who equates his community’s “customs” and “way of doing things” with the “job” Tommy has to do. Chinatown = crime here in the same way Italian American culture equals gangster culture. I’d like to think this were a wider critique on the limited opportunities America offers for its POC, but it’s just not there.
Erin: YUP. Also, I’d like to think that the gangster’s line: “This is Chinatown” was a reference to that film’s themes of the futility of justice in a corrupt system, but, as you say here: the episode doesn’t support the weight of that reading.
K: This is the first time we see the object identified and called in to the store by a holder. When grandfather says he’s “made arrangements to return them to the people who sold them,” we get one of the first framings of the Curious Goods team as purveyors of or accomplices in the dissemination of evil, who now must bear the burden of a dark past act, and who are now seeking a kind of redemption in retrieving the goods.
E: I noticed that too. How weird is it, though, that we really don’t get any explanation for the needle’s power? I mean, usually Jack explains or it’s written in the manifest, but not this time.
K: Question: Is the luck attached to the needles applicable to any kind of success? Even in the case of the Russian Roulette scene, it’s still tied to gambling. Maybe it could be used in service of rescuing animals? Interesting finale with the table spinning around for Russian roulette and the “good luck” death charm about to be thwarted by Jack and Ryan. Also … is Russian roulette gambling a thing?
There’s a line in the end in the shop from Grandfather about progress and apathy, a lack of humanity: “In our rush for progress, I thought we had lost the … . “ Jack responds that “We didn’t lose those values, but we might have put them aside for awhile.” Like, for how long? The Reagan era? Longer? The duration of humanity? What’s his point? Regardless, I find this message a pretty durable one for the series as a whole, with the Curious Goods Team undoing the unfortunate work of an “evil” capitalist.
E: Satan’s a capitalist! I knew it! Seriously, though: that line offers a ham-handed moral to this particular story that I also find both amusing and interesting. What it seems to suggest to me is, whether the episode’s writer intended it or not, the moral of the story seems to be: embracing American values is wrong. I mean, I agree with that wholeheartedly. Of course, this is uncomfortably coupled with the idea expressed both by the gangster dudes and Lum that integration is undesirable. It’s quite a muddle.
I went into this with a certain resignation: set in Chinatown, with Asian actors, but written by a couple of white guys. That it would lack cultural sensitivity or nuance was a given. That being said, it wasn’t as bad on that front as I thought it might be. It wasn’t great, either in terms of story or representation, but given the time period in which it aired, it could have been much, much worse.
It wasn’t a good episode, but there were some parts that were enjoyable. The effects of the tattoos were really cool (and the chestbuster bit was delightfully gross). Also, that Lum Chen knew the needles were evil without being tempted by them, because he could read the inscription. This may be the first time it shows someone finding the object and not being tempted. Finally, a moment I thought was a sign of Tommy being stupid (telling his friend about the lucky needles) was actually a ruse to use said friend as a sacrifice.
Best line goes to Tommy, as a piece of truth: “In America, the only shame is to lose.”
Greed, obviously. Tommy is also pretty corrupted before he gets the needles, and seems to not be that torn up about anything he does.
K: Yes, and I would add Pride, particularly around the family. This is oddly tied into the episode’s racism. Immigrant family pride, ahhh! But Tommy’s pride as a budding criminal is nicely, ironically tied to American ideals. As you note above, American values are not the values to have.
E: Jack calling the obviously very influential gangster guys “small time”? Not only wrong, but kind of racist. Even with the lack of depth they are given, it is obvious they wield power and rake in money.
This is kind of a weird observation, but on a structural level, almost all of the episodes end with a bit of a joke or observation that is eerily similar to their siblings in the procedural genre during the 1980s: Simon and Simon, TJ Hooker, Riptide, Hart to Hart, etc. (Seriously, i would watch ANYTHING as a kid, but those types of shows were big faves of my dad’s, and we’d watch them together.) I think it’s amusing that each episode starts with the sex sax and ends with the 80s procedural freeze frame.
K: Astute, not weird! In fact, Police Squad! made fun of this element, with the actors posing in tableau as though there were a freeze frame, but the scene was still live. This comes with great sideways looks from Leslie Nielsen at the camera as if wondering, “How much longer?” I love it.
Season 1, Episode 17: “Brain Drain” (Lyndon Chubbock, director Joshua Daniel Miller, writer)
OR, Flowers for Algernon Two: Charlie’s Revenge
FULL EPISODE BELOW!
The Goods: A trephinator-for-two allows the one person to drain another’s brain power and become smarter; a mentally challenged janitor discovers the secret and goes on an intelligence-seeking rampage.
The Cheese: Robey’s acting. (Also, unmentioned before, but going by your last name only is weird AND cheesy. Apparently, she was forced into it by the producers [Wax, 2015].) / Pretty much the entire finale of the episode.
The Sins: Envy (the janitor) and pride (most of the scientists).
Kristopher: A little bit of a mad science episode here, finally! A trephinator? Cool! Nice gruesome first “drain”! “I don’t wanna be stupid anymore. … Now it’s my turn to be smart.” LOL
Micki’s hair is back to “normal.” (At times her pony tail makes it look as though there were someone else standing behind her.)
Jack’s bemoaning his bodily aches due to age echoes forward in Vi’s later comment, “Come on, Jack. At our age, let’s not pussyfoot around,” when she wants him to come up for some sexy times. I’m always looking for ties between the parallel narratives in these episodes, but here the increased brain strength of the mad-science storyline isn’t quite the connection I’m looking for, despite the fact that the two parallel narratives intersect around Vi’s research. Carrie Snodgrass is awesome, a class act.“Vi, Viola Rhodes.” a Linguistic anthropologist who went to Kenya (“keen-ya,” as they say it). Jack said no. I wonder if the evocation of race here is intentional, considering that in the next scene, we have Dr. Pengborn discussing measuring intelligence by the size of the skull—phrenology was based in racist notions where markers of physiological whiteness were held as signs of intelligence.
Erin: I was wondering about that too, as well as the fact that he says it to a German scientist. I’m inclined, given the rest of the episode, to think that the mention of phrenology conflated with German-ness is potentially intentional.
K: Why can’t Vi tell Jack about her research? She’s a linguistic anthropologist, for shit’s sake! Of course, this question gets answered fairly quickly after, with Vi and Pengborn working together on an experiment that might change “mankind.” The more interesting aspect of their dynamic here for me is the vague sexual threat (“There’s one more instrument I have to show you.”), sexualized in part by Jack’s romantic interest in Vi, and continued later (oddly) in Pengborn’s comment to Jack that he knows Jack knew Vi intimately. Ew!
Question: Do brains inhale and exhale?
Robey’s overacting is pretty extreme in this episode. She expresses worry about Vi to Ryan as though she were furious with him. Weird. The finale is hilarious. Ryan and Micki are wandering around bickering, and Jack finds a gun that he promptly, clumsily loses to Pengborn. A maundering Vi stumbles into Jack and Pengborn while the latter is holding the former at gunpoint. Vi’s having been rendered mindless is tragic, but the scenario and performances here undercut the mood. And Micki’s attempt to offer solace to Jack in the coda (“You had your time with her”) is again rather hilariously curt. Gee, thanks, Micki.
These medical/mad-science narratives for me evoke pride over greed; I guess that’s pretty logical, since intellectual ambition is linked more to making one’s mark, rather than making one’s fortune (though the two often come together). This episode though is an interesting example of a strict focus on pride. Pengborn, despite his suddenly being well-groomed and clothed after he gets an intelligence boost (which reminds me of Gunn in Angel), never speaks about money. He just wants to be a god.
E: My first thought was: “Scientist with a secret basement project? That’ll end well.” I found this episode miles better on multiple levels than the previous one. We get Jack backstory, compelling relationship drama, and a nuanced and affecting ending, But there were other grace notes that to me showed a thoughtfulness in the script that isn’t always a given on this show.
A few things first: Loved how it was, in essence, both a nod to Flowers for Algernon and 50s sci-fi B movies, like The Brain That Wouldn’t Die, including the fact that absolutely no one involved seemed at all concerned about the ethics of the experiment. Can’t speak for the science of it, except that Young Frankenstein ended in a similar fashion (brain transference), so I’m guessing: not accurate. This might also be one of the few instances where the original owner bought the object as a curiosity only, with perhaps a view to studying its mechanism, without being tempted by its power. This does lead to what could be a plot hole, or an intentional commentary: how does Henry, who is considered as barely functional, understand what’s being said and figure out how to work the device? Either they didn’t consider that, or the episode is making a point about the dismissiveness of those with power (intellectual or otherwise). In either case, pride seems to be the defining sin: Henry’s pride is wounded, leading him to take action, and is literally fed by the brains of others.
Also: totally getting Dollhouse vibes on this, particularly since he takes on the personality of those he’s drained. (Second creepy villains role in a single season for this actor; he was in Cupid’s Quiver as well.)
What set this episode apart for me? Naming the device the Trephinator; if I remember correctly, trepanning was a way to release evil spirit (eg, treat mental illness) and/or a method for attaining enlightenment, requiring a hole to be drilled in the skull. Viola was also a win: she gets more depth and rounding in a single episode than Lloyd did in two: she’s smart, she’s forthright. They even upend the usual dynamic (woman gives up her career for a man, or is asked to), by having Jack be the one asked to do it, and regretting he didn’t take the chance. Even diminished, she’s the one who brings down her attacker. That the ethics question applies to everyone, from the original scientist to Jack’s insistence on using the Trephinator to return Vi’s intelligence. And finally, the next level naming of Jack’s cologne (Vi’s favorite) as “Sayonara,” encapsulating the trajectory of their relationship and its eventual end in a single moment. Awesome.
Critical Rewatch #1
Friday the 13th: The Series aired in syndication from 1987 to 1990. It boasts a large fanbase but almost no scholarly commentary. This episode-by-episode critical blog on the series is part of a research project by Erin Giannini and Kristopher Woofter that will include the series in a scholarly monograph on horror anthology TV series in the Reagan era.