December 5, 2015

Starman, episode 4 "Blue Lights"

In a small rural town in southern California, the inhabitants delight in how clockwork the routine has become as waitress Laurie signs off each evening to meet up with Charlie Ewing, a cheerful if insecure deputy sheriff who's often down on himself, even as he's hoping for a promotion. It's because of this that he's been unwilling to fully settle down with Laurie, much to her chagrin.

Scott and Starman are camping by a lake on the outskirts of town, waiting for a check from Liz (see "The Return") to arrive at the local post office. Scott's worried about the fire going out as they're out of matches, but Starman says the orbs can start it again if needed. As Starman goes off for a shower, Scott gets curious, digs out his orb, and starts playing with it. He's able to turn it on, but instead of lighting a fire, it causes a massive ring of lights to circle above the lake. Scott gradually works out how to stop it, but it was unfortunately witnessed by the passing Ewing, who's awe quickly turns to fluster as neither Scott nor Starman says they saw a thing. As he leaves, Starman knowingly asks Scott what happened, but the boy won't cop to anything.

Ewing avoids using the words "flying saucer", but still decides to file a police report of what he saw. Sadly, news travels fast in the small town, and the typical ribbing of he and Laurie now includes teases about aliens. Seeing Starman and Scott in the diner, he starts hitting them up with some questions. Scott is evasive, which ups Ewing's suspicions, but Starman is forthcoming about the check and Paul Forrester's identity. Returning to his office and punching it in the computer, Forrester's name is flagged with a notice to contact Agent Fox. When Ewing can't get through, he contacts an old friend at the Los Angeles Tribune.

Scott is scrambling, knowing they're in a pinch, but they no longer have a car and they don't have enough cash on them to even cover bus fare. Spotting patrons making bets around the pool table, Scott leads Starman into a local bar and tells him the rules of the game. Scott figures they'll need the orbs to win, but Starman just uses basic mathematics to sink all of his ball in some impressive moves. Sadly, the patrons feel he's a hustler and threaten to rough him up, until Ewing shows up and escorts Starman and Scott outside. He knows Fox is after proof of alien life, and makes the leap that Starman and Scott must themselves be... government agents! They ultimately play along enough to get Ewing to give them a little slack. Meanwhile, in Washington, Fox is notified of the red flag and, Agent Wylie at his side, hops on a plane.

Starman feels bad about the reputation Ewing has been left with, but follows Scott's lead to leave town. Thumbing a ride on the highway, who should pull up but Ewing. He offers them a ride, but it's not long before the handcuffs are out. Seems he got a call back from DC. Locking them in separate cells, Ewing gives them some food and hunkers down in the office. Scott reveals he still has his orb but, even with his father guiding him, isn't able to turn it on. Using a mirror, Starman is able to activate it, melting the lock on Scott's cell. Ewing hears and bursts in, but not before Scott makes a break for it and gets away.

Realizing Ewing is freaking out, Starman decides to calm him with the truth, revealing who he really is and why he's here. Ewing calms, but refuses to let Starman go because being the man who caught an alien could be a huge boost to his reputation. Laurie shows up, worried about Ewing, and he finally tells her what's going on. Sure enough, she thinks he's cracked and doesn't believe any of it, especially when she sees the normal looking Starman smiling and waving from his cell. She tries talking Ewing down, but when he refuses to budge, she leaves, saying she'll be waiting at home if he changes his mind.

As she walks home, she's approached by Scott, who talks about how his dad, "Paul Forrester", works for top national magazines and newspapers, and Laurie's suddenly terrified of what a flood of bad press could do to further damage Ewing. After one more try, she ends up handcuffing Ewing to a pipe and sending Starman and Scott on their way. Ewing is devastated, but she calms him, telling him she still loves him and, no matter what, she'll be here for him. Pausing on a hill, Starman decides to set things right, so he uses his orb to create another ring of lights, which flies over the town square in full view of everyone, Ewing and Laurie cheering as all their neighbors look in wonder at the display.

Squealing their car to a stop on the approaching highway, Agents Fox and Wylie also see the lights and rush into town. When they get to the diner, where everyone is gathered, Fox bristles as Ewing gives his questions the run around to the laughter of the other patrons.

Walking along a lonely stretch of highway, Starman and Scott continue their journey.


I love the small town in this one, just a little place in the middle of nowhere, going through the same motions, the same routines day after day. The deputy is holding out on fully committing to his girlfriend, the Most Popular Waitress In Town, because he's been holding out for a promotion to Sheriff for so long that it's become a regular source of ribbing from the other locals, so regular you could set a clock to it. This is a town where nothing big ever happens, nobody really steps outside the status quo they've settled into. Just one of those quiet places.

And then aliens happen. Or at least they happen to deputy Ewing, and I love on paper the character study this leads to as a guy who had every reason to expect his life would go a simple, set way suddenly gets a glimpse of the great beyond, and it flies to his head as he both gets delusions of grandeur at the thought of becoming a world-wide news sensation, and terror as he has an alien right in front of him, who's acting ridiculously calm, and yet he has no idea how to read this, how to take any of it. And he's entirely alone in this as his stories of lights and aliens turn the town against him, as he quickly becomes the source of fresh ridicule from those same locals, and Laurie the waitress begins to fear the man she loves is on the verge of breaking. If only he can hold out for that one distant, government man named Fox to swoop in and tell everyone he's right. We know it won't play out like that, that Fox would lock everything down, probably tear the town apart if he actually got his hands on Starman, but Ewing is so deeply out of his wheelhouse that he's lost.

Unfortunately, the reason I say I love it on paper is I never fully settle into Rick Hurst (Cletus from The Dukes of Hazzard) in the role. There's times he's quite good, but he never seems to have a handle on how he wants to play Ewing. At times, he's defying expectations and showing he's sharper and more resourceful than the stereotypically small town cop, even stating such to our heroes, and I like how quickly he puts two-and-two together in terms of who Starman and Scott are and why Fox is after them. He doesn't just call the agent, he calls friends in the press and outside law enforcement, building a story around the agent and working out how Starman fits into that. It's a nice touch, and a good indication of how worthy he is of the Sheriff role. But then there are many times where Hurst goes over the top and makes Ewing exactly the type of yokel buffoon he says he doesn't want to be seen as. Unfortunately, as Ewing's arc falls further and further into desperation, Hurst cranks the silly higher and higher. It's not terrible, it just keeps the role at a distance. Sadly, it also harms the chemistry he has with the wonderful Margot Rose as Laurie as, while you can see both actors trying their darnedest to make this pairing work, they don't feel tender and comfortable as they awkwardly paw at each other like two adolescents at their first school dance. This doesn't ruin the episode, but as this is the arc on which everything is hinging, it does keep things from selling as well as past episodes have.

Which is a shame as everything else is just as spot on as the last few installments. Starman and Scott especially continue developing a nice bond as the son starts experimenting with powers he's unable yet to control, his father realizing the boy is lying about having taken such actions. It's a nice parent/child moment where the roles aren't flipped for once. I would like to have seen a moment where Starman actually taught his son a bit of orb use (like maybe have Scott successfully get himself out of the cell instead of Starman doing it for him with mirrors), but it's still a nice step for them to finally go in their relationship. In terms of flipped parental roles, we do get a nice bit where Scott teaches his father how to hustle a pool table, and I love that Starman does so with simple mathematical awareness. And remember how I've been critical of how much Robert Hays is working that left eyebrow? Yeah, never mind. Chris Barnes has started working it into Scott's mannerisms, too, and it's quickly becoming a nice shared tick of father and son, with the elder using it for incredulity and wonder, the younger for mischief.

Other stuff I like are Ewing seemingly getting pulled into a fantasy about Starman and Scott themselves being government agents, only to instead set a huge trap for the two. Laurie going into panic mode at the thought of heaps of bad press when she hears the guy her boyfriend locked up works for major news outlets. Louie the chef and his wild nicknames for dishes. The continuity point of them no longer having a car because they were forced to abandon it in the previous episode. Starman actually being upfront and telling Ewing who he is and why he's here. The Force and the finger waggle. Fox once again having a lackey (though sadly still not a counterpoint) as Patrick Culliton returns as Agent Wylie from the pilot. Speaking of Fox, while he still lacks threat, I do like that he's a little more buttoned down and reserved here as he works out and quotes Shakespeare. When he starts bristling at the end, it feels more like a deserved reaction than just being his standard operating level.

And speaking of the ending, I love it. It's cheesy as hell as everyone gets to see the light show, Ewing is let off the personal hook with everyone, and the entire town turns their noses at Fox, but it's an earned and wonderfully Amblin fairytale way to bring this installment to a close, and reminded me a lot of the wonderful ending of The Last Starfighter. It's a celebration, a sequence of whimsy, joy, and awe one a level this series hasn't let itself explore to this point. I hope we get to see more of this from time to time.

Let's end with a quick look at the crew. Tom Lazarus, the writer of the episode, is also the executive story editor of the series, a role he also filled on Hunter, Stingray, Jake and the Fatman, and a show I'd love to revisit one day, War of the Worlds. Among a handful of tv movie credits, he scripted the Tom Hanks-starring, table-top role-playing game-fearing cautionary fable Mazes and Monsters, as well as the 90s religious thriller Stigmata. No offense intended when I say that's an interesting batch of credits, indeed. Chile-born director Claudio Guzman is a television vet with art direction credits going back to the early 50s (including shows like Make Room for Daddy and The Red Skeleton Hour), and a whole slew of directorial work (most prominently a huge chunk of I Dream of Genie) starting in 1958. Though he produced a television film after (one of those Sidney Sheldon romantic thrillers), Starman appears to have been his last work as a director. He passed away in 2008. Among his few films is an oddity that caught my eye: Linda Lovelace for President, a topical farce seemingly thrown together in the wake of the Deep Throat boom. The trailer may very well be one of the worst I've ever seen. That said, right before it he did a quiet 1973 indie called Antonio about a driver stranded in a small, Chilean fishing village, which feels like a much more personal, slice-of-life effort that I'd be curious to see. Sadly, looks like it's fallen into pretty deep obscurity.


The instant I saw actor Rick Hurst appear, I knew exactly what kind of episode we were in for. He's just one of those guys that tends to play a certain type of character who shows up in certain types of stories. He's the likeable schlep. The guy with low self esteem that everybody likes, except for himself. If the name Rick Hurst doesn't sound familiar to you, then you're probably someone outside of Rick Hurst's immediate circle. But there's a good chance you've heard of his most famous role, that of Cletus Hogg, cousin of Hazzard county's infamous Boss Hogg. No? Well, that's where I knew him from anyway. Sorry I don't share your highfalutin tastes.

As I said, I knew what type of episode "Blue Lights" was going to be very early on. It's not that the formula is drastically different than our previous episodes (I've already dubbed the show "Highway to Andromeda", a riff on the 80s Michael Landon drama Highway to Heaven, about a do-gooding angel trying to earn his wings with the help of his human sidekick), but the tone is decidedly lighter and the stakes much smaller. If you've been with us since the start, you know that's saying something. I would also argue that Scott and Starman are really supporting players here. Actually, that may be true of all of our episodes thus far, but here our protagonist of the week definitely takes center stage. Thankfully, he's up to the task. Along with a warm performance from co-guest star Margot Rose, they take this silly, cornpone premise and make us care. Or at least me. A little. Like Noel, I long for larger stakes and at least a little focus on our hero's ultimate goal now and then (you know, finding Scott's mom), but I do enjoy seeing the boys come in and sort of nudge people onto the right track. It's not what you'd call challenging television, nor is it done with the intelligence of something like Quantum Leap, but so far, they've managed to mix the stories up just enough to keep things fresh-ish.

The father/son relationship between Starman and Scott continues to develop, however slowly. For better and for worse, the initial animosity Scott showed toward Starman has long since vanished. On the plus side, this less whiney Scott is far more likeable. The flip side is that it has sapped the show of some much needed drama. I'm sure there will be some bumps along the way, but this relationship would've worked much better had it grown organically out of their shared experiences. There's really not much growth here, other than Starman's "use the Force, Scott" moment, but it was nice to finally see Scott begin to tap into that side of himself. But as I said earlier, everything in "Blue Lights" is subservient to the story of Hurst's Charlie Ewing character.

I'm reluctant to even touch on Fox at this point. By now our regular readers will likely be able to guess that Fox is underused and once again comes in a step behind our heroes, only to be the butt of a joke from the newly confident Charlie. It's clear that they (the producers) are not interested in actually doing anything with him. He's merely there so the boys will be forced to move on to the next story. Another untapped resource remains Starman's Paul Forrester alias. This is a supposedly famous photographer who was thought dead and is now on the lam with a young boy. It would be interesting to see some repercussions from Forrester's life spill over into Starman and Scott's. For instance, wouldn't it be great if Forrester had a child that suddenly came into the picture? Or an enemy made from his days in journalism? There's still plenty of time left for these things to develop, but the series seems to be settling into a comfortable formula at this point.

Lightweight and utterly disposable fluff, "Blue Lights" is mostly held together by the genial performance of Rick Hurst and his ability to make us (or me) care what happens to him.

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