January 24, 2016

Starman, episode 6 "Secrets"

Apologies for the extended break over the holidays. We're back!

In the Skid Row slums of Los Angeles, Starman and Scott are settling in for the night at a cheap motel, seemingly unaware that Fox is closing in outside, with a strike force (well, two other guys) arming themselves with tranq guns as they move in on both the door and window. Fox's men crash in, but just missed the heroes, who snuck away on the back of a laundry truck. Wandering after spending a rough night on the streets, the two catch a news flash about a woman who escaped from a nearby psychiatric hospital: Jenny Hayden.

Rushing to the news station in the hopes of any additional information, the two are pointed to a halfway home outside Hollywood where former patients are known to turn up. Heading there, they meet Angela, a young woman caring for the patients. After some prodding, and Scott tearing up with hope, Angela opens up and admits she knows Jenny, but remains aloof on details, and doesn't know where the woman is right now. As she takes them around to various shops and spots, none of which turn up further clues, Angela defends Jenny's stories of the Starman as the type of romantic fantasy every woman needs in her life, and points out how much she wished someone could love her the way Starman and Scott do Jenny. With Scott crashing on her couch for the night, Angela remembers one more spot, and takes Starman out to an amphitheater in the park, talking about her love of theater and slipping into roles.

Scott comes to in time to hear a followup news report that Jenny Hayden has returned to the hospital, so he leaves a note and rushes off. At the hospital, Scott first meets Bobby, a teen runaway handcuffed to a bench. Then, when Scott asks staff if he can see Jenny, he finds himself locked in an observation room with a one-sided mirror. On that other side is George Fox and his underling, Agent Wylie. All of the news reports on Jenny were just fakes they laid as a trap. Scott tries using his orb on the lock, but when the door pops open, in walks Fox, who can't help but smile as he finally comes face-to-face with the hybrid teen.

Returning to the halfway home, Angela keeps trying to divert the conversation away from Jenny as she asks if Starman could ever care for her the same way, if he'd miss her if she was also gone. As she goes in for a kiss, a startled Starman sets off a car alarm and they hurry inside. They see the note left by Scott, and seeing the love in Starman's eyes, Angela gives him one last kiss and agrees to lead him to the hospital. Arriving, Starman recognizes a van of government agents, so she leads him around to a maintenance entrance to the underground boiler room.

Starman grabs a lab coat and blends in as he explores. When he comes across a common area for patients, many of them panic, seeing him as a stranger and noticing his alien ability to open locks. It does lead him to Bobby, though, who tags along and leads Starman to the observation room, where they see Scott on the other side of the mirror, under the guard of Agent Wylie. Using the connection of their orbs to reveal to Scott he's there, Starman distracts Wylie with a floating medical skull while Scott makes it out the door.

The two make their way to the room Angela claimed was Jenny's. They find a woman in a gown, but it's not Jenny. It's Angela claiming to be Jenny. Scott flies into a confused rage, being held by his father as Starman realizes Angela suffers from a personality disorder, and that she's built a new identity for herself out of their stories about Jenny. Jenny was probably never here, meaning their search is back to square one. "Jenny" again leads them to the way out in the building's basement, and Starman gives her a farewell kiss before he and his son head out, Angela falling into confusion once they're gone.

Chilling in the commissary, Fox suddenly leaps into action when he hears the patients were distressed by an intruder. Returning to his prize, all he finds is the trapped Wylie and a smirking Bobby, who takes advantage of the confusion to again slip away. The next morning, Starman and Scott hit the road to search anew.


Right from the start, this episode cranks the show up to a new level of stakes. After the pilot, we've spent a handful of episodes isolated in the countryside, with our heroes wondering dusty roads and rural small towns. Here, we're in the city. The inner city, with prostitutes, cops on constant patrol, flee-bitten hotels, and halfway houses. It's a bit of a cruel sentiment, but understandable when Scott expresses hope that they won't actually find his mother here, saying so after both he and his father spent the night curled in a stairwell alongside other homeless wanderers.

And then there's Fox. As this episode opens, Fox isn't bungling around waiting for a lead, or bumming a ride with a local cop, or begging his bosses for more funding. No, here he's right on top of our heroes, with a strike force (yeah it's just two other people, but I'll give it to him and call it a strike force) armed with tranq guns, bursting through windows and kicking down doors. This is the first time Fox has felt dangerous, with a level of competency the heroes are just barely scraping through the fingers of. Even on top of this assault, you have the lie involving Jenny that our heroes fall for hook, line, and sinker, and the great scene of Fox confronting Scott in the interrogation room. The intensity of that moment, of a chipper and gloating Fox, gleaming his predator smile at the helpless teen, reflected next to him in the mirror, is chilling, and is absolutely the faceoff moment that the last episode fumbled.

Unfortunately, after a strong start, things do take an unfortunate dip for me. Not all things, just one specific thing that, unfortunately, is such a significant portion of the episode that it can't just be easily overlooked. That would be Angela. Now don't get me wrong, the late Lisa Blount was a wonderful and striking actress, and it's great seeing her here so soon after a fresh watch of Prince of Darkness. She is absolutely committed to the role, and you can feel the longing build of her sudden infatuation, her dedication to play the roles Angela unknowing casts herself in, and the confused heartbreak in the end as she lets Starman go. That's all fine. But it doesn't save the forced melodrama of the writing, nor the bitterness I felt that they decided to go where they went. See, I really, really loved the idea that our heroes had just barely missed Jenny Hayden, that she really had been here, only to flee just before they arrived. It was a powerful punch to see the hope in our heroes, the tears in Scott's eyes as he finds a friend who knows Jenny, and to put them in the spot their own pursuer often finds himself in.

But then they throw that away by having the entire thing be the lie of someone lost in the grips of an identity disorder. Which is a compelling character study, yes, but a dissatisfying one to suddenly get in the midst of this journey. Worse yet, they telegraph it so much that, even before the 20 minute mark, it clicked for me where they were going, and I just had to sit there stewing in my disappointment as I watched it unfold. I get it, I do. This is still the 80s. It's a status quo show. Jenny is a big central arc and they can't play that hand too soon. I get it. However, having this be a near miss and having us meet someone who knows about Jenny and can share with us some info, that in no way upsets your status quo, because Jenny's still off screen, still a goal that hasn't been achieved. I wonder if part of this is the result of them having not yet sorted out what they wanted to do with Jenny, thus they were hesitant to commit. Notice how quickly they flash that picture of her on the television screen. They keep it coy, not wanting us to get a good look, because that's certainly not Karen Allen, nor is it the actress I know we'll be getting to at a later point. Again, I understand, I'm just frustrated. This is a good story, but not a good place to tell it, and ultimately cheapens the broader story of the episode. Thus, the most powerful element for me is when Scott finds out and flips into a whirl of rage and grief. All this emotion he's built up for this reunion, all the hopes, all the fears, all the anticipation... and it was all for nothing. That is one hell of a powerful moment, doubly so as Starman has to hold him back. We've pointing out how many episodes have reversed the roles, with Scott acting as a father figure to his own father, but Starman is in the parental seat here, guiding and protecting and comforting his child.

And there is other good stuff in there, like Starman walking about in a lab coat, so focused on finding his son that he doesn't care if he's drawing looks by using the orb or undoing security locks through the laying on of hands. If anything, he gets more suspicion from the patients than he does the tired, late-shift staff. Jonas Marlowe is great as Bobby, a sarcastically smirking teen runaway, and I like how he genuinely helps Starman and Scott, even as he's happy to take advantage of yet another opportunity to slip away. Patrick Culliton is back as Fox's sidekick, Agent Wylie, and while he is once again delegated to buffoon status as he has to deal with Starman's puppeteering of the skull, I like that we get to see him in action during the opening raid. He's not an unskilled agent, and as with Fox, that opening does give some needed oomph to their threat.

A big name worth mentioning is writer Randall Wallace. This is one of his earliest scripts, when he was freelancing for a number of cop shows in the 80s. In the mid 90s, he broke into films after writing a little screenplay you may have heard about: Braveheart. Additionally, he wrote Pearl Harbor, and wrote and directed The Man in the Iron Mask, We Were Soldiers, Secretariat, and Heaven is for Real. It's no surprise that he ended up being the breakout member of the writing staff, as, Angela issues aside, this really is the sharpest, boldest, most beautifully crafted pieces of writing we've seen on this show so far, and it's boosted by the steady helming of character actor (Fibber McGee!) turned veteran tv director Bob Sweeney. Sweeney knows how to draw out all the right moments, letting us soak in tension, fear, hope, and some wonderful performances from the cast. It's a really well put together episode on all fronts.

Overall, I still really enjoy it. I don't like where the story goes, but the setup to get there and the actual execution are superb, easily putting this on the top end of the best episodes we've covered on this site. There's still room to improve, though, so here's hoping Starman can keep surprising me and knocking it out of the park.

Other bits:
  • I love that Starman already knows what popcorn is, but delights in discovering how it's made.
  • As they're dramatically braced against the wall, Scott says, "Why are we doing this?" His father sheepishly responds, "I don't know. I saw it on tv once." Had a big laugh at that.
  • Why does Fox keep chewing on the antenna of his walkie as though it's the straw of a Big Gulp?
  • Nice touch where Bobby asks why Starman doesn't use his orb to kill Wylie, and the actor's flippant eyeroll at the response. I really like Bobby. I know we'll never see him again, but it would be fun to have him pop up on the road again in a later installment.


Once again, the producers have managed to find a rip in the fabric of time and hear my pleas across the decades. After bringing Starman's alter-ego Paul Forester and his significant baggage into the mix in "Best Buddies", this week we finally see a focus on the two things I've been harping on the most: the involvement - or lack thereof - of Agent Fox, and the search for Jenny Hayden. The former has been a weekly complaint, with Fox having become nothing more than a punchline, and a weak one at that. The latter, who is supposed to be our McGuffin, has been, at best, a tertiary plot device to keep our heroes on the move. But with "Secrets", I'm pleased to say that these two elements are finally, and successfully, brought to the forefront.

This is the George Fox I've been waiting for. Engaged. Competent. Nipping at our hero's heels at every turn. There's so much more tension here because of his presence. We need that threat looming over the boys, even when they're merely going through their Highway To Andromeda do-goodery. Fox is still a rather one dimensional character, and I could pick nits about some of his methods (going down to eat in the hospital cafeteria while waiting to spring his trap on Starman. Really, George?), but I'm so happy to finally see him out of Mrs. Ochmonek (look it up) mode that I don't care. What we need now is to flesh Fox out a bit. Fill in those gaps. Humanize him. Hell, make him the focus of an episode. See things from his point of view. Maybe even wrap him up in a predicament with Paul and Scott where they need to help each other. Are you still listening from the past, producers? But for now, this is a start.

It doesn't take a genius to figure out that any series predicated on finding someone (a one armed man, a half-brother) isn't going to let the hero find said missing person this early, so I had no illusions about the boys finding the real Jenny Hayden here. What's more important is that the focus was (finally!) on the big picture for a change. I would've liked some actual progress or a few snatches of genuine info, but what we got instead was perhaps more interesting. I saw the "twist" coming almost from the start, but that didn't make the journey any less interesting, or heartbreaking. Featuring an exceptional performance from guest star Lisa Blount, this is the best episode of Starman thus far by light years. It's not just that the story has some real dramatic teeth for a change, it seems to be directed, even edited, with a bit more skill than previous episodes. It's as if everyone sensed that they were working with better material here, and as a result, it took their collective efforts to another level. Even Hays and Barnes, who seem to get better every week, take it up an extra notch.

As I said before, the search for Jenny Hayden can't be the focus each week, but this episode proves that Starman is capable of a much deeper and richer brand of storytelling than what we've previously gotten. To this point, the series has been a simple, formulaic diversion, and there's nothing wrong with that. But now the bar has been raised. I cared here. Really cared. I had an emotional stake in the outcome for the first time. Though I sense that this will prove to be the exception and not the rule, I cling to the hope that this is the start of something new.

1 comment:

Tony Williams said...

That's an excellent point about the drastic change in aesthetic here. The previous episodes had been a bit... bucolic, but the sleaze here is almost palpable. Almost a character itself really. It gives it a grit that simply wouldn't have been there had they set it in the aforementioned Mayberry style setting.