by Brent Eyestone
“I’m making an asshole casserole, pal, and you’re the main ingredient!”
Okay, that actually kind of looks/reads funny on paper. Maybe that’s how this episode actually got approved and eventually to air on June 5, 1990? Either way, by the time that line is dropped (by Bobcat Goldthwait, oddly using his Police Academy 2-4 “Zed”-voice for no apparent or logical reason), one's 2018-level of television and entertainment-consuming sophistication overrides any sort of enjoyment out of the line as it’s delivered on the front end of the climactic attempt at bringing the episode home.
“The Ventriloquist’s Dummy” was the tenth episode of the second season of Tales from the Crypt. Richard Donner, best known for the Lethal Weapon franchise, Goonies, and the original Superman films, directed it. What many wouldn’t know is that Donner actually had decades upon decades of television directorial experience prior to his film career, including shows that would have suggested that the man was beyond capable of crafting three solid episodes of Tales from the Crypt just before the twilight of his career: six episodes of The Twilight Zone, two episodes of The Fugitive, seven episodes of The Rifleman. If you named a decent show from the 60’s or 70’s, it’s likely that Donner did an episode or two.
And yet… “The Ventriloquist’s Dummy” is just a mess that can’t seem to figure out its tone. In one moment, it seems to want to go in a slapstick direction in a ham-fisted attempt at utilizing Don Rickles and Bobcat Goldthwait’s comedic chops. Then, in transitions akin to yanking a parking brake on lap 184 of the Indy 500, the tone attempts to shift to dark, reclusive, murderous, and sinister within the next line spoken by the same actor. The performances vacillate wildly from the top and nothing ever quite sets in. Never mind the fact that Goldthwait’s character is supposed to be 26 in the episode, all characters are able to freely flee from and/or interfere in murder scenes (with witnesses) without any resistance, the various breakouts of straight up Kabuki moments, and on and on.
Apologists attempt to cite Rickles and Goldthwait as “not being real actors” in terms of why the episode doesn’t work before celebrating it with the played out, couch stoner copout-speak of it being “the best kind of bad.” I’d counter that Rickles and Goldthwait’s talents (see: the rest of their legendary careers) are not what sinks the episode, but rather poor, absent direction on a script adapted from a flimsy comic book series wherein the network ordered far too many episodes in a minuscule amount of time to allow for anything actually good or of any modicum of quality.
On a meta level, it’s almost like there was a gap between the end of The Twilight Zone and the start of Black Mirror where we, as a society, were just incapable of creating dark, standalone, episodic series’ wherein things go unexpectedly wrong for the protagonists amidst an inevitable, and ultimately decent plot twist. Toward the former, I’d cite the inherent genius, work ethic, and cohesive vision of Rod Serling. Toward the latter, I’d cite services like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon affording creators the leeway to determine how many episodes they can realistically create while keeping the content of a certain level. Through the same lens, the shortage of content being created in the 60’s seemingly allowed for focus and execution on what was being made. The over-abundance of content being created in modern times effectively raises the bar on the creatives and the various networks to create something impactful that will break through the clutter.
Either way, for better or for worse, here’s the half-assery one could apparently get away with in the 90’s: