Sunday, May 20, 2012

#3: The ATM with the Heart of Gold

Episode 1003:  "The ATM with the Heart of Gold"

Original Airdate:  September 29, 1991

One-Sentence Synopsis:  The town's new ATM befriends Simon and showers him in monetary gifts, destroying Eerie's economy in the process.

Summary:
Marshall's father has just completed his latest invention, an automatic teller machine that recreates the personal service and human interaction lacking from other models.  He is dubbed Mr. Wilson and he comes complete with the image of a human face, a gloved hand for dispensing money, and conversational phrases like "Have a nice day!"  He is introduced to the public at Eerie Savings and Loan where he is to serve as a test run before every bank in America is fitted with one.  The response is underwhelming and only Simon is curious enough to give Mr. Wilson a go, entering his name instead of a PIN.  Nonetheless, Mr. Wilson hands out $20 which is brushed off as a fluke by the bank owner, Mr. Chisel.

Marshall has recently taken to hanging out with a couple teenagers closer to his own age, and Simon is often left out of the loop.  When shopping at the World O'Stuff, Simon's irrelevance in their social group is made clear, for he is too young and poor to fit in.  In an attempt to seem cool, Simon treats the older boys to some sweet treats with his $20.  But once the money dries up, the boys part and Marshall chooses to stay with them.

Rather than return home, Simon wanders the streets of Eerie at night and runs into Mr. Wilson again.  The interface prompts him to engage in a conversation with him and when Simon admits that he's feeling down, Wilson attempts to cheer him up by handing him more money.  Eventually, Simon becomes the king of the kids.  He buys the expensive shoes that the older boys had been wanting, he treats everyone to ice cream, and throws himself a birthday party complete with his own wedding cake.  All the while, it becomes evident that the citizens of Eerie are losing money rapidly.

Simon introduces Marshall to Wilson, and it's clear that Wilson has become more friendly and human-like whenever Simon is around.  Marshall notices that Wilson is giving Simon a lot of cash and he puts two and two together when the town goes bankrupt and Mr. Chisel is arrested and the bank is shut down.  Marshall pleads with Simon to return the cash, but Simon has become used to his newfound riches and popularity.  In order to show Simon that his new "friends" only care about his money, Marshall asks the older boys to state Simon's name.  Other than "Moneybags" they can't come up with anything.  Simon understands and readies all of his cash in order to return it.

That night, Marshall and Simon slowly return all of the money despite Wilson's pleas against it.  Little by little, Wilson becomes more machine-like until the last dollar is deposited and he fails to recognize Simon anymore.  Later on, once the economy is back on its feet, the Mr. Wilson machine is dismantled after it fails to work properly.  Marshall decides to throw Simon another, smaller birthday party, to prove that he does have a friend who actually cares about him.

Evidence Locker Item:  Mr. Wilson's hand.  (Tag #??)

References:
Savings and Loan Crisis - During the '80s and early '90s, the US savings and loan industry took a turn for a worse as numerous economic factors including inflations, fraud, and poor bookkeeping resulted in the closures of 747 banking establishments.  A bailout was instituted to cover the damage, which contributed to budget deficits.  Eerie's fallout happened a little more quickly, thanks to Mr. Wilson.

Air Jordans - In the mid-'80s, a line of sneakers were released to tie-in with the popularity of Michael Jordan.  Each year, a new model of shoes would be released and they were advertised to children, insinuating that ownership of the shoes would make them perform like Jordan.  The Sky Monster shoes that the teenage boys obsess over are clearly inspired by Air Jordans, as is Simon's purchase, Sky Monsters Part 2.

2001: A Space Odyssey - The scene where Marshall and Simon return the money, effectively "killing" Mr. Wilson, is reminiscent of the famous HAL death scene from Kubrick's 2001.  Both involve forms of artificial intelligence that have begun making their own catastrophic decisions, except while Mr. Wilson had friendly intentions, HAL was murderous.  Both have to be shut down slowly and manually and the humans must ignore their pleas to stop.  Eventually, both computers fall back on singing a song slowly until their death (HAL sang "Daisy Bell" which was one of the songs programmed into it, Mr. Wilson sings "99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall," Simon's favorite).

Review:
"Ain't it good to know that you've got a friend?"

Holy moly!  This is a great episode!  Admittedly, it had to grow on me since my initial viewing, but the more I think about it, the more I enjoy it.  This is the episode I describe whenever I tell people to watch Eerie, Indiana.  This is exactly the level of weirdness and heart that I expect from the show.

To start off, the premise is unlike any I've seen before.  Sure, it has elements of 2001 and other science-fiction stories that involve sentient robots, but it is presented in a fresh way.  An ATM and a child form a friendship because everyone else ignores them!  Where else would you see that but Eerie?  And it's more than just a whimsical plot.  There is some deep social commentary strewn throughout the episode.

First, there is Mr. Wilson.  He is designed in order to give people the experience of dealing with a human rather than a machine.  And, as it turns out, nobody wants that.  No one shows up to his unveiling.  People just pass him by without thinking about it, despite his cries of "Have a nice day!" becoming increasingly desperate and sad.  No one thinks to engage with him because he is just a machine, despite his simulated appearance.

Enter Simon, who is young enough to not understand the distinction between artificial and actual intelligence.  When Mr. Wilson speaks, Simon believes there is a genuine soul trying to interact with him.  There is an understated moment early on when Simon says to Marshall "Mr. Wilson told you to have a nice day," and Marshall just ignores him.  From Simon's point of view, Mr. Wilson was being polite and Marshall had rudely refused to respond, whereas Marshall knew that it was just a recording that's repeated on loop.

This is the episode that really shows us what Simon's life is like.  Marshall's attempts to fit in with an older crowd make sense give his quest for "being normal."  Eerie may be weird, but hanging around with a kid all day is even weirder.  His decision to alienate Simon couldn't come at a worse time in Simon's life.  We never see Simon's parents, but we are given all the information we need about them.  First, Simon chooses not to return home when he hears them arguing from outside.  Next, Marshall's mother tells Simon that they are having his "favorite" for dinner, implying that he eats meals at the Teller residence frequently.  Finally, Marshall notices that it sounds like Simon's parents are having a party, to which Simon replies, "My mom's not home."

When these moments are compared with all of the stories Simon tells about his father raising his allowance and getting him great birthday presents, it's clear that Simon comes from an abusive and neglectful household.  This is the main character in a children's show.  Simon remains optimistic and the dark realism of his life isn't dwelled upon, but its all there and it's what allows this story to become as emotionally resonant as it is.

Even though Mr. Wilson looks creepy with his Max-Headroom appearance, he is genuinely trying to be the best friend anyone can have.  The fact that he becomes more human by giving way his money suggests that he is longing to escape his duties as an ATM.  He just wants to be with people and the money is holding him back.  When the money is returned, you can see Wilson's heart break.  Marshall insists that Wilson has no feelings, but Wilson implores that he does.  Wilson shouts "Why... are... you...hurting me... like this?  Simon...talk to me..."  and Simon says nothing more.  It's strikingly powerful.  At the end, when the machine is destroyed, one can't help but think that Wilson offed himself with his last ounce of strength.

This is the episode where a child is forced to kill his best friend to save the town.  This is Eerie, Indiana.

Random Observations:
- Gregory Itzin appears as Mr. Chisel, which will become a recurring role.  I know he eventually becomes mayor, but it seems he is just the bank president here.  Nonetheless, his smarmy demeanor is perfect for the town of Eerie.  He would later go on to play the corrupt president of the United States in 24, and he has sleazy politician down pat.

- Hey, it's Aladdin (Scott Weinger) as Marshall's friend Eddie.  Seems he should know a thing or two about going from rags to riches with supernatural means.

- The World O'Stuff makes its first appearance in this episode and this was one of the reasons I always wanted to live in Eerie.  He has the charm of an old fashioned drug store from the 1950s where you could get root beer floats on the daily.  Plus, they sold everything you would ever need, despite it's size.  Mr. Radford here will become another recurring character, but he has a secret that causes him to appear in silly disguises all the time.  Personally, I prefer the change that occurs halfway through the series when Radford's secret is revealed, but we'll get to that episode later.

- Syndi answers the phone and starts having a very flirty conversation with whoever is on the line.  A few moments later, she hands the phone to her dad:  "It's Mr. Chisel."

Conspiracy Theories:
- Who are Julie and Kiefer and why didn't they pick up their wedding cake?

- According to the news, there was a two-engine fire in Eerie.  Unfortunately, the town only has one fire engine.  Did this fire claim the lives of Julie and Kiefer?

Grade:  A must-watch episode that blends the subtle themes of child neglect and artificial friendship, resulting in a heartbreaking finale.  A+

2 comments:

  1. Wow, great analysis! Now I want to watch it all over again.

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  2. FYI - The Julia and Kiefer cake is a joke referring to Julia Roberts and Kiefer Sutherland, after Roberts cancelled their wedding in 1991, when this show aired.

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