Sunday, May 27, 2012

#8: The Dead Letter

Episode 1009:  "The Dead Letter"

Original Airdate:  November 10, 1991

One-Sentence Synopsis:  Marshall is haunted by the ghost of a boy who refuses to leave until Marshall can deliver his letter to his old sweetheart.

The Eerie Library his holding a surplus sale, selling some ancient books out of the back of the World O'Stuff.  After Simon embarrasses Marshall in front of a girl he has a crush on named Amanda, Marshall discovers an old letter tucked inside one of the books.  They open it and suddenly, a boy dressed in old-fashioned clothes appears out of nowhere.  He introduces himself as Tripp McConnell and he greats Marshall like an old friend and says he has a favor to ask of him.  Creeped out, Marshall leaves the store.

When he arrives home, he finds that Tripp is already there and he has managed to place a captivating spell on Marshall's family.  Despite his hypnotized family's pleas, Marshall kicks Tripp out of the house.  That night, Marshall has a strange dream that is interrupted by Tripp, who tells him he needs to deliver the letter.  In order to get Tripp to leave him alone, Marshall agrees to deliver the letter.

Marshall and Simon go to the house of the letter's recipient, Mary Carter.  A young girl answers the door and states that the letter must be meant for her elderly aunt.  Marshall hand delivers the letter, stating it's from Tripp, but Mary, thinking that it is just a mean prank, tears the letter up.  Apparently, Tripp has been dead for over 60 years.

Realizing that Tripp is a ghost, Marshall decides to barricade his home with garlic so that Tripp can't get in.  But Tripp appears anyway and Marshall says that he delivered the letter and Mary didn't want it.  Defeated, Tripp tells the tale of how he was too shy to tell Mary his feelings in person so he wrote her a letter, but has he walked to her house to deliver it, he was hit by a milk truck and killed.  Now, he cannot pass the spot where he died, so Marshall must deliver the letter again.

Armed with a magically repaired letter, Marshall and Simon sneak back into Mary's house at night.  Marshall reads the letter to Mary and she realizes that Tripp loved her all along.  She goes with Marshall to the World O'Stuff to meet Tripp again.  The two reunite and the next day, Mary passes away so the two can have their date at the World O'Stuff forever.  Tripp also encourages Marshall to try his luck with Amanda, so that he doesn't meet the same fate he did.

Evidence Locker Item:  Tripp's letter

Elizabeth Barrett Browning - Mary Carter lives on Elizabeth Barrett Browning Blvd.  Browning was a famous poet dring the Victorian era and her most famous work is the sonnet "How Do I Love Thee?" which ends with the line, "I shall but love thee better after death."

"I just hate being second banana on this show."

Coming right after "Heart on a Chain," an episode that also deals with love from beyond the grave, "The Dead Letter" is inevitably going to be judged based on the raised standard set by that magnificent episode.  But even on it's own merits, it is a very frustrating episode to watch.  It combines the predicability of "Just Say No Fun" with the unnecessary padding of "Scariest Home Videos."

There is a problem that crops up in many stories known as "Contrived Stupidity."  This happens when the main characters behave in a way that no rational human being would act just so the story can move along.  For example, in any sitcom with a misunderstanding that gets blown out of proportion, if the characters had just behaved normally, the issue would be resolved in 10 seconds and there wouldn't be an episode at all.  Villains revealing their plans, superheroes forgetting about their own powers, and horror movie victims deciding to investigate that weird noise all fall into this category.  Some times it can work to humorous effect or if the story is interesting enough to sustain it.  But this episode relies purely on Contrived Stupidity and it suffers greatly for it.

There are three main characters in this tale and each of them is a problem.  First, Marshall straight up refuses to deal with Tripp as soon as he meets him for absolutely no reason.  It's out of character for the curiosity-fueled, weirdness-seeking Marshall to just rudely ignore a magically appearing strange boy.  Also, his attitude towards the letter is just disrespectful.  He finds it, ignores Simon's suggestion to deliver it, opens it instead, and then tosses it aside when Tripp appears, not connecting the dots that the two events are related.  Just deliver the letter Marshall!  Stop being a jerk!

Second, Tripp delights in being whimsical and never gets to the point of his task.  Sure, Marshall interrupts him a lot, but still, he could have just quickly explained, "Hey, I'm a ghost.  I've been trapped in this letter for 60 years.  Please deliver it so I can rest in piece."  Instead it takes the entire first act for Tripp to tell Marshall to deliver the letter and the entire second act for him to reveal he's a ghost.  Even the fact that he is a charming young Tobey Maguire doesn't help him.  And speaking of people forgetting their powers, Tripp can hypnotize people, as seen with Marshall's family.  Why not just hypnotize Marshall as well?  Also, there is that weird spectral rule that Tripp can't cross the spot where he died.  What does that even mean?  People can move in three dimensions.  Surely there must be away around this, unless an entire hemisphere of the Earth is off limits to him.

And finally, we have Mary, who spent years wasting away and pining after Tripp.  And now, suddenly, Marshall has an old letter from him and her first instinct is to tear it up?  I guess she may have gone a little crazy, but why not just accept it?  Why assume it's a prank from some kid she'd never met? Have people been delivering fake letters on Tripp's behalf for 60 years?  Marshall never says that he had talked to Tripp, he just said the letter is from him, which he would have known by reading the envelope.  It's a piece of lost mail, get over yourself Mary and be happy!

There are some interesting moments in the episode, but the story of a ghost requiring assistance to move on has been done to death.  Whereas "Heart on a Chain" took the story of love and death and gave it a new, thought-proviking Eerie perspective, "The Dead Letter" is DOA.

Random Observations:
- Simon's history report is titled, "The Jackalope and Its Relation to the Federal Deficit."  Why couldn't the episode had been about that?

- There are some good ideas in this dud of an episode that should have been fleshed out.  Tripp winning over Marshall's family by saying he's a traveling gypsy is so weird and funny.  The episode should have just been about him trying to steal Marshall's family, because their scenes are great.

- Marshall's dream is another instance of padding out the episode, but it's one of those scenes that I always think of when I picture Eerie, Indiana.  And it would have fit better if the episode had been about Marshall worried about losing his place in his family to the ghost.  We have Simon in a suit smoking cigars and laughing haughtily at Marshall and his family riding a three person bike in the air saying "We love Tripp more than we love you."  Great stuff!

- Tripp's powers include: pyrokinesis, telekinesis, the ability to appear in dreams, the ability to conjure matter out of nothing, hypnosis, teleportation, and invisibility.  And he still can't cross the street.

- When Tripp gets sad, it begins snowing, but only on him.  This character is great.  So much wasted potential.

- Eerie in 1929 would be great to see more of.  The newspaper headline reads: "Hoover to Nation: Don't Worry, Be Happy."

Conspiracy Theories:
- In Marshall's dream, the Eerie crow is seen on a changing table wearing a diaper.  The Birth of Eerie?

- The milkman strikes again, this time killing Tripp in 1929.  I'm pretty sure that this is the same milkman who killed Devon in the last episode.  This is all leading to something big, for there is more to this milkman than meets the eye.

Grade:  A new and interesting character is held back by an all-too-familiar plot and an overabundance of contrived stupidity.  C-

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