Friday, July 14, 2017

Goosebumps: Episode 8 Piano Lessons Can be Murder

I'm hoping that I'll eventually encounter an individual Goosebumps episode that wouldn't have worked better as a two-parter. Unfortunately, that seems unlikely when they're boiling down a 100-page book to just 20-minutes. Piano Lessons Can be Murder certainly fits into that category, as it tries to combine both a ghost and evil robots into a single story.

That said, however, I'm really not sure that this is a story that deserved two parts. It isn't horrible in concept, but it's also less memorable than you'd expect for such a story. I can safely say that I would sacrifice this episode for a second half of The Phantom of the Auditorium.

Jerry (Ben Cook), a kid with few friends and a big imagination moves into a new house with a piano in the basement. Jerry develops a crush on a local girl named Kim (Erica Luttrell, kudos for the interracial romance) with an interest in music, and decides that he wants to learn to play to impress her. However, the Ghost of a former music teacher who lived in his house (Brenda Devine) warns him to “stay away” from the Shreek School, where he gets his parents to sign him up for piano lessons.

Dr. Shreek (Aron Tager) is a strange man, with a weird obsession with hands, who employs a maintenance main named Mr. Toggle (Geza Kovacs). Eventually, Dr. Shreek tries to take Jerry's hands, only to be shut off by Mr Toggle, who as it turns out is a robotics genius who built Dr. Shreek and various other piano-playing robots...and Mr. Toggle then tries to take his hands because robotic hands are hard to build. However, the ghost comes, revealing that Toggle had been a student of hers (she claims he was lazy, he claims she was too demanding), and for attacking Jerry the teacher traps Toggle in the school and forces him to practice for all eternity. Jerry gives up on the piano.

I run through the plot quickly to make my point: All of this material might have worked if there was proper time for build-up. Most of the actors are pretty good, and Jerry is one of the more memorable protagonists from this show. Rather than being a bland everykid, he constantly narrates imaginary adventures the instant he's out of earshot of an adult (and sometimes within).

However, the characters other than Jerry seem to get only two, perhaps three scenes. Dr. Shreek gets one scene teaching Jerry the piano, and throwing in a comment about how his own hands don't “work like they used to” as blatant foreshadowing, and a scene of him going crazy. Mr Toggle, likewise, gets his introduction where he shows off his robotic floor sweeper, and says that he “programmed” Shreek to call him a genius, the scene of his own breakdown, and the final scene of him being forced to play.

Most notably, Kim gets her introduction, and then returns at the end of the episode. Apparently it would be too much to remind the audience of why Jerry wanted to take piano lessons in the first place. If she couldn't be worked into the story, then her presence probably wasn't necessary. It's not like parents have ever needed a reason to put a kid with minor problems in piano lessons.

The ghost is the one element that does work. I'm not sure if it's the repeat appearances throughout the episode, or just the actress, but whenever she's onscreen warning Jerry that he's in danger I feel the tension. The ghost is also fairly unique, neither falling into the cliches of the harmless, helpful ghost, nor the purely wrathful. She clearly has a moral compass, and cares about Jerry even as a boy with no particular connection to her. Her motivations remains surprisingly human.

That said, it's clear you don't want to get on her bad side. She's a strict disciplinarian, and is apparently prepared to stay with Toggle forever to make sure he's suitably punished. I’m not sure of the creative process that went into this spirit, and I kind of suspect it was a simple “we need to make the ghost scary,” but what we got by design or accident was good.

The revelation that Toggle was the true villain worked, but having him shut down Shreek ruined the whole effect. Either Shreek should be working for him at the end, or Toggle should have motivations at least slightly different from those of his creation. As it plays now, the scene is awkward. They basically took one villain out of the story to replace him with another, effectively identical villain.

Even so, they were good villains. This is hardly the only time this series gave pedophillic undertones to it's villains (hell, it’s more rare for the villains not to have them), but the decision to have them obsessed with a young boy's body-part seems like the kind of thing the studio would likely forbid today. It’s legitimately unsettling.

More than one source on the internet have noted that this is the rare episode without a twist ending. That seems to be more-or-less true. The revelation of Toggle's punishment was, according to the Goosebumps Wiki, not in the book, but it's not really surprising once he was taken by a piano teacher. Ironically, it still managed to be more frightening than many of the actual twists. Playing piano for the rest of eternity, kept alive by magical forces? Or continuing as a ghost? Not a way I’d like to spend my time.

I don't exactly recommend the episode. It has all the parts for several good stories, but it's nothing special in and of itself. It seems like a waste of a lot of talent, and a number of good ideas.

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