Amazing Stories “Life on Death Row” (part 1 of 2)
It’s time once again for another Patrick Swayze Christmas! At long last, I’m bringing back the Agony Booth tradition of recapping something featuring Patrick Swayze for the holidays.
What does Patrick Swayze have to do with Christmas, you ask? Well, other than being the subject of the memorable “Let’s Have a Patrick Swayze Christmas” song performed on Mystery Science Theater 3000 (video here), not a whole heck of a lot. Actually, the original intent around these parts was for December of 2005 to be a “Patrick Swayze Christmas Month”, but various wacky circumstances led to it becoming a regular Christmastime thing.
Of course, these recaps started long before Swayze was diagnosed with cancer, and long before he passed away in September of this year. And as much as I would love to write a fitting eulogy for the man, I don’t have a whole lot to say about him. I mean, he seemed like a pretty good guy, lots of people liked him, he took on a few roles like To Wong Foo that other famous actors never would have touched, and he showed real dedication in continuing to work on The Beast despite his declining health. And not least of all, he left the world plenty of cheesy, overly heartfelt movies.
But other than that, I don’t have that much to say about Swayze. Plus, I think I already said it all in my Road House recap. So I’ll leave the eulogizing to the people who actually knew him, such as the inimitable Ms. Whoopi Goldberg, and instead offer this current recap as a tribute. It’s one of Swayze’s forgotten roles, as a condemned murderer who gains special healing powers in an episode of Amazing Stories.
Amazing Stories aired on NBC from 1985 to 1987. It was the brainchild of Steven Spielberg, who was most likely inspired by the work he did on the 1983 Twilight Zone movie. But Amazing Stories doesn’t have a whole lot in common with The Twilight Zone other than being a vaguely sci-fi/fantasy-inspired anthology show.
Whereas The Twilight Zone was a landmark of the horror TV genre that frequently delved into disturbing nightmare material, Amazing Stories consisted mostly of lighthearted, jokey, and feel-good plots. It was basically The Twilight Zone with the Spielberg touch, which was probably its biggest failing.
No one can deny that anthology shows are a tough sell. Love, American Style was probably the last truly successful anthology series on primetime TV, and that show went off the air in 1974. But the execs at NBC, surely dazzled by Spielberg’s status as one of the most successful filmmakers of all time (Good god, the man made Jaws! And Close Encounters! And E.T.! And the Indiana Jones movies!), eagerly signed a deal with Spielberg to produce the show. As part of the deal, Amazing Stories was guaranteed an unprecedented two season run, before the first episode even aired.
And when that first episode finally did air, after months and months of hype, well, let’s just say the response from critics and viewers alike could best be summed up as “Uhhh… that’s it?” Soon, the show was getting soundly beaten in the ratings by Murder, She Wrote, and NBC was stuck with a dud on its schedule for two seasons. (Even so, an animated episode led to the spin-off Family Dog, which became an entirely different dud on CBS’ schedule.)
After revisiting a few episodes of Amazing Stories, I think I know why nobody watched it: It wasn’t very good. Most of the stories are so lighthearted and whimsical as to be completely forgettable. Very few stories had the emotional weight required to make them stay with you after the episode ended.
But the show won lots of Emmys (mostly in technical categories), and featured plenty of current and future stars: Kevin Costner, Kiefer Sutherland, Harvey Keitel, Charlie Sheen, Mark Hamill, Forest Whitaker, Tim Robbins, John Lithgow, Carrie Fisher, and many, many more made guest appearances. Alas, the stories they appeared in generally weren’t all that amazing. In fact, you might say they sucked.
Okay, there were a few interesting episodes, but since we’re currently having a Patrick Swayze Christmas, the one I’m stuck talking about is the second season episode “Life on Death Row”, starring Patrick Swayze, which originally aired November 10, 1986.
The number of celebrities appearing on the show decreased significantly in the second season (most likely due to budgets being scaled back), so the biggest stars we have on hand are Swayze, who was mostly known at the time for the two North and South miniseries, and Hector Elizondo, who had plenty of solid movie roles before this, but didn’t really become a “name” until Chicago Hope eight years later.
This episode was directed by Mick Garris, who went on to direct several Stephen King TV adaptations, most notably The Stand. The story is by Garris and the screenplay is by Rockne S. O’Bannon. At first I thought the Agony Booth Death Curse had struck again, but Rockne, no relation to Dan, is best known for writing the original Alien Nation movie, and creating SeaQuest DSV and Farscape.
You might notice that the plot, about a convicted killer on death row with the power to heal people, is strikingly similar to the premise of Stephen King’s serial novel The Green Mile. Given that the story was originally conceived by a guy who went on to work closely with King, I doubt this is a coincidence.
I’m not saying that King ripped anybody off, but I’m pretty sure he found out about this episode one way or the other and decided the concept would make for a great series of novels. I haven’t read the books, but the episode is very different from the movie based on them. For one thing, it’s 25 minutes long. For another, it stars Patrick Swayze.
I don’t remember watching very many episodes of Amazing Stories when it originally aired, but as I re-watch the show’s intro, I can tell you that I remember this intro with perfect clarity. It has a great, soaring theme by John Williams, but probably what makes it stick in the memory most is that it was one of the first prominent uses of computer generated imagery.
In a sequence reminiscent of The Twilight Zone intro, a CGI skull floats past, and a CGI painting of a haunted house floats past which sends out a CGI ghost. CGI playing cards fly out of a CGI hat, and a CGI suit of armor swipes its sword, which then turns into a CGI spaceship cruising past the earth.
I know it all looks horribly lame and dated now, but I can assure you it was pretty cool at the time, as well as an accurate rundown of everything a preteen boy in the 1980s wanted to see on TV. Too bad the actual episodes never lived up to the intro.
The episode proper opens with the same lack of subtlety we’ll be enduring for the next half hour. Two death row prison guards are playing a game of hangman. See, it’s gallows humor. Literally.
The guards are: Hector Elizondo, and some random guy with a hillbilly accent that you’ve never heard of. Hector is trying to get the other guard to guess the phrase “crime and punishment”, and despite there being only six letters left to fill in, Hillbilly Guard can’t talk it out.
Sadly, it appears the makers of this episode either didn’t understand the rules of hangman, or just didn’t care, because the M and the E in “crime” are filled in, and yet the M and the E in “punishment” are not. There’s also some sketchy shit going on with the N. It’s not like this is some obscure game here. They’re basically fudging rules known by every third grader in America. Not to mention all the millions of people watching Wheel of Fortune at the time. By the way, the makers of this episode now owe royalties to Merv Griffin’s estate.
Finally, Hector just tells the guy the answer, saying it’s the title of a book. Hillbilly Guard, evidently a future Sarah Palin supporter, declares that he “don’t read no books!” The subtle characterization is interrupted by a voice over a loudspeaker, which announces that an inmate named “Peterson” will be returning shortly.
There’s thunder and flashes of lightning outside the windows. A lawman in a raincoat enters, escorting Peterson, played by Patrick Swayze. Patrick is wearing a suit and tie, and soaking wet from the rain. And also, he’s rocking a hardcore mullet, but when you’re talking about Patrick Swayze, that goes without saying.
Hector undoes Swayze’s wrist and ankle shackles, while Hillbilly Guard trash-talks Swayze, taking great pleasure in how his “heart to heart with the governor” didn’t do him any good. Hillbilly Guard is plenty glad they have a governor that won’t be showing any mercy. So it appears this episode takes place in Texas, between the years of 1995 and 2000.
Hector tells him to shut it, and then tries to take off Swayze’s tie, but Swayze defiantly wants to take it off himself. Hector says “the row” is already on lockdown, so they’ll have to put Swayze in Cell Block D for the night. He takes Swayze away, allowing for an expository conversation between Hillbilly Guard and the lawman that brought Swayze in, wherein we learn Swayze was part of an “armored car holdup” that happened “a couple of years ago” wherein “that guard got wasted,” and Swayze is due to be executed tomorrow night. This can’t be right. Unless, by “a couple of years ago”, the guard means 15 years ago, which is about the average length of time an inmate spends on death row.
As they walk to Cell Block D, Hector asks if Swayze has any family, and offers to contact them. But Swayze remains defiant, saying he doesn’t matter, and tomorrow night he’s “gone”, and “the world keeps spinnin’.” Hector provides some foreshadowing with, “Everybody’s life means somethin’.”
Hector takes him to the guy guarding Cell Block D, who brings Swayze to a temporary cell. This guard gets in more digs at Swayze, joking that he only needs a room for one night. Just then, a prisoner who was mopping the floor nearby pulls out his hearing aid, and in a total WTF moment, it turns out part of his hearing aid contains some sort of white powder, which he dumps into the guard’s coffee. I had no idea I was watching an episode of Mission: Impossible.
At the door to the cell, Swayze almost gets into a fight with the guard, but thinks better of it, and watch closely, because I’m pretty sure a crew member’s hand briefly passes through the corner of the frame here. Swayze walks into his cell and lights up a cigarette. And it’s a very strange bit, because Swayze walks into his cell and stands there, and right before he lights up, there’s a crossfade to him still standing there. It’s a really subtle crossfade that I don’t think we were supposed to notice. So all in all, I’m getting the feeling that maybe this episode was something of a rush job.
The guard goes back to his post, and drinks his powder-laced coffee, and he almost instantly falls unconscious. A buzzer sounds, and just like that, all the doors in the cell block unlock and slide open, and all the prisoners make a run for it. Is that how that works? If the guard passes out, all the cells spontaneously open? Swayze has no clue what’s going on, but he immediately falls in with the group. He finds them all crawling into an air vent, and is more than happy to bring up the rear.
Outside in the rain, the prisoners stand in a field, anxiously waiting while two other prisoners try to dig a hole underneath the prison fence. There’s plenty of lightning in the sky, and in case you don’t have the visual acuity to identify lightning, one prisoner yells, “Damn lightning!”
But it’s too late. Searchlights come on and crisscross the field. Guards start firing on the two diggers, blowing them both away.
The rest of the escaped prisoners make a run for the fence, and now the guards are firing at will, and cutting down prisoners left and right. Swayze keeps on running. He and one other guy are the only ones who make it to the fence. They scale the fence, and the other guy gets shot in the gut. Swayze almost makes it over, but just then, he gets hit by a bolt of lightning. He’s knocked out cold, and he falls back down into the mud.
Cut to the prison hospital. A doctor is telling someone on the phone that most of the prisoners only got “superficial” wounds, but “Fowler”, the guy who got shot in the gut on the fence, probably isn’t going to make it. Oh, no! Not Fowler!
Over in a hospital bed, Swayze wakes with a start. He sees Fowler in the bed next to him, and the guy is in massive pain. Fowler tries to get up, so Swayze grabs his shoulder, and all of sudden, flashes of light emanate from Swayze’s hands, accompanied by bug zapper noises. Swayze touches him again, causing more light and bug zapper noises. Eventually, the bandages on Fowler’s abdomen begin to glow.
Swayze stares at his own hands, terrified and confused. Hector Elizondo comes in just in time to see Fowler rip off his bandages, to show that his stomach has been suddenly and miraculously healed. And also, to show that death row inmates don’t spend a whole lot of time working on their abs.
And now Hector grabs Swayze, causing more bug zapper light show effects. Hector stumbles backwards, and then that same golden glow appears on the side of his leg. Hector dramatically declares, “There’s no pain!” He gets a crazed look in his eyes, and continues to yell about how there’s “no pain” in his leg anymore, an announcement that would have carried a bit more weight had we known he was in pain in the first place.
Hector wants to know what he did, but Swayze just looks scared and continues to stare at his own hands. Now, I’m just guessing here, but this is apparently what happens when you climb a fence and get struck by lightning. You get super healing powers! Yes, it is just that simple.