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Thursday, February 09, 2006

1.50 --- Button, Button

Directed by : Peter Medak
Written by : Logan Swanson (story by Richard Matheson)
Starring : Mare Winningham, Brad Davis, Basil Hoffmann
First aired : 7th of March, 1986.

Norma (Mare Winningham, St. Elmo's Fire, Georgia) and Arthur (Brad Davis, Midnight Express, Chariots of Fire), a bickering couple, receive an unexpected package one day. Inside the package is a weird-looking box with a button on it, shielded by a plastic dome, and a note that they will be visited that day at 8pm. As Arthur works at night, he can't be there for it, so he convinces Norma to stay home and see what's it about.

At 8pm straight Norma is visited by Steward (Basil Hoffman, Ordinary People, Night Shift), a tall man in black suit and a hat. He gives her the key to the box, informing her that she can push the button if she wants. If she does, two things happen - someone neither she or Arthur know will die, and they will receive $200,000 tax free in cash.

Saddled with the dillema, Norma can't sleep or think straight. Arthur comes back from work, and as Norma explains him what's it about, he vehemently objects to her lobbying to push the button and trashes the box, claiming that the whole story is probably phoney. That doesn't help Norma stop stressing however - while they're asleep, she sneaks out of the bed and retrieves the box from the dumpster. Arthur is less than pleased with Norma again fiddling with the box, but decides to leave her alone. Hours pass and Norma finally succumbs and pushes the button - an act which Arthur doesn't like one bit.

Next morning, they are again visited by Steward, who comes to pick up the box and brings a briefcase with $200,000 in it. As he leaves, he informs the couple that the box will be reprogrammed and given to somebody else...somebody they don't know.


Rod Serling's old Twilight Zone aide Richard Mateson returns to the series with this story, which promises plenty but ultimately delivers very little. I found the basic premise pretty interesting, but the execution was mellow - first of all, Mare Winningham is borderline unwatchable. I know, I know, her character is supposed to be a bit of a bitch, but Christ, she is really hard to digest with her lethal combination of overacting and PMS manners. Brad Davis, God bless his soul, is saddled with a similarily whiny character, yet he pulls an infinitely better job and delivers a fine performance. Both are easily upstaged by Hoffman though, who reminds me a lot of young Sir Alec Guinness in this one.

Second, Arthur's character is awfully uneven. Initially, he doesn't believe the box will do anything. Then he accuses Norma she's committing a murder by pushing it. Then he dismantles the box and sees nothing is in it. Then again, he thinks it's immoral. Then he lets Norma push it, and finally, after she did, he is angry at her. Norma's character might be horribly overplayed, but her contures are more outlined, as she is genuinely confused and nervous. Arthur, on the other hand, is just daft.

By the time the twist comes, you're probably rooting for Norma to be a random death if someone else pushes the button. If we were given two genuinely struggling characters who thought long and hard the whole night and then finally succumbed, we could have felt for them. A missed opportunity.

Oh, and by the way, the teleplay is credited to "Logan Swanson", who is actually Matheson himself.

Remake Trivia : apparently, Eli Roth (of Hostel fame) is due to make a feature-length film out of the short story used for this episode. Richard Kelly, known to many as the director/writer behind Donnie Darko, is slated to script it. Good luck to them both - I am wondering how much padding will it take to get this one to 90+ minutes.

Comments on "1.50 --- Button, Button"


Blogger Brian said ... (9:22 AM) : 

I didn't know that Matheson had written the screenplay under a pseudonym. I find that interesting, especially because the changed the ending from how it happened in his original short story.


Anonymous Howard Goldman said ... (12:46 PM) : 

Matheson used a pseudonym because he hated how the episode turned out. But frankly the ending of the episode is a LOT better than the ending of the original short story, which is nothing short of a cheat and an insult to the reader.


Blogger i.audinot said ... (9:34 AM) : 

Can it be seen on the internet?
I mean legally.


Anonymous Anonymous said ... (9:58 AM) : 

When has Mare Winningham been borderline watchable?


Anonymous Anonymous said ... (11:38 PM) : 

If Matheson hated this TZ version, he will kill himself after seeing the stinker with Diaz. She owes me some money over this piece of crap.


Blogger Guely of Sweden said ... (10:42 AM) : 

Sorry to dissent but i liked her a lot. Especially her mannerisns and ticks. Davis as well. i think real people would suffer this kind of up and downs with this kind o situation.


Blogger Matthew Maloney said ... (5:05 PM) : 

I thought the general premise of this concept is brilliant while the twist at the end is genius. But golly gee willickers batman, the acting was just WOEFUL. This is definitely some of the worst acting I've seen so far in the New TZ. The husband especially is really hammy in this and overly theatrical. It ruins it for me.

I guessed incorrectly while watching that the button would kill her husband because she didnt really love him/'know' him. Funnily enough thats the ending to the original short story.


Anonymous Adrock said ... (9:05 PM) : 

This is one of the best "concept" episodes of TZ, old or new. But, ye gads, is the acting painful. Look at the choices Brad Davis makes -- his manic toothbrushing in the middle of the picture is humiliating, for a guy with legit strong credentials (and a tragic ending). Mare Winningham makes some horrible choices as well -- she's so twitchy and hostile.

Basil Hoffman is great, profoundly creepy, for his two short scenes. Frank Langella (who's like 30 years older) took the part in the movie (which was bizarre, but much better acted than this), so you're doing pretty well if Frank Langella plays you on the big screen.

In short, this is 20 minutes of TV to portray 5 minutes of plot (and 5 pages of short story). The director needed help filling in the gaps, and the overacting of Davis and particularly Winningham is what he settled on. Not good.


Blogger Y. Knott said ... (2:27 PM) : 

I kinda like this one, as the premise and the ending are pure TZ. Yes, the acting is mostly mediocre to poor, but that's true of quite a few 80s TZs (and maybe of a fair percentage of 80s TV in general.) So the execution isn't all it should be, but 'Button, Button" still manages to hit the TZ sweet spot for me.

And yes, Matheson's original ending was colossally awful. A big, big salute to whoever came up with the alternate (much better) twist -- probably Alan Brennert -- and then stuck to their guns over Matheson's protests.


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