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Tuesday, April 11, 2006

2.03 --- What are Friends For ?

Directed by : Gus Trikonis
Written by : J. Michael Straczynski
Starring : Fred Savage, Tom Skerritt, Lukas Haas
First aired : 4th of October, 1986.

Alex (Tom Skerritt, Alien, The Dead Zone) and Jeff (Fred Savage, The Wizard, The Wonder Years) Mattingly are a father and son who have freshly moved into a cabin in the woods. Jeff is less than enthousiastic at the prospect of being isolated from all the attractive things that a kid his age usually does, but Alex encourages him to make up things on his own - something he used to do when he was young and bored.

Soon, Jeff strikes a friendship with a local kid called Mike (Lukas Haas, Witness, Last Days), and the two of them seem to be having a great time. Problems arise when Alex tries to integrate Jeff with other kids - he's just too attached to Mike, and likes to play with him only. During their next adventure out, Jeff asks Mike to meet his dad - he refuses, and feeling suddenly a bit more malevolent, lures Jeff into a mud hut, and then quickly flees it in an ethereal way (as in, ghosts out of it non-corporeally) just before it collapses, leaving Jeff trapped under the ruins.

Alex arrives just in time to save Jeff, and afraid for his safety, prohibits him from playing with Mike. The next day, while on the phone with his ex-wife, he spots Mike running outside of his house and gives him chase. When he finally catches up with him, he's astounded to find out that this Mike is actually his old imaginary friend Mike, who he used to play with ages ago. Realizing that continuous friendship with Mike might strain Jeff's ability to develop normal relations with actual living people, Alex asks Mike to leave his son alone. Mike initially refuses and disappears, but Alex, thinking he will be obeyed, pleads with Mike to listen to him.

Some time later, Jeff is again playing with the kids of Alex's friends, and they again start squabbling over silly things. Agitated, Jeff runs away to the woods and looks for Mike, who appears and angrily sends him home, saying how he never liked him in the first place, thus honouring Alex's plea. Jeff is heartbroken, but he resolves to work on his social skills and makes peace with the other kids - something that Alex certainly can appreciate...as well as Mike.

***

Written by J. Michael Straczynski, What are Friends For ? is neither an original, nor exactly a well-executed episode, though it tries hard enough. Tied around the basic premise of a parent losing his child to a supernatural force of some sorts which previous Zones exploited ad nauseum, this episode unravels as expected, with no bizzare twists towards the ending or anything to keep the viewer too interested. Without accusing mr. Straczynski of anything, I thought this episode borrowed rather liberally from some previous installments - the impassionate plea that Alex delivers in the woods is reminiscent of that speech from the classic TZ episode Long Distance Call, for instance.

Not even a very strong cast can lift this one from mid-obscurity - Skerritt basically sleepwalks through his role of a concerned parent, while Arnold and Haas are servicable as "cute kids gone astray". None of the principal players are given much meat to chew on, to be fair, as there are hints of character depth in the script, although nothing concrete. It would be rather harsh to bill this one as a waste of airing slot, but it certainly doesn't offer anything new for the seasoned Zone fan...or the casual fan even. Middle of the road, and I'm being mild.

TZ Trivia : Lukas Haas apparently liked the Zone, so he returned to it fifteen years later - appearing in an UPN Zone episode Harsh Mistress.

Saved by the Trivia : yes, that is indeed Mark-Paul Gosselaar, better known as Zack Morris from Saved by the Bell, as one of the kids which eventually gets friendly with Jeff.

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