Thursday, August 9, 2018

High Tension Summer Drama with The Call

People are going a little nuts over this hot, sweaty, humid, positively tropical weather we've been having. It's only fitting that the last installment of my The Adventures of Pete and Pete summer series would be an off-the-walls episode set in the dead heat of summer. The previous episode I reviewed, "Field of Pete" had some minor plot holes, but this episode takes the cake. "The Call" is all atmosphere and sight gags, with a plot that is a bit tenuous. But this does make for a classic episode with tons of memorable moments, great acting, and very creative camera work.

S2 E3 - Air date: September 18, 1994

Setting: Wellsville during the hottest day of the summer. Our trusty narrator, Big Pete, explains that their town of Wellsville is a typical ordinary town, except for the fact that a mysterious phone has been ringing for twenty-seven years; a phone no one will answer.

This is the second season of the show and no one has ever brought this phone up, yet you can hear ringing in the background of much of this episode. The ringing is coming from a phone booth across town in an abandoned drive-in movie theater that can somehow still be heard anywhere in Wellsville.

Everyone is afraid of what would happen if they dared to answer the call. It makes everyone a little off; a bit crazy. Rumors have been going around for years. The main consensus is that you'll go insane or disappear. "Get within five feet of it - liquid brains."

Mail Woman McGinty (played by Bebe Neuwirth) says that when you answer the phone someone on the other end will tell you "the exact day, hour, and second that you will die." It's very The Ring but almost a decade early.

The telephone repair man claims he wont answer the phone because of telephone company regulations - it's a private call. (Sure, sure).

Pete predicts that if someone answers the phone Wellsville will never be the same. 

It is "the hottest doggiest dog day of summer." When "all of your summer dreams are burned out of your memory, like butt flesh on a super heated backseat." Pete explains that most people go a little nuts due to the heat and humidity of summer, but in Wellsville they have to factor in "the mind-shattering sound of the ringing phone."

Joyce is severely hampered by the ringing. She has a metal plate in her head from a childhood accident (something we all well know at this point in the series; the plate get's it's own title card in the opening credits).

The ringing causes a sympathetic vibration making her spaz-out whenever a phone rings. When the phone rings inside their own home, we see a few drinking glasses become causalities as she looses her grip in a spasm.

We've never seen this happen to Joyce before. She has had the metal plate, probably for at least the twenty-seven years the mystery phone has been ringing, and phones haven't been an issue in the past to the viewer's knowledge.

Don is running around the house trying to figure out a new way for the phone to ring so her suffering can cease. He thinks if another appliance turns on when the phone rings, like the stove burners lighting up, it will help. It is instead very dangerous. He also acts like this is a new affliction - or you'd at least think if she's always had this issue he would have taken care of it much earlier in their marriage - but it is clearly stated that this ringing phone is something she's lived with for the better part of her life, and at least a third of the life of this show.

Meanwhile, the kids are melting. Little Pete is sweltering on the lawn with his gang; regulars Nona and Clem, Libby (who is also in Season 1's Night Crawlers), and Carl. They are delirious and sweaty. The only thing they can manage to do is lay there moaning about the heat.

Emotionless, they speak to each other.
"Green-spotted Horsefly, 5 o-clock."
"It's going after Carl."
"Carl... you gotta get out of there."
"It's on me... it's biting."

Artie tries to get the kids engaged, to no avail.

Meanwhile, Ellen is volunteering at a crisis center for people who have been disturbed by the ringing phone. She calls Joyce for back up on a "freak out." Joyce departs in a hurry and Don gives her a kind of flame retardant silver jacket (I know what this is because my husband once owned one from a army navy surplus store as part of a Halloween costume).

Ellen calls the Wrigley house once again, this time for Big Pete, asking him to volunteer.

Big Pete has resigned himself to lying motionless on the basement floor. Ellen pleads with him, he's the only one she can turn to. Pete likes Ellen enough to wipe the cobwebs off his body and go outside.

Little Pete and his friends have tasked Artie with putting them out of their misery via magnified glass. "Kill us Artie, hurry."

"Soon you will be as cheese, boy. Melty, melty, melty."

What gets them motivated is Big Pete's bike, as he answers the call of duty.

"Follow shinny bike..." The kids go after him like zombies hungry for excitement. Awesome shots here by the way. The camera work for this episode is so good at making that hot, hazy feeling palpable.

Pete arrives on the scene. In a sports field, Mail Woman McGinty is spinning out of control. Pete and Ellen use his bike as a shield against flying mail. Ellen explains that Ms. McGinty is trying to leave Earth's gravitational pull to get away from the constant ringing. Ellen tells Pete to play anything that will distract her, so he pulls out a trombone from somewhere, and starts playing.

 In order to snap Ms. McGinty out of it Ellen pretends to answer and hang up an imaginary phone.

 It's not clear if the ringing was real or not. We can hear the ringing during this scene, but when Ellen does her pantomime, the ringing actually stops. Was it in Mail Woman McGinty's head or no?

They place silencing headphones on her head and she's safe. Big Pete is invigorated. He wants to help out more.

As they watch on from the sidelines, Little Pete gets the idea to save the summer and make the gang heroes by answering the phone.

Everyone in his crew has a special power: Clem Lanell (played by Aaron Schwartz of The Mighty Ducks and Heavy Weights fame) could hypnotize dogs, Libby (played by Winnie Zhang) had mastered the Vulcan nerve pinch, Nona's speech patterns could cloud men's minds (a true life fact about Michelle Trachtenberg that was revealed in the audio commentary on the DVD), Little Pete could produce seven kinds of body cheese, Artie's powers were endless...

and Carl had the power of being a complete wuss.

Carl immediately claims there's a force-field around him and he can't go to the phone. Little Pete and the group are disappointed but clearly expected this, and they move on.

Meanwhile at the Ringing Phone Hotline, Big Pete is talking with his first callers. One of which is a man who's resorted to putting a space helmet-like orb on his head, screaming with insanity, "When will it stoooop!!"

The man hangs up and Pete is urgently trying to get the call back. Ellen lets him know that this is par for the course. He may not be able to tell people when the ringing will stop, but they know it began on May 15th 1967. They think the call is for a particular person, but obviously no one knows who is making the call or who they're trying to reach.

Big Pete suggests that they put their efforts into looking for the recipient of the call. Then they can make this person answer and end this once and for all. Ellen is skeptical. It's not exactly clear why though. I guess her resistance adds some friction to the plot, or she could be content without an answer to the mystery because working at the hotline makes her feel important. In any case, she makes it sound like an insurmountable task that isn't worth their time. She tells him to get back to work, simply helping people cope.

Little Pete's gang discuss how famous they're going to be after they answer the phone, and what objects they want their faces printed on in commemoration of the event.

The telephone man, Hub Callaster (played by Sean McGuirk) a guy who's been popping in and out of scenes and never seen outside of his cherry picker, tosses some old converse high-tops at the kids as a warning. Hub claims that he's saving the kids from a "fate worse than death." He says that the shoes are from the last guy who tried to answer the phone; he blew up. Little Pete knows his combustion techniques, and scoffs at the tall tale. The shoes would be goo if the guy had really blown up. The kids march on, but Libby is stuck - not by force-field - she admits that she's just chicken.

At this point Big Pete has resorted to accosting hotline callers, accusing them as the one dodging the call. Joyce enters and calms Pete down, reminding him that they're here to help, not frighten. She urges Pete to take a break.

The heat is getting to Little Pete and his remaining friends. Clem hallucinates Mr. Tastee in some kind of horrific flaming ice cream nuclear holocaust.

It's pretty hilarious - in my opinion. The kids are terrified and delirious. Artie is able to shoo away the visage.

Big Pete has gone to the phone and he's ready to ineffectually yell at it.

Suddenly he's in the presence of the man with the bubble helmet, and he's got a harpoon pointed right at the booth.

Pete recognizes his voice. Bewildered, he asks him what he's doing. "Don't be alarmed, I'm a psychiatrist." Pete suggests that this psychiatrist can be of some help.

The gang is trying to get through one of the last neighborhoods before the phone, but the street is so hot, Frank the Crossing Guard (played by James Lally) has declared the area a danger zone. Nona and Clem go for it anyway, but their shoes melt within seconds, leaving them stranded where their shoes left their feet. Frank warns Little Pete, "You can break the code of the crosswalk, but you can't break the code of physics."

Artie tosses his shoes and is able to leap to the hood of an abandoned car. Little Pete follows. He barely makes it onto the car, but Artie's got him. However, there's nothing left to step on to make it across the rest of the street.

Frank at first makes fun of their situation, then when he sees Little Pete's disappointment he throws down his crossing sign so they can get by the rest of the way.

He wryly asks them, "What do you want on your tomb stone?"

Little Pete answers, "Here lies Pete and Artie. They answered the call."
Boom. Mic-drop.

Big Pete rushes back to Ellen at the hotline, telling her the psychiatrist, Dr. Bert Looper (played by Larry Pine, who you've probably seen before in a bunch of things) wrote up a profile on the "first passerby" of the ringing phone.

Here is the criteria for the subject:
- filled with guilt.
- feels the need to help out, possibly even at the hotline.
- is disturbed by the sound of a ringing phone.

When Pete then gets an ill-fated call from his father (trying one more time to adjust the phones and home appliances) Pete suddenly realizes the answer to this mystery is his own mother.

Little Pete and Artie have made it to the payphone. Artie warns Little Pete to not let it smell his fear. Little Pete knows it's too late.

Artie insists that he go defeat the phone instead. He does his famous Artie pose, and runs full speed at the booth.

At the last second he veers off to the side and disappears into the horizon. Now it's just Little Pete all on his lonesome.

Joyce is in the field helping with another freak-out. This time it's the neighbor who has been seen throughout the episode dressed as a cowboy, treating his lawnmower like cattle.

The police are there to take him away (to an insane asylum?).

Big Pete comes by the scene to confront his mother. Joyce pulls him aside. He asks why she never answered the phone. Joyce says that she was just a young girl, and she was simply walking by the payphone when it rang. She thought it might be for her, but was admittedly afraid. Pete's incredulous, "For twenty-seven years?!"

Joyce tries to lessen the blow, "Well I volunteered everyday." I know she's a stay at home mom, but that's insane. Pete says the obvious, she did everything except actually answer the phone. Joyce shrugs and says she's sorry, not knowing what else to do. She evades further questioning by going with the cowboy and the police.

Then, in the most ADR'ed, hilariously slapped together shot that was probably added later for continuity's sake, Big Pete is standing alone under a tree looking confused. He asks to no one in particular, "What's going on?" as if there was a commotion off camera.

A disembodied voice tells him someone is going to answer the phone. "Who?" asks Pete. Another disembodied voice (and you can tell because Pete turns his head in the other direction to listened to them) says, "Your brother!" Oh no!!

The entire town is running to the old phone booth. People have brought coolers like it's a tailgating party. Little Pete says to a growing crowd, "I'll get it."

Big Pete narrates that the curse of the phone wasn't about turning your brain to mush, it was living in fear, something Little Pete couldn't live with anymore. As he approaches the booth Big Pete tries to stop him, and Joyce swoops in to declare that she needs to be the one to answer the call.

Little Pete reaches to pick it up. All eyes are on him.

What in the Hitchcock?
He picks the receiver off the cradle, and suddenly the ringing is gone. There's a peaceful clarity. Birds are chirping. It's like a spell has been broken.

Carl is no longer in the force-field, Dr. Looper takes off his helmet, to the amazement of his wife the cowboy has broken character and gives her a hug.

also these two cops make out...

Little Pete answers the phone. Confused, he hands it over to Joyce, "It's for you..."

She takes the phone and to everyone's surprise she looks above at Hub and yells, "You could have just called me at home!"

This whole time Hub Callaster had been pining over Joyce, trying to get her on the phone. Hub lowers his cherry picker for her. She agrees to talk it over with him. Don is not happy.

Up in the sky Hub admits to Joyce that he's loved her since the 7th grade. He couldn't tell her in person, so he decided to make the call as she passed by the pay phone. When she didn't pick up, he just let it keep ringing. He even got the job at the telephone company to stick with it.

 Joyce is flattered, and maybe a bit uncomfortable. (Run girl). She says to Hub, "I like you, but I love my husband. You understand, don't you."

Hub sadly nods, and he lets her out of the basket and into the arms of a lightly burnt Don.

The curse was over!

But out of no where Hub started the phone ringing again. This time since the town's fears were extinguished, they could accept the ringing. Hub knew she would never answer, but the ringing now represented an eternal flame for the passion of a first love.

They wave at Hub as he rises back into the sky, like he was a hero riding off into the sunset.

"The ringing reminds us that true love - if it's really true - doesn't need an answer."

 Everyone heads home, as swelling western film music plays out the episode.

While it was convoluted to insert this constant ringing phone plot into the show, ruining the continuity of any previous episode, it was a fun premise. I like the idea of a town having a mystery. It reminds me of when I was finding strange piles of food outside a CVS in my old Boston neighborhood. I even wrote a blog post about it several years ago. I never found the answer though.

I also appreciate the fact that Pete and Pete are trying to make a difference in this episode. Big Pete wants to actually solve the problem and do real investigative work. Little Pete wants to go a step further and answer the call himself, risking his body and mind in the process, not just for the glory, but to end the reign of terror on his fellow Wellsvillians.

It's always good to see a woman like Joyce conquer her fears, be able to tell a guy that she's not interested, and walking away peacefully - even though he's been a psycho terrorizing her and everyone in town over an unrequited love, and has her trapped in a cherry-picker. I'm just saying it could have ended much differently.

It's also interesting to see how the phone effects people differently. Only certain people are negatively affected. Ellen and the Petes are able to go on with their lives alongside the ringing. They aren't being carted away by the police in a mental state, but there are those who do have that reaction. I think it's an innocent way for a kids show to present an old movie trope of a society infected by a sickness or an alien parasite. It's just a ringing phone after all, it doesn't actually harm anyone. Big Pete finds patient zero to be his mother.

Then there's the running Western film theme: the soundtrack is mostly western movie style music, and the concept of a very hot and barren landscape, people seeing mirages, going stir-crazy in the heat, mixed with a dangerous stand off - albeit between a boy and an inanimate phone booth.  They did a great job filming the episode, really bringing the heat of summer to the tv screen. What The Call lacks in rationality, it makes up for in atmosphere, technique, and comic timing.