Monday, August 24, 2009

Are You Afraid of the Dark?: The Tale of the Dangerous Soup

As we open on the Midnight Society, Frank is giving us the background to his story by having all the kids say what their worst fears are. They're pretty ordinary (dogs, heights) except for Sam who's afraid of birds and is probably the only person who genuinely thought that the Hitchcock movie The Birds was scary. Tucker claims to be afraid of nothing and Frank says he has something in this box that Tucker is probably scared of. Frank says it's no secret that he's afraid of the dark.

Kiki says, "Yes! He admits it," as she high fives Gary. And I hate to admit that the ten year old inside of me thinks, "Oh, he's got a tough veneer, but look at that vulnerability! He's like an ethnic Shawn Hunter." Anyway, Frank talks some more about fears and then calls his story the Tale of the Dangerous Soup.

We cut to a guy in a room with fans. A chair appears, and a disembodied voice tells him to take a seat. Oh my god, it's Chris Hansen! Like such great TV hosts as Marc Summers and Mike O'Malley before him, he too got his start on Nickelodeon before going on to such bigger and better things as voicing animated series, doing shows on the Food Network, and mining pedophiles for fun and profit.

No, I'm kidding. It turns out to be Dr. Vink. So the guy sits down and asks, "Now what?" This is strangely surreal for the normally straightforward Are You Afraid of the Dark?

Is this a dream sequence? TV show within a TV show? Oh my god, if I'm watching yet another experimental film about gay cowboys eating pudding, or an off-off-off Broadway play about stripper lesbians with issues talking about heteronormativity, I'm so out of here. So the guy is suddenly strapped into the seat and a statue of a gargoyle creature appears.

This is scary? I've seen lladro more frightening than this.

The voice giggles. "It knows what scares you!" A snake appears between the young man's legs as he starts screaming and we cut out.

Next scene. Neve Campbell welcomes us to a restaurant called the Wild Boar while silently asking herself if she'll appear too desperate if she calls up the Party of Five producers to see if they've made a decision about the Julie Salinger role yet. As she walks by, another waitress hands a couple some menus but they tell her that they've just come for the soup. As one of the waitresses and Neve talk back in the kitchen, it turns out this soup goes for a hundred dollars a pop.

A busboy bumps into them and drops some knives on the floor. One of the waitresses, Jersey, freaks out, screaming that she doesn't touch knives, she just doesn't, and stalks off.

People eat the soup with oddly orgasmic looks on their faces.

Then as the chef emerges, they applaud. Good god, I haven't seen this much excitement over soup since Carole King sang Chicken Soup With Rice. As it turns out, the chef is Dr. Vink. He takes a bow and thanks everyone for coming.

Next scene. A scruffy young man asking only workman's wages comes looking for a job. Neve, er, actually, her character is called Nonnie, interviews the guy, Reed, and explains about Dr. Vink, who's the chef and owner and basically heart and soul of this operation. Dr. Vink pops up out of nowhere and says, "A cook feeds the stomach. A chef nourishes the soul." And Andrew Zimmern and Anthony Bourdain rape the spirit and leave it for dead in a ditch somewhere moaning (sorry, too much Food Network this weekend).

Young Reed eye rolls and asks if Dr. Vink is supposed to be the best or something. Dr. Vink eyes him with the look of Meryl Streep eyeing young, fresh-faced ingenue Anne Hathaway, and just as Ms. Streep hired the girl who doesn't know from Dolce and Gabanna, Vink decides to hire the kid who can't distinguish between tripe and his own asshole. (Though to be fair, it's the blind taste test that four out of five Top Chef contestants consistently fail.) As Dr. Vink heads into the kitchen to show him around, Reed mutters to Nonnie that Vink seems like a nutbag.

Vink shows his new employee around the kitchen, talking about how cooking is an art form. He offers Reed a taste of the soup, which he thinks is, "pretty good."

"My friend, the flavor dances over the tongue in a symphony of flavors." (You know, if the restaraunt business doesn't work out, Dr. V. could so write pop songs for 1960s girl groups. Or soft-core vampire porn because that little love note to soup was better than 90% of the first Sookie Stackhouse book.) Vink warns Reed that he's not allowed to have another taste.

"And I am NOT a nutbag," he adds. Dr. Vink? Don't piss on my leg and tell me it's raining. Thanks.

Frank narrates that once in a while, someone would just up and quit for no reason. But the Wild Boar flourishes.

Next scene. Jersey and Dr. Vink argue while Reed and Nonnie talk. Reed explains some of his behavior. He mentions that he's always been on his own and it's hard to ask other people for help but Nonnie's been really awesome (she covers for him when Vink catches him trying to sneak a taste of soup). She bats her eyelashes and silently wonders if doing a Nickelodeon show will make it too sleazy when she does her first Playboy spread a few years down the line.

We cut away to see Vink fighting with the waitress Jersey, who says she doesn't do dishes. (You don't do dishes and you hate knives and yet you work in a restaurant? You know, the likelihood of the position of "Padme Lakshmi" opening up at the Wild Boar is slim to none.)

Vink tells Jersey he wants to make her his protege by moving her to the kitchen, and will reveal to her the secret of his soup. Telling her how brilliant she is, he invites her into that little room. Oh, Jersey, you sad, stupid little girl--this situation couldn't be any more of an obvious set-up for your being taken advantage of if it involved Qualudes, Jack Nicholson's hot tub, and an Eastern European dwarf with a penchant for making Satanic horror films.

Jersey goes inside and has a seat. Suddenly a large axe appears from the ceiling and starts swinging down several feet from her neck.

"It knows what scares you," chuckles Vink. As she screams, we cut to a vial being filled with green liquid.

Oh, cool, it looks like my slutty college roommate's pap smear after she discovered "casual encounters" on Craigslist.

Nonnie and Reed hear the screams and come to investigate. Eventually, Vink opens the door and Jersey leaves the room, looking shocked.

Reed wants to know what's going on. Vink offers to show him the secret. He explains that in his travels, he came across a tribe that had a statue that knew what you were afraid of. "It could reach into your mind and actually create your deepest fear. It was only an illusion but the more you believed in it, the more real it would become." The tiny statue also produced an elixir that the tribe would drink for potency because it makes your pulse quicken or something. Nonnie finally realizes that that this is why everyone quits--they get scared away by Vink so he can make the fear soup. Yep, the audience loves these slow learners.

Wouldn't a soup made from fear taste horrible and be awfully fattening? ("Yes,'s mostly for show," points out Dr. Vink, and before I can point out that this makes absolutely no sense, he's gone.)

But Reed doesn't believe him and he wants to stand up to Vink. Vink invites Reed into the little room. Reed resists but Vink starts talking about how Reed was an orphan raised by a terrifying old uncle. (Yeah, well, I was practically raised by TV in the early 90s when Full House ruled TGIF with an Olsen twin sized fist, and I'm not afraid of any uncles. Though I did experience flashbacks when I got free tickets to Dave Coulier's ninety minute stand-up act a few years ago. If you thought two minutes of wood jokes were bad...ugh.)

A coffin appears in the room and Reed freaks out. (Oh, you're afraid of clumsily foreshadowed plot points, too?) He opens the coffin and Reed's dead uncle comes to life and starts choking him.

Vink steps away from the window and Nonnie can't bear it any more. She opens the door and the gargoyle talisman flies out.

"You've unleashed it!" screams Dr. Vink. Apparently it's going to go terrorize the entire world. Vink had it under wraps for a while but now it's unleashed on the general public. Dr. Vink runs out of the restaraunt to track it down. When did this become The Howling Man episode of the Twilight Zone and are the members of the Midnight Society going to take up smoking in homage to Rod Serling?

Dr. Vink runs out and kids aren't sure what to do. Then the lights go out and it turns out that the demon statue came back. They open a door and inexplicably it's huge.

Yeah, you know, I always thought that the Room 101 part of 1984 would have been so much scarier with a gigantic flying gargoyle.

Reed tells Nonnie to clear her mind, not think about what scares her. But then a snake appears and she shrieks loudly despite what Reed said. (Great advice, Reed, but she's angling to appear in Scream next, not in Prozac Nation.)

They go into the kitchen and what appears to be wind blows Nonnie conveniently into the fear room and locks it. Then it turns out that her fear is closed spaces and she begs Reed to open the door.

He tells her to face her fear and that it's all an illusion (um, where was all this Dr. Phil meets B.F. Skinner talk when Uncle Vanya was giving your neck the choking chicken treatment?).

Then Reed goes out into the restaurant and sees the coffin. It opens and Reed's uncle trots out staring at him.

Reed sinks to his knees (I guess that's the position he associates with his uncle the most?) and yells, "You didn't molest me! You don't love me!" (no, wait, I changed channels to the Brown Noise episode of South Park). He yells that he's not afraid, that he doesn't believe in it and his uncle disappears. And it should say something that Macauley Culkin's performance where he faced down that scary furnace in the basement was even more convincing than no name actor here.

Anyway, the fear is over. Reed runs into the little room and hugs Nonnie and tells her that it's all over, that Vink won't be making any more soup. "That's where you're wrong, my friend," Vink tells them, staring in through the window.

"It still knows what scares you." (You know, if this fear soup thing were a franchise of movies, that would be a great tag line. Come on, you just know that when Kevin Williamson and his Joey Potter look alike friend were sitting around, brainstorming ideas for the sequel to I Know What You Did Last Summer, Kevin chanced upon this episode and decided it was brilliant. "Yeah, but you still have no plot," pointed out Joey doppleganger. "Oh, um, we'll put Jennifer Love Hewitt in an even tighter, more improbably low cut sweater and maybe no one will notice?" And the rest was history.)

The episode ends with Dr. Vink laughing in his typically crazed manner as the kids look horrified.

Everyone thinks the story was great except Tucker who thinks that the room wouldn't work if nothing scares you. Frank offers Tucker the chance to be the first to reach into the unknown, offering him the box. Is Frank going to put the box in his lap, opens the lid on top, and unleash his John Thomas? Because that's why I'm afraid of eating popcorn at the movies. Tucker's too scared to open the box. Gary asks what's inside. "Exactly what Tucker's afraid of. Nothing," says Frank, revealing that the box was empty. Oh, Frank, still waters run deep as usual.