So after Thursday’s barn-burner (Ep. 18492, “The Burning Barn”) how were the folks who program Alex Balk’s subconscious going to resolve the cliffhangers that got us all so worked up? Longtime viewers will not be surprised to learn that there were no simple solutions. In fact, they dispensed with the barn altogether, and returned to an old stand-by: the high school unpreparedness scenario.
Let me start by saying I’m a big fan of this plot device, and it has certainly yielded some of the show’s most interesting moments. (Remember the completely unexpected space alien musical theater moment from Ep. 16229, “Singing Space Aliens WTF?”) But let’s be honest: The guy has been out of high school coming on twenty years now. How long are we supposed to believe that this is the go-to signifier for anxiety? Shouldn’t there be more work-related nightmares in the mix? It just seems lazy.
Anyway, complaint registered, let’s move on: Balk is wandering the halls of his high school. (This is High School 4, the one with the wood panels that has a similar layout to High Schools 2 and 5, but also has an eerie similarity to High School 1-which, as you know, is not particularly that far off from the shape and size of the character’s actual high school.) He is late for something, and we see him desperately opening door upon door, only to find each classroom empty. The sweat is visible on his brow, and the whole scene is suffused with an overwhelming sense of dread.
Suddenly, he’s in a classroom, seated in the front row. I’ll have to go back through the tapes to be certain, but this seems like the same room in which he had sex with the attractive young poet who came to the class as a guest speaker in Ep. 17195, “Freeverse Cowgirl.” Unfortunately, it does not seem like any sexual fantasies will be played out this evening: This one is all about an uncompleted task and the fears of chastisement and failure which both accompany and prompt these episodes.
Or is it? Just as the teacher (mostly unrecognizable, although the brown blazer leads me to suspect someone in the department of English faculty, sophomore or junior year) approaches his desk, Balk is at an outdoor concert at… could that be Great Woods in Mansfield, MA? We do know that Balk saw Bryan Ferry there at some point in the mid-to-late eighties, so its very possible that this amphitheater owes its form to a vague memory of that venue. (Your history lesson for this installment of “Alex Balk’s Dream” comes, as always, from Wikipedia.) The band is unidentifiable, as Balk is way in the back, but they are playing some kind of inoffensive indie pop, and the lead singer sounds slightly whiny. Balk is with a bunch of friends, some of whom we remember from previous high school episodes, some of whom are actual people he went to high school with. There seems to be a celebration going on, but Balk hangs back, as if it does not involve him. Could this be a recurrence of the “everyone else is going away to college” theme?
There’s no way of knowing, because we are interrupted by a brief interlude that does not involve Balk at all. Leper Larry, the shadowy, decaying figure from so many previous “ABD”s, reappears. Once again he is making a sound that is halfway between a chuckle and a wail as his yellowed teeth fall onto the ground and spin like tops.
Now we are at a train station. The platform is packed and Balk is looking around for someone. A train-I make it as an Amtrak Acela, but that fucking train station set is always so goddamn grainy that you’d think it was a deliberate attempt on the producers’ parts to obfuscate-pulls in, but the door remains closed. Suddenly there’s the sound of bells, which seem to ring unceasingly until-yes, you guessed it-it turns out to be the alarm clock. The episode ends with Balk jumping up and looking around. He does hit snooze, but we don’t get the little bit of extra this time; we’re stuck with nine minutes of nothing.
This was a pretty disappointing episode, all told. There was no further character development, and none of the earlier mysteries seem any closer to yielding even one clue as to what this guy is always so worked up about. And the concert scene? I haven’t watched a less informative strand of teenage nostalgia since the “getting drunk at the golf course at midnight” meme (too many episodes to mention) of 2004–2005. I am starting to get a little tired of this show, to be frank. I don’t know if they need some new blood on the staff or if they’ve just run out of things to dream about altogether, but more and more it seems like this is a concept that has run its course. Perhaps it’s time to pull the plug, for everyone involved. Even Leper Larry no longer inspires the inchoate fear of previous appearances. If improvements aren’t made rather rapidly-would it kill them to give JUST ONE THING away?-I might just start watching something with more promise, like “Alex Balk: Passed Out Live,” which at least offers the virtue of being both regular and brief.