Degree of difficulty matters. It matters most in sports without real scores (you know, the ones that only happen every four years and involve Gymkata star Kurt Thomas) to provide an axis to contrast with “Success/Failure/Did He Hurt Himself,” but it also counts in other things, even if winning doesn’t come with a giant coin on a rope. In art, a high degree of difficulty can render triumph that much more impressive. Take the Kevin Bacon film The Woodsman. The hero of that movie is a convicted child molester. Not wrongly accused. Not confused at the time. Not accidental. He did twelve years in prison for molesting little girls. It’s pretty hard to make a character like that heroic in any way, although it’s important to note that he’s not heroic in the same way as Batman. He doesn’t seek out the evil and the corrupt and then awkwardly touch them in the bathing suit area in the pursuit of justice. He’s the protagonist and the film makes the audience root for him. Because of this, I added a full star to that movie’s rating on Netflix. The degree of difficulty of making a film with a sympathetic child molester is off the charts and should be rewarded. No way that statement gets taken out of context.
Conversely, wringing pathos from the death of a child is slightly more difficult than losing a fight to a giant robot polar bear. There’s nothing more tragic than a kid getting cut down before they know the pleasures of premature ejaculation, crippling debt, and the punishing sense of ennui that comes from knowing – not thinking, but knowing – that they are ultimately meaningless in the universe. It’s easy to feel sorry for a dead kid. One look at a tiny coffin and even battle-hardened Navy SEALs burst into tears. This is why midget funerals are so depressing. It’s possible I might be mixing “depressing” and “hilarious” up again, but I still think uncontrollable weeping was the right reaction to that Robin Williams stand up special. Anyway, this week’s episode, 1977’s “Beat the Turtle Drum” is about a girl who dies suddenly a week after her eleventh birthday. Unlike the episode’s content, the degree of difficulty for funny dead kid jokes is pretty high, so I’ll have to work extra hard.
“Beat the Turtle Drum” is an amazing title despite, or perhaps because of, being impenetrably cryptic. I think of it as some kind of Zen Koan: understand the title, become one with everything. For those following along at home, the title on the episode itself and on the IMDB is “Very Good Friends.” This was because “Beat the Turtle Drum” is far too fascinating, “Dead Sister” too on-the-nose, and “Treehouses Need Seatbelts” was already taken.
The story opens telling us that Joss, the eleven-year-old sister of narrator Kate (Little House on the Prairie’s Melissa Sue Anderson), is dead. Joss’s grieving family goes to her funeral. Then it flashes back to Joss, who’s all blond braids and big-toothed smiles. The episode is perverse in its plotting and pacing. The vast majority of it is about Joss’s desire to rent a horse for a week and put him up in the garage. (As a side note, the horse’s name is Prince, which leads to some funny dialogue about who gets to ride Prince, how Prince can sleep in the garage, how much manure Prince can supply and so on. Just picture him as a five foot black man dressed like an Enlightenment man whore and you’re all set.) This slow and inconsequential story lulls the audience into a false sense of complacency. “They were just kidding about the dead kid, right? This thing is about the struggles of tween suburban ranchers.” As Joss frets over whether she’ll get the traditional birthday gift of $25 from grandma she needs to rent Prince (he won’t kiss you on the mouth for less than that), the memory of the opening funeral grows more and more distant.
This isn’t to say that the death comes out of nowhere. Like all Tahse-produced After School Specials, Beat the Turtle Drum was a horribly depressing young adult novel before it traumatized a generation on television. There’s a pall of mortality over whole thing. Mrs. Pemberthy, cranky neighbor, relates her origin story to Kate one afternoon over a vat of sherry. Mrs. Pemberthy’s mother died when she (Mrs. Pemberthy, not the mom because that would be weird) was thirteen, which is the age Kate is currently struggling through. Later, Mrs. Pemberthy tries to use this connection with Kate to explain Joss’s death as God’s will. “God in his wisdom took the little one home.” These sorts of reassurances are born from a good place, but ultimately always ring hollow. It always sounds more like the speaker is attempting to reassure herself in her beliefs when something horrible happens that can’t be understood in the context of a loving god.
Morality also rears its head in the character of Jean-Pierre, probably the most fascinating part of this episode. While a storm batters the shoddy barn Joss and friends built in the backyard (and ultimately smashes it to pieces – how’s that for mortality), Kate asks if Joss remembers Jean-Pierre. The dialogue first suggests that Jean-Pierre is real, but soon it comes out that Jean-Pierre was Joss’s imaginary friend. Joss misses him, but refuses to bring him back, stubbornly insisting that she never pretended about him. This implies that Joss is severely schizophrenic and Kate should hide the axes and learn to sleep with one eye open. Later, Joss has a screaming nightmare, waking Kate up with sobbing cries for Jean-Pierre to come back. Kate wakes her up, and Joss is angry, implying that this is a normal thing. She relates the dream, that she and Jean-Pierre were riding horses by a river, and Jean-Pierre falls in only to be washed away. The last time Jean-Pierre is mentioned, Joss says that Prince has replaced Jean-Pierre as her best friend. She sadly explains that Jean-Pierre missed a lot, and Kate still can’t understand why Joss won’t bring him back. Soon after, Joss takes a header off the side of the treehouse and dies instantly. In three of the four times Jean Pierre is mentioned, he is linked with a homemade wood structure, the barn and the treehouse, one of which collapses, the other kills Joss. As someone whose mother held a superstitious dread of rickety home improvement projects, I can say they serve as a good harbinger of death.
So what the hell is Jean-Pierre? If this were about a young woman dealing with a chemically imbalanced sister that would be much easier to understand, but Jean-Pierre is clearly a symbolic creation by the author. He represents the fleeting nature of life itself, so that Joss becomes Kate’s version of Jean-Pierre. In the end, Kate would do anything to bring Joss back, but just as Joss couldn’t return Jean-Pierre, Kate has to live without her sister. This is apropos of nothing, but because of the name, I pictured Jean-Pierre as a foulmouthed French-Canadian fur trapper.
“Beat the Turtle Drum” is famous amongst those who watched it when it initially aired because of Joss’s sudden death. One moment, she’s craning her head to see Prince, the next she’s over the side. It’s so quick, if you blink, you’ll miss the fall. It feels like something more severe should have caused her death, and if it were made today, it’s likely that she and Kate would have had a fight directly beforehand. Instead, it’s a pleasant afternoon spent discussing horses and imaginary friends that ends in broken necks. The very suddenness renders it a haunting reminder that death is around every corner, a valuable tool in creating a generation of insomniacs. As Kate stays with Joss’s still body, her fearful dialogue turns to voiceover as the cars return from the funeral: “Everything’s gonna be all right. Joss?”
Kate tries to understand Joss’s death. The special boldly suggests that there is no meaning to what happened. None. Mrs. Pemberthy’s God explanation is mercifully dismissed and instead Kate finds comfort with Mrs. Essig, the wife of the man who rented Prince to Joss (known only as Essig, even to his wife, leading me to believe he has no first name). Mrs. Essig comforts Kate, but offers no platitudes. It’s an incredibly honest moment that smashed through ironic barriers I’ve spent years constructing. Feeling better, Kate comes home to find the unfortunately named Tootie (played by Sparky Marcus, who also played Young Tuck in “The Skating Rink”), sitting the curb and sobbing like Ben Affleck in a late ‘90s action film. Kate comforts him as Mrs. Essig comforted her, telling Tootie that they lost Joss, but they won’t lose the memories of her. The two children sit there on the curb, holding one another as the camera pans out in silence. This last bit was so affecting, I was forced to make a bunch of snide comments to my cat about her weight problem just to rebuild my protective crust of irony.
As you can probably tell, this is the best of the lot so far. As I said, the degree of difficulty was staggeringly low, but to succeed so thoroughly has to be worth something. I won’t call it art, but it’s the next best thing.
Next up: “The Pinballs” which stars Kristy McNichol and Sparky “Mr. After School Special” Marcus.