By Cameron White
Season 3, Episode 24: “Dead Ringer”
Original airdate: Aug. 24, 2001
Television can be a complicated medium. Each episode of a show exists in multiple spaces: as an individual story told in the same manner as, say, a piece of folklore; as a story within a continuum of other episodes that constitutes a “television show”; as a story in conversation with similar stories in other shows and other media; and as a story that relates to the real world in some specific tangible or intangible way. “Dead Ringer” is a complicated episode of So Weird for precisely those reasons. The episode rests at an intersection of being an atmospheric and character-based episode (relying almost exclusively on Patrick Levis to sell the story), being an adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” and being an episode of So Weird that directly contradicts canon, which gives the episode a bad reputation among the cult following of the show.
On the first front, “Dead Ringer” certainly succeeds. The episode wisely dodges the problem “Gone Fishin'” has by placing the stakes up front with Jack’s reaction to the pile of stuff Annie and Molly lug home from the garage sale. This clears the way for a solid ten minutes of Patrick Levis reacting to things. As previously established in episodes like “Will O’ the Wisp” and “Changeling,” Patrick Levis is one of So Weird‘s secret acting weapons, capable of evoking the right emotions from an audience while remaining totally immersed in character. The entire second act of “Dead Ringer” is basically Jack talking to himself as the torments (real or imaginary) of Mr. Applebaum attempt to throw him off his math studies, but Levis sells every line and every action as if it was completely natural for Jack to freak out and talk to himself.
That’s helpful, because “The Tell-Tale Heart,” as with “Dead Ringer,” is largely a story about one man collapsing under the weight of his own guilt, a very singular character arc easier done in first-person prose narrative than in televisual form. But “Dead Ringer” is smartly crafted, lifting equally from the visual vocabulary of both the creepy-house and slasher subgenres of horror to supplement Levis’s work in order to sell the episode. It’s probably not as scary as some of So Weird‘s highlights, but it succeeds in immersing the viewer in an atmosphere of dread; as a result, the ending catharsis, and the ambiguity of whether or not Mr. Applebaum’s hauntings actually happened, feel well-earned.
Sadly, the episode is mostly a lie. The plot revolves around a supposed next-door neighbor, Mr. Applebaum, whose window a youthful Jack wrecked with a golf ball. The problem lies in how season two of So Weird establishes early and often that Molly, Jack, and Fi all still lived in the old house-slash-recording-studio after Rick’s death (which is approximately when the guilt-inducing event at the heart of “Dead Ringer” occurs). This is the first time the show has even made mention of another house that the Phillips family could have lived in after Rick’s death, but “Fountain” explicitly shows the family still living in the same house years after the fact. It seems like a small detail, but it’s an important one for a show under close scrutiny by a cult fandom, especially when Jack states in “Dead Ringer” that he had to look at the golf-ball-sized hole in Mr. Applebaum’s window (appropriately compared verbally and visually to an eye, in a nod to Poe’s story) for years.
So the question is this: does the fact that “Dead Ringer” is an apocryphal story matter? To the fans, the answer is usually a “yes,” especially coming at the end of a lackluster season that not only abandoned Fiona, but also every other character’s major story arcs, in favor of presenting an image that was friendlier to Disney Channel’s intended approach to brand. Yet, by fixing the structural issue that plagued “Gone Fishin’,” “Dead Ringer” is actually a better episode of the show, aided by subtle allusions to Poe’s classic story. The only non-subtle part is the opening narration, which lays “The Tell-Tale Heart” onto its sleeve so that every audience member is on the same page.
These types of episodes often show up in long-running shows, especially of the fantasy genre where mythos pieces are often forgotten or abandoned in favor of better stories. These episodes can be very instructive in discussing the various roles that individual episodes of television play in discussions of form and media. As such, while “Dead Ringer” may not be canon, it nonetheless serves a role in representing the creative strains of So Weird‘s third and final season. As in Poe’s story, those strains lie here beneath the wooden planks, crushed by the Mouse’s overalled bottom.
Cameron White is a freelance writer from Las Vegas. He writes about television over on his blog, Wayward Television, and tweets about tennis, sometimes. His obsession with television was founded in 1996 by The Disney Channel and fostered by his discovery of Firefly in the summer of 2007. He’s footloose and fancy-free.