Friday, February 25, 2011

Season One, Episode 8: Legacy for Lucia

Air Date: November 25, 1960
Director: Philip Leacock
Writer: Stirling Silliphant
Guest Stars: Arlene Martel, John Larch, Jay C. Flippen

"Legacy for Lucia"
is one of those contrived Route 66 episodes where most of the elements come together except for its basic premise. The episode works on some levels - splendid acting, spectacular scenery - but it falls completely flat in the story department.

While Buz and Tod are working at a logging mill in small-town Merlin, Oregon (well, it's really Buz doing all the work - Tod is off tooling around in the Vette), a young and very religious Sicilian woman named Lucia Trapani (Arlene Martel) arrives in town on a bus. Seventeen years earlier, in 1943, while the war was raging across Italy, an American serviceman named Alec Haines (who grew up in Merlin) comforted Lucia (who'd recently been orphaned) by telling her that he owned the state of Oregon and if anything happened to him, she'd inherit the state upon his death.

If you guess that Alec ends up getting killed (by Germans), you guessed right. So eventually Lucia goes to Oregon because she wants to sell her state so she can raise enough money to purchase a new Madonna statue for her poor village. A do-gooder foreman at the logging mill named Morrison (John Larch) hears her story and wants to help her. He knows that local yokel curmudgeon Nathaniel Hobbs (Jay C. Flippen) was Alec's foster father back in the day. Nathaniel is an old grump who doesn't like Eye-talians much.

But Lucia drifts into his life and he slowly develops a fatherly soft spot for her. Very slowly. Before that happens, Hobbs makes her feel like sh!t and is actually the first man on a Route 66 episode to knock out Buz in a fight (!). Morrison convinces Hobbs to cut down the lumber on his land and sell it and give the proceeds to Lucia so she can buy her Madonna statue. Morrison balks at first and then eventually caves. Lucia learns more about him and discovers that Alec didn't really own Oregon and that Hobbs is really a compassionate guy under that gruff exterior. Buz and Tod, of course, join in to help. The money goes to Lucia, who gets on the bus to return to Sicily.

One thing that you can say about Route 66 episodes: It's next to impossible to keep the plot descriptions short.

Everything about "Legacy for Lucia" feels contrived. Too bad, because Arlene Martel, who'd later go on to play Spock's Vulcan bride T'Pring in the Star Trek episode "Amok Time," is outstanding in the role of Lucia. John Larch is back, too, after recently appearing in "The Strengthening of Angels." What can I say about Larch? He's always wonderful. I've never seen a bad John Larch performance. And character actor Jay C. Flippen, veteran of countless movies and TV shows (most memorably, he played Marvin Unger in Stanley Kubrick's '56 noir masterpiece The Killing) is believably gruff and believably compassionate, a testament to his fine acting skills. And it's amazing to see him kick Buz's ass. That doesn't happen often.

Add to all that the breathtaking Oregon countryside and the effective scenes where men are chopping down trees and you've got all the elements of a first-rate episode.

So where did it all go wrong? The premise sucks. It doesn't work at all. Not for a minute does the viewer believe that a woman - even from a tiny village in Sicily that's not on the map - could be so naive as to believe that an American soldier owned the entire state or Oregon, or that his verbal commitment to leave it to her constitutes a proper legal transaction. Even the most starry-eyed, naive, semi-literate, Sicilian country bumpkin would utterly reject the idea of crossing the ocean and the entire United States for something so insubstantial.

Which leads to another flaw in the episode. It's unbelievably maudlin. I don't mind maudlin in controlled amounts, but "Legacy for Lucia" has it slathered on thick to the point of being sickly sweet. Stirling Silliphant's writing, which is typically tight, powerful, emotional and edgy, just feels preachy and flabby here. There's no real tension in the episode. Sure Nathaniel Hobbs (Flippen) is kind of a jerk and doesn't like Lucia at first and is bitter, but he has every right to be bitter, and Larch's character is an ass for pestering and pestering Hobbs to sell all of his lumber to help Lucia.

Who cares about her village needing a Madonna statue? Listen, lady, try living in Laos! They've got a lot worse problems there than not having a Madonna statue. Oh yeah, and why in the hell doesn't Larch's character just leave Flippen's character alone? Quit bugging the man. Leave him be. Don't preach to him. He lost a kid who was more or less the equivalent of his son.

Where's the conflict? With whom are we supposed to sympathize? And Buz and Tod are wasted in this episode. They just stand around and act like they think Lucia is the greatest damned thing since sliced bread. Why does she have such a hold over everybody? Sure, she's kinda cute and all. But, my God, by the end credits, all of the people in this episode are ready to elect her president of the United States.

"Legacy for Lucia" is not the worst Route 66 episode ever made. The one that followed it, "Layout at Glen Canyon," is worse. But "Lucia" remains a melodramatic episode that fell apart because there just wasn't a good story to tell. Too bad, because there are a finite number of Buz episodes in the series, and I wish each one could be as superb as "Ten Drops of Water" or "The Man on the Monkey Board." No TV show bats one thousand. Even Seinfeld had that cruddy-ass final courtroom episode and the hokey clips episode at the very end to bid the show farewell.

As uneven as "Lucia" is, it's better than many of the Tod Stiles solo episodes. So maybe this entry contains too much grousing and bellyaching. If so, I am sorry. But even among those who prefer to catch their flies with honey instead of vinegar, "Legacy for Lucia" will probably never be remembered as a superb Route 66 episode. Luckily, by the end of the show's four-year run, there would be plenty of those.

Rating: 5.5 out of 10

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