Tune In Tonight: "Supertrain, Episode 4"
Good news, everyone! Four episodes into Supertrain, and finally we reach one that doesn’t involve a hitman, bumbling or otherwise. The bad news is that, somehow, the plot of this episode is even more incomprehensible than its predecessors, and what it lacks in sense it does not in any way make up for in excitement. But, hey, we’re all still dazzled with the sheer majesty of Supertrain itself, right? Right? Hey, where are you going, you can’t just jump off the back of a moving train!
Well, anyway, the episode, titled “Hail to the Chief,” opens with front running Presidential candidate J.J. Phillips (Roy Thinnes) boarding Supertrain on the eve of the election. J.J. is expected to win the election, but things go awry almost immediately, thanks to a plan involving his long lost identical twin brother, Eddie, terrible fake beards, a magician, and a pair of little people henchmen, one of whom is portrayed by Billy Barty. Together, they kidnap J.J., drug him, and store him away in a casket, while Eddie dons his clothes and impersonates him for the remainder of the trip. As has been a running theme in Supertrain, the motivations for this scheme aren’t really clear, and actually become less so as the episode moves forward. But Supertrain has a disco, did we mention that?
Eddie and his gang’s scheme goes off without a hitch, save for the unexpected arrival of J.J.’s estranged wife, Alice (Loretta Swit, who, in a weirdly tacky twist, is first seen wearing Jackie O-style pearls and pillbox hat), who’s been nagged by J.J.’s campaign manager into appearing at his side for the election. The nutty “twist” here is that, despite having just committed several felonies, Eddie as J.J. turns out to be not just a better, more honorable presidential candidate, but a better husband too. He and Alice spend a romantic evening together rekindling their relationship, until Alice tells him in the morning that she knows he’s not who he says he is. Eddie admits that he’s impersonating J.J., and reveals the kidnapping plot.
As it turns out, though his partners in crime are in it for $10 million in either ransom or blackmail money (no one really seems sure), Eddie is in it because he doesn’t want a scoundrel like J.J. to become President. In keeping with Supertrain’s flawless storytelling, the audience isn’t shown what a bad person J.J. Phillips is, it’s merely told, and that should be good enough. It’s certainly good enough for Alice, who doesn’t think it’s super weird that she’s fallen in love with her husband’s twin brother (whom up until that very day she thought was dead), let alone the nonsensical plan to have her husband kidnapped and destroy his Presidential campaign. She immediately goes along with Eddie’s plan to double cross his partners, and they decide to run away together.
Eddie tells his partners that the plan is off, and orders them to dispose of the coffin with J.J.’s unconscious body still in it. They do, but—doh ho ho!—Eddie has again switched places with J.J., and escapes unnoticed. Meanwhile, J.J., clad only in his underwear, regains consciousness, discovers that he’s lost the Presidential election, and frantically runs around Supertrain yelling that he was drugged and kidnapped. Though he’s telling the truth, nobody wants to hear it, and Supertrain’s crew reacts to his claims with the mildest of puzzlement. It is, after all, just another day on Supertrain, where kidnapping and murder are as common as lost luggage.
Almost 28 minutes into the episode, there’s an inexplicable shot of a character we’ve never seen before (and never see again) letting out a huge yawn, and that pretty much says it all for Supertrain. Though it’s hardly the most original plot in the world, a TV show involving kidnapping, impostors, and political intrigue should be at least mildly interesting, but the magic of Supertrain is its ability to take potentially compelling plots and drain every drop of entertainment out of them. Characters spend considerably more time talking about what they’re going to do than actually doing it, and, J.J., ostensibly the real villain of the story, is so poorly developed that his humiliating “comeuppance” at the end seems a little hollow. The only examples we’re given of J.J.’s nefariousness is that he’s a bad tipper, and he may have cheated on Alice. That he would destroy the country if he was elected President is strictly on the word of Eddie—but then again, half-assing things under the assumption that the audience isn’t going to care is the overarching theme of Supertrain.
Like the previous episode, other passengers are curiously in short supply, and we see even less of Supertrain itself than ever before, save for an overlong scene set in the disco (every disco scene in every episode of Supertrain goes on too long, evidently they were really fucking proud of that disco). We’re four episodes into this “can’t miss,” grossly expensive “Love Boat on a train,” and still nobody involved in the making of it seems to know what to do with it.
Original airdate: February 28, 1979