"When I started this project, I had some inkling that the original After School Specialswouldn’t be exactly like the image in the collective unconscious. Not every episode would be about an unwed teenaged mother turning to prostitution to support her glue-sniffing habit.
They weren’t all written by James Ellroy.
These early episodes are more like short films in which Very Important Lessons take a backseat to the horribly depressing vagaries of growing up. Yes, standing up to bullies is a good thing, but one shouldn’t forget about the human vegetable next door who likes playing checkers. Yes, you shouldn’t give advice without considering the consequences, but landing the cute upperclassman of your dreams has far more dramatic heft. And never, ever go in a treehouse. Those rickety death factories are worse than a great white shark with a chainsaw for a face and that super-ebola from Outbreak. Even with these sliding expectations, “Trouble River” stands out as an oddity. And it’s not just because it takes place in the Old West.
That’s right. “Trouble River” is a period piece, which not something I expected going in. Foolishly, I thought budget constraints would preclude anything that didn’t take place within shouting distance of where Robert Blake totally didn’t shoot anyone. I had forgotten about the grand tradition of filming in the wild and beige areas around LA and pretending they’re anything from a plantation in antebellum Georgia to a distant planet that inevitably robs William Shatner of his shirt. The fact that “Trouble River” takes place on the titular river wouldn’t necessarily stop this, since the few times any character actually steps in the water, it’s so shallow they barely get their pants wet. “Inconvenience Creek” would have been a far more accurate title, but it lacks a certain urgency.
Out in Oregon, stubbornly pronounced by the characters as ore-uh-GONE, making it sound more like something that should be fighting the Power Rangers, the Martin family lives on a small homestead. Mom and dad are expecting a second child, and everyone hopes it will be a boy, since girls were only used as food back then. They plan to head down to Fort Rapids so mom can have access to those cutting edge frontier painkillers, namely whiskey and repeated blows to the head. They’ll leave their teenage son Dewey home with Grandma to take care of the place. As the special continues, it becomes more obvious that they were just trying to get the hell away from Grandma for a few shining moments of peace.
This is because Grandma is the worst human being who ever lived. I doubt that, in the context of the special, she has ever committed war crimes, but she is the kind of person who would casually eviscerate a fat Hutu just to have a warm place to sleep. She’d complain the whole time too, pointing out that she owns the only cobbled shoes in the territory and sleeping in heathen carcasses will crack the leather. Grandma spends all forty-odd minutes of the special whining, bitching, sniping and bellyaching. Amongst the kvetching, she manages to get some good old-fashioned fearmongering in. In Grandma’s world, everyone is about five seconds from getting a tomahawk to the jugular.
Because of this, within a couple hours of the Martins leaving, Grandma becomes convinced that an army of cutthroats is lurking outside. She’s like the one character in every slasher film that knows the local legends of the abandoned summer camp/haunted lake/moaning graveyard/rotting clown college. She won’t stop babbling about the imagined threats until some merciful fellow in some misappropriated sports attire splits her down the middle with farming equipment. Grandma gets young Dewey so riled up that they decide to flee the homestead in the middle of the night.
The only way to get to the next homestead is down Trouble River, a shallow creek that flows gently through the Martin property. Grandma, true to form, ascribes near supernatural powers to Trouble River. She claims that people have drowned and “horses have had their legs sucked off.”
In the middle of the night, Dewey and Grandma get on the raft that Dewey cobbled together, taking only Grandma’s rocking chair, a shotgun and the dog. From there it’s a short raft ride to the Dargan Farm, the next friendly homestead. Of course this is intolerable to Grandma, who complains about the raft, the river, and pretty much everything in her eyeline. Hey, Grandma, here’s a thought. If you didn’t want to go down Trouble River, maybe you shouldn’t fill your grandson with so many nightmares he can barely run for all the crap in his pants? Just a thought.
The true irony is that for all her terror, the Martins only ever encounter one other person on the way down: an Indian played by Geno “The Skull” Silva from Scarface. Grandma, intimately familiar with the De Palma oeuvre, recognizes Silva instantly. She assumes he is there to kill her for her lucrative cocaine smuggling business, where she is known as La Abuelita Malhumorada. They spot the Indian several times, notably when the raft gets hung up on log. As the Indian approaches, Grandma loudly and repeatedly encourages Dewey to murder this man. Dewey, too petrified from having to live with Grandma’s Lovecraftian worldview, cannot pull the trigger. The Indian frees the raft and gives it a gentle push downstream. Grandma is secretly disappointed, no doubt wanting to dine on long pig to remember that lovely winter she spent with the Donners.
Beyond the fact that it’s a period piece, “Trouble River” stands out because there is nary a lesson to be learned. Dewey builds the raft in the beginning, uses it, and saves his Grandma’s life from the possibly imaginary dangers of the frontier. The only one who learns anything is Grandma, who realizes that not everything is unremitting horror. Of course, she’s like eighty, so she can apply this knowledge for what, forty-five minutes?
I’m not normally an advocate of drowning the elderly, but in this case there’s no court in the land that would convict Dewey. As soon as he cast off into Trouble River, he should have kicked Grandma overboard and held her face first in the six-inch water until the bubbles stopped coming up. He would have arrived at Fort Rapids with Charlie and when mom and dad asked, “Hey, where’s Grandma?” he could have shrugged ruefully and said: “Forget it, dad. It’s Trouble River.” And then the Martin family would have raised their heads to the sky and cheered as one. Grandma, the horrible millstone dragging them into the muddy shallows, was gone."