November 18, 2010

The Legendary Billy B. (The Hitchhiker)

Show: The Hitchhiker (HBO; 1983-1991)
Episode: The Legendary Billy B.
Grade: B

A particularly enjoyable episode of HBO's The Hitchhiker, The Legendary Billy B is a story about a tabloid reporter names Jane L. (Kirstie Alley) who is desperate to find the huge story that will launch her into the big times. As the episode opens, Jane and her photographer Hodie (The Police's Andy Summers) attempt to break the story of an actor's extra-marital activity, only to have it blow up in their faces when the wife of the actor commits suicide. Completely undiscouraged by the incident, Jane one day finds what appears to be recent pictures of the legendary Billy Baltimore (Brad Dourif) in Hodie's darkroom. In the Hitchhiker universe, Billy Baltimore was the pre-Hendrix American guitar god, a legendary acid rocker who in 1967 was assassinated on a stage in front of thousands during a concert in San Francisco. Hodie claims to have been following him for a couple of weeks now, having gotten a tip that the rocker was alive and well and living on a secluded estate. Sensing her big break, Jane persuades Hodie to take her to Billy's very private and heavily secured home, where she can snag an interview with the legend that will almost certainly catapult her to the top of the tabloid world. Once they've broken into his house, the pair find Billy playing his guitar in an almost museum-like setting, looking youthful as ever and spouting out hazy cliches ("You wanna know what fame tastes like? It's like chewin' all the time.") as well as answering all questions with stock responses that Hodie recognizes as answers from famous interviews Billy had conducted decades earlier. Have they indeed stumbled upon the legendary Billy Baltimore, or is something more sinister afoot?

There are tons of things to love in the episode. While the first 5-10 minutes or so kind of drag before Billy enters the picture (Alley and Summers are unfortunately far from captivating screen presences), once the pair break into his house the episode really comes alive. Billy's old, baroque, decrepit home is bathed in all kinds of eerie lighting - it's something that could have been ripped right out of an Argento movie - and paints an appropriately ominous mood as the two reporters begin to sense that something really wrong is going on. Dourif is fantastic in the role of Billy. He's always had one of the more interesting faces and peculiar deliveries in the business (there's a reason Herzog likes him so much), and once his character enters the mix, Dourif completely steals the show. I haven't seen close to every episode of The Hitchhiker (though I'm slowly making my way through them all), but The Legendary Billy B. is probably one of my favorite episodes, and having seen it now a few times, one of the things I like the most is how as the episode progresses, you're almost certain there's going to be some kind of supernatural bent to the obligatory twist ending, which ends up not being the case at all, and probably all for the better as it's one of the more genuinely unsettling endings I've seen in the series. It's definitely an episode to put on the list if you plan on delving into the wonderfully creepy world that is The Hitchhiker.


Sam Juliano said...

Ah Drew, I wish I had seen this show, but I'm afraid I never had the opportunity. It's a terrific review, of an episode you obviously consider a particular diamond in the ruff, and you have me going off to do some research. I guess at that time in my life I wasn't watching television shows.

Drew said...

Thanks for the comment Sam. It's weird, The Hitchhiker is definitely in some ways a rather obscure series, which is not something you generally associate with a show that had multiple seasons on HBO. It's by and large excellent television though, and I definitely recommend checking it out if you ever have the option.