Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Tod Takes A Bad Acid Trip: The LSD Episode of Route 66


I know, I know, I just posted about Route 66 a few weeks ago. And I told the world that I was watching all of the episodes in their proper order from the very beginning.

But over on the Route 66 group that I joined on Facebook, several fans kept mentioning one episode in particular...one called "The Thin White Line." This is the episode where Martin Milner's character, Tod Stiles, accidentally ingests a psychedelic drug that sets him off on a wild, mind bending ride in the streets of Philadelphia. I caved. I mean, just look at the accompanying terrifying screenshot that's being used on the IMDB for this particular episode. The rest of season one could wait...


My poor guy! Anyways, more than a few weeks after I initially watched this episode, it still haunts me, so I simply had to blog about it. I can totally understand why it's considered a fan favorite. I mentioned in my first post about Route 66 that it was a groundbreaking show ahead of its time. Well, "The Thin White Line" may have been the first time that drug use -- at least, of psychedelic drugs -- was portrayed on television. The drug is actually referred to in the program as an experimental "chemotherapy compound", not LSD. However, LSD's roots go back to the 1940s and a lot of experimental research was taking place with it during the 1950s. In an interview that co-star George Maharis gave in 2007, he mentioned that the show's main scriptwriter, Stirling Silliphant, had probably heard enough about the drug to work it into a storyline. Keep in mind, "The Thin White Line" aired on television in 1961 -- a good five years before LSD became a more recognized substance.

The hour starts off innocently enough. Tod and Buz are dancing with a couple of cute girls at a hotel suite party (at a Philadelphia Marriott) and are having a swell time. But one of the party's guests is an uninvited crasher -- a goony lunkhead that stole the host's girlfriend for a dance and then ordered the "boy" to bring him a beer. The seething party host is in the kitchen with a college friend who has brought along something to teach the crasher a lesson -- a sample of a drug that will make him go ape and start babbling nonsense for a few hours. At first the host is hesitant to actually follow through with the spiked beer, but his ego wins over. His weaselly little friend then pours an EXTRA amount of the drug into the glass, for good measure.

Out in the hotel suite, the host repeatedly offers the beer to the party crasher, who growls his decline and tells him to come back later. Before he has a chance to bring it back to the kitchen, Tod snatches the glass and gulps it down in a few swallows. It isn't long before he's become incredibly drowsy and unsteady on his feet, struggling to stay awake to dance with his date. When the two guys that spiked the beer call Tod's date to the kitchen to speak with her, Tod decides to take a nap on the couch, unnoticed by Buz and the other party guests.

Noooo! Don't do it, Tod!
In the kitchen, the drug guys are asking Tod's date if he's "stable." She responds that Tod and Buz have been working a construction job and that he's a nice guy, "a dreamboat." (Well, I'm certainly not about to argue with her about that.) She presses the pair as to what is going on, but they refuse to tell her, and let her go.

Meanwhile, Tod has abruptly awoken and it takes him a moment to realize where he is. When he sees the lunkhead party crasher (who insulted him when he tripped and fell into him) he attacks and punches him, disrupting the guests. He even gets physical with Buz before running out of the party and across the hotel's ice skating rink and through a garden area with water. Before long, he's gone from the hotel's property and has disappeared into the night with no way for Buz to catch up to him.

The police are called to the hotel, as well as the college researcher who's been studying the drug that Tod ingested. Buz and Tod's date learn that the drug's users experience several stages over the course of hours. The first is sleepiness, followed by paranoia, then euphoria. But in a chilling moment, the scientist warns the police that "what comes up must come down." He then informs everyone that even the happiest, most well adjusted people that have tried the drug often experience deep despair followed by a strong desire to kill themselves.

This is your brain on drugs...not exactly "Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds", folks!
I really don't want to give too much away, but let me say this: for all of his work, it's probably Martin Milner's finest hour on television, and for the life of me I cannot fathom why he wasn't at least nominated for an Emmy (yes, the Emmys did exist in the early '60s.) The best sequence is when Tod, during the drug's joie de vive phase, finds a barroom attended by the suspicious Al Lewis, aka Grandpa Munster. During this segment Tod is an unpredictable loose canyon, rattling off toasts in about a dozen foreign languages and consuming enough alcohol to knock out a bull elephant. He also gets picked up by the bar's chain smoking, piano playing cougar (you go, girl.) (This has dire results once the happy-go-lucky period of the drug starts to wear off.)

"Deeeeeeee-licious!"
I will admit that when I first learned about this episode, and the plot, I laughed. And it does sound funny at first -- the idea of someone under the influence of a psychedelic drug. The producers could have easily made "A Thin White Line" pro-drug, and portrayed it as a trippy romp through sugar town. But Milner takes us on a spectrum of human emotions and my heart was breaking for him by the end, during the program's climatic scene on the Ben Franklin Bridge (don't worry; it has a happy ending.) What makes it so unsettling to watch is that it's happening to one of the nicest TV characters ever conceived; a squeaky clean, innocent, boy-next-door type who is usually portrayed helping people.

There's also some creative camera work I appreciated during one segment to give the illusion of the drug's effects. Well, I said in my first post about the series that it was ahead of its time, and it was. I don't think you need to actually be a fan of the show to appreciate "The Thin White Line." Here's Part 1 if your curiosity has been piqued -- and you can watch all parts on YouTube.

5 comments:

  1. I haven't seen this episode yet Pam and am looking forward to it. Amazingly enough, around the same time, the TV Show One Step Beyond (with John Newland) did something similar, devoting an entire show to a documentary about psychedelic mushrooms. The show is up on YouTube at the below link, but it's amazing this got on TV in 1960.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6UuHrm2tHvE

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    1. Thanks for the info, Jeff. I'll check it out. I know Dragnet did an episode called "The LSD Story" aka "Blue Boy" in 1967.

      Another Route 66 episode I'm looking forward to seeing is the one where Buz becomes temporarily blinded, "Even the Stones Have Eyes." I hear it's a standout performance from George Maharis in that one. Poor Tod and Buz, getting themselves into trouble...

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  2. "I am the Lizard King..."
    "Snap out of it, Tod!"
    M.P.

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    1. Ha ha...that sums up the episode nicely!

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  3. There is also an episode of The Wild Wild West where Dr. Loveless slips Jim West a hallucinatory drug he has created.

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