Umney's Last Case
The idea of an author finding a way to switch lives with his main character is a pretty silly premise, and to add the idea that he's doing so because his son died from AIDS he caught from a blood transfusion feels a little too played out for mid-90's fiction. What makes the short story still an enjoyable read for me is that Clyde Umney is your stereotypical hard boiled detective from crime fiction and he clearly can't handle a little realism being injected into his world. The idea that the blind kid selling newspapers on the corner may not be immensely impressed with the seven cent tip he gives him, or that maybe his secretary may not like the constant sexual harassment she receives from him blow his mind. It's a fun deconstruction of the genre that you don't see very often. It's just that once Umney's creator Landry appears in the fictional world, things go downhill a bit.
In the short they change a few details. His son drowns in a pool while his parents are too distracted to notice. Landry's wife also is still alive as he goes to switch places with Umney, whereas in the story she had committed suicide. She makes a comment wishing he would be more like Clyde, sensitive and understanding to her pain over the loss of their son. It gives Sam a better motivation to switch places, thinking he'll be making his wife happy while also providing himself an escape. The only thing is I have to wonder if Landry's wife truly ever read any of her husband's stories because sensitive is not how I think of those detectives. Sure enough, he flirts with their pool girl, and that's what leads to her committing suicide. It makes the whole story much more dynamic and tragic, and I think it's a great improvement. William H. Macy gives a great performance in the short as both Clyde Umney and Sam Landry, his creator. This is the first of the shorts so far that I would consider worth a watch.
The End of the Whole Mess
This story of a man whose brother tried to save the world but actually doomed it was written in 1986. As such, a lot of the conjecture of what would happen in the future feels really dated now. He writes that a town near Waco, Texas is the most peaceful area in the state, having no way of knowing that the Waco siege would occur in 1993. There’s also mention of an AIDS vaccine developed sadly much earlier than we've reached at this point, and other out there things like Mexico going communist. But the core story of a man who wants to create world peace without taking the time to examine the possible side effects is a good one, and the narrative device of the narrator slowly losing his ability to think and type properly works really well.
Since this mini series was released in 2006, it’s natural that there would be a fair amount of changes to the details updating it to more modern times. But amazingly, beyond adding in the 9/11 attacks and a few other real life history moments, this is a very accurate adaptation. The narrator is now a filmmaker rather than a writer so he can tell us the story that way, and we see a little more of the flashbacks in detail but otherwise this is the same story. The one aspect I found disappointing was the ending, as they chose to have the main character primarily slur his speech and drool rather than speak in gibberish. It's possible they were going for something more closely resembling Alzheimer's, but considering this is a made up condition, I think it would have been nice and disconcerting to hear him speaking nonsense.
I also don't think they sold as effectively that the entire earth was ruined thanks to what they did, as we primarily see older people succumb to the disease, and younger adults only stumbling over their words a little. If there's someone out there with a clear enough head to broadcast on the radio that these are the end times promised in Revelations, then the world isn't falling apart just yet. As such their choice to commit suicide looks a lot like cowardice rather than guilt, because if his brother is such a genius, you would think he would work toward trying to fix the problem rather than giving up. Of course, forcibly changing the world without telling anyone out there, essentially making the entire human race your guinea pigs because you've decided that our base human instinct is evil kind of makes you a jerk anyway.
Despite my few problems with it, I do really enjoy both the story and the episode. They balance thought provoking ideas with an emotional core story of a family really well.