The little town of Rome is beset by a “serial bather.” Someone’s breaking into houses and bathing in the tubs. This sounds cute and starts off very funny, but then it morphs into a surprisingly dark episode once the cops figure out that there’s a sexual element to the break-ins as well. Then suspicion falls on Frank the Potato Man, a poor drifter that essentially lives in the woods near town, and the episode morphs into a meditation on civil rights. This is the show’s first genuinely great episode. The mystery of the bather is surprisingly compelling and creepy and the solution to the mystery was genuinely surprising; seriously, it was something that I genuinely did not see coming AT ALL and that’s incredibly rare for me anymore. And the meditation on civil rights and class bigotry is quite moving and thought-provoking. One of the characters explains quite rationally that she understands the importance of civil rights and believes in them in the large scheme; she then goes on to say that in this case, however, she’s afraid for her children and so she doesn’t care. This feels absolutely of the moment in a lot of ways. Twenty-five years on, we’re still having this argument. Ray Walston is particularly good in this episode and Fyvush Finkel, a character played entirely for laughs to this point, has a really surprising and poignant dramatic scene. This is great television: entertaining, suspenseful, witty, thought-provoking. Picket Fences, in this episode at least, gets everything it’s after. 4 stars.
tl;dr – suspenseful & creepy plot about sex criminal morphs into thought-provoking and well-written meditation on civil rights; great performances, great writing, great television. 4 stars.