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The Twilight Zone. No, Really.

A point of order: I've never watched an episode of THE TWILIGHT ZONE all the way through.  The ZONE, of course, is before my time--I was born in 1967, four years after the show went off the air--whereas many of my fandom contemporaries grew up watching the show on reruns.  Channel 50 out of Detroit was a favorite.  However, I grew up in middle-of-nowhere, Michigan.  We didn't have a syndication station up there.  I spent my childhood in blissful ignorance of Rod Serling, STAR TREK, and just about every other rerun show.  We did get Godzilla movies on Channel 5 once a year, though.

Anyway, I somehow limped along.  You can't spend as much time in the SF crowd as I have without picking up ZONE stuff by osmosis, and I became slowly aware of the more popular episodes: the one with the guy who liked to read; the Talky Tina doll; the aliens who served man; Rod Serling's over-the-top narration.  But I still never watched an entire episode.

I recently learned THE TWILIGHT ZONE original episodes are available on Netflix for streaming.  Well!  I added them to my queue and started in.  I've gotten halfway through first season and now I'm highly qualified for some commentary.

This is absolutely a period piece.  It's quite charming to watch 1959 brought to life (though I usually think to myself, "Goodness, I wonder how many of these actors are dead") and see the furniture, hairstyles (the men ALL have exactly the same haircut--barbers must have been bored out of their minds), the cars, even the food choices (nothing but hunks of meat, mashed potatoes, and pie, with occasional cake).  And wow!  Everybody smokes!  It's a little jarring looking at this from an age when smoking is a factor in an R rating.  People smoke in restaurants, in cars with their kids, in hospital beds, in alleys, and on sidewalks.  Men offer to light each other's cigarettes and hold each other's wrists to steady the match without a hint of homoeroticism (well, perhaps a hint).

Most of the material hasn't aged well, though.  Rod Serling was making social commentary, and the concerns of 1959 are quite different from those of 2016.  Yes, we worry about the government, but not in the way Serling did.  The ZONE also chews over mass destruction (nuclear war), whereas we seem preoccupied with death by zombies.  The magical stranger is another fixture--an odd individual who only one character can see or who manages to disappear before anyone else arrives on the scene.  A variation of this theme is the magical peddlar or tinker.  The ZONE has multiple episodes with the odd little man who carries around a suitcase and sells strange things or offers you oddities you probably don't want.

Another recurring theme is, "It's us all along!"  Many episodes put humans into strange situations, and the twist at the end is that they've been in familiar surroundings all along and didn't know it, or they turn out to be aliens, and we viewers have been duped into thinking they were human.

The show is so far very bleak.  No one gets a happy ending.  Protagonists come to an awful end.  Only rarely do we get a happy ending, and even those lean toward the mixed blessing variety.  As an example of the latter, a family escapes nuclear holocaust in a recently-developed space ship and we find out at the last minute that they're planning to live on Earth (surprise! aliens in human form!), with the implicit message that they're carrying the seeds of humanity's eventual destruction.  Mixed blessing.

The casual sexism is often painful to watch.  So far, only two episodes have had female protagonists, and both of those women were dreadfully passive.  The first is an aging actress who hides in her home theater because she can't face the fact that she's getting old.  She never manages to leave.  The second is a woman who drives cross-country and keeps encountering the same hitch-hiker.  She never does anything except drive away from him and beg for help from strangers.  (A strange man makes you nervous, so you go into hysterics and beg for help from OTHER strange men.  Huh.  Logic.)  Many episodes have no women in them whatsoever.  Other episodes have women who poke their noses in long enough to show us a nurse's uniform or a waitress's apron or a mother's serving fork.  These women take orders from the menfolk and vanish again.  In one arresting moment of hijkinks, a wife bops a bad guy with her car door in defense of her husband, but that's all the action the women get.

We do have two female villains.  A ballbusting wife relentlessly abuses her milqetoast husband because he likes to read (and there's a hint she's a man-hating lesbian).  Another woman is a murderous vixen.  So the women in the show do get short shrift, and you have to remind yourself that it's 1959 and you can't expect better from such unenlightened people, so let's go watch a rerun of a recent tape in which our president-elect says he can grab women by the pussy because he's famous.

I'm sure that when the show first aired, the many plot twists were exciting and brand new, but at this point I garner much amusement by seeing how fast I can call out the ending.  "They're on Earth already!" I shout.  Or, "The robot's going to die!"  Or, "He'll be forced to make a sales pitch to Death!"  Two flaws in the show (so far) are that they have no comic relief in them whatever to break the relentless bleakness (maybe we'll get some later as the show matures), and there are never any subplots.  (Yes, the show is only half an hour long, but FRIENDS manages to work in three stories per episode, as a counterexample.)  Some of the episodes draaaaaaaagggggggg.  Many scenes could be shortened, and the extra time used for a subplot or two.  Is this a matter of modern taste?  TV shows made in a time when life was slower have slower pacing?  Maybe.  But I find I can often pop the stream forward a few minutes and miss nothing important.

One interesting recurring theme is nostalgia.  A number of episodes use time travel to fling someone back to the past, or they have someone yearn for past events, and the past is always shown as a golden time.  Since this is 1959, "the past" is nearly 100 years ago for us modern folk.  (I'm waving at all the people from 2036 who are reading this.  Is 2016 nostalgic for you?  It was a sucky year for us.)

I found this both interesting and ironic.  In 2016, we find the 50s a nostalgic era.  (Certainly the right wing does.)  We live during a period when both the government and society are highly polarized and no one can seem to work together, when the fragile economic recovery seems poised to tank again, when police and African-Americans are at war in our streets, when a horrifying president-elect is making world-shattering mistakes with other world powers.  So we see 1959 as a delight!  A time when men and women knew their places, and black people didn't know what civil rights were.  When cops smiled at you and beat black people up only when no one could see it.  When every street was well-paved and shady, and kids skipped home from school down perfect sidewalks to mothers who awaited them with milk and cookies.  But the people of 1959 looked back to the 20s for exactly the same thing.  Their own time was filled with McCarthyism, war, and nuclear escalation.  The 20s were the era of carefree children and happy homes.  The above-mentioned actress character mentions the 1930s as a time of glitter and style, and never mind 25% unemployment, Hoovervilles, and people starving in the streets.

Weird, huh?

It's always fun to watch the end credits and see if a familiar name pops up.  Was Burgess Meredeth EVER a young man?  And is that really Jack Klugman?  And it's also fun to Google unfamiliar names to see what happened to the others.  This one retired from acting in the 60s and still sells real estate.  That one died of cancer back in the 80s.  This other dropped out of sight and no one knows where he is.

The show is itself a form of time travel.  I'm actually glad I'm watching it for the first time as an adult.  It's more fun to look at it through the lens of an historian and media person than as an SF fan, to tell the truth.


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