Saturday, September 06, 2008

CULT TV FLASHBACK #56: The (New) Twilight Zone (1985-1989)

Submitted for your approval: the mid-1980s CBS remake of Rod Serling's classic 1960s anthology. But, in a twist worthy of the famous land of shadow and substance itself, there's no Serling here (the legendary writer passed away in 1975); there's no moody black-and-white photography either (the series is shot on gauzy video instead...) and the bland stories - with a few spiky exceptions (namely "Her Pilgrim Soul" and the intense "Nightcrawlers") -- don't quite feel like they would have passed muster had Serling been steering the ship.

Yes, you have just entered...The Twilight Zone....lite.

The 1985-1986 TV season actually saw several anthologies debut on network television...and none of them were particularly good. "Proud as a Peacock" NBC offered the dreadful and over hyped Spielberg production Amazing Stories, plus a remake of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The latter venture offered the Master of Suspense himself (also long dead...) vetting colorized introductions to new episodes, and we can surely be grateful, at least, that the new Zone did not choose the path of featuring Zombie Serling. Despite the myriad flaws, this Zone lasted longer than the other anthologies named above, running for two uneven years on CBS before being shunted to syndication for a dreadful, low budget final season that is not merely Twilight Zone lite, but an insult to the heritage of the franchise. Stinkeroo.

But during the first two years on CBS, talented executive producer Phil De Guere and a stable of terrific writers made a serious, well-intentioned effort to update the classic series. Harlan Ellison was aboard (briefly) as a creative consultant, and well-known directors such as William Friedkin, Wes Craven and Tommy Lee Wallace helmed some standout episodes. I watched this series religiously as a teenager (I was sixteen years old), and still have nostalgic memories of it. Honestly, you can tell everyone was giving the new series their all, but this new Twilight Zone has not -- for the most part -- aged very well.

First off, I blame that fact on the uninspiring look of the series. Shot on crappy videotape, most of the episodes ("Nightcrawlers" excluded) resemble dreamy 1980s commercials for feminine hygiene products. There's no distinction, no originality in the visual component of the series, and so you could watch an episode and not be certain whether you're actually watching Simon & Simon or The Twilight Zone.

Even back in the black-and-white age, there was no mistaking the crisp, black-and-white canvas of the original Twilight Zone for anything else (One Step Beyond, for instance, aired simultaneously, but it lingered more on long shots and featured far fewer close-ups). On the original Twilight Zone, the photography was as distinctive and the editing as staccato as Serling's trademark narration. Who can forget the brilliant photography and mise-en-scene in "Eye of the Beholder," or the careful balancing of shadow and light in "The After Hours?" Separating The Twilight Zone from a distinctive even trademark look was a terrible, perhaps fatal mistake. Now, I understand the series had to be shot in color for the 1980s, but there are ways -- even in color -- to forge a sense of visual distinction. Witness the white-on- white minimalism of Space:1999, the lush fairy tale golds and bronzes of Beauty and the Beast, the grainy documentary look of the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre; David Fincher's silver Seven, or even the various color palettes of such series as Prison Break, Firefly and Battlestar Galactica. Something, nay anything, would have helped in this regard.

The 1980s Twilight Zone doesn't win plaudits for internal consistency either. Serling's opening and closing statements on the original series always let you know where you were, who you were with, and why you were there. There was no hedging. On the new Twilight Zone, some episodes included back and front end narrations, some had no narrations whatsoever ("Nightcrawlers"), and some - oddly - featured an opening narration but yet no closing narration ("A Little Peace and Quiet.") Often times, you couldn't tell what the hell the narration was talking about either.

Charles Aidman narrated the new Twilight Zone (when there was a narration), and he did a fine job. His voice was more sweet, more whimsical and definitively more grandfatherly than the rat-a-tat machine gun-style of Serling. Ironically, this was also the choice of Spielberg's Twilight Zone: The Movie (which went with another kindly voice, the one belonging to the great Burgess Meredith). I respect these selections as a way not to imitate Serling's delivery, yet still have serious eservations about the appropriateness of a kindly-sounding narrator. After all, The Twilight Zone is a place where the scales of justice are often righted; where the unheard are heard; where the cruel get comeuppance. Serling was sharp, witty and occasionally brutal in his approach to the narration. Thus, I would have preferred a similarly hard-edged narrator, a more aggressive, commanding voice. Why? When you have only fifteen minutes to vet a story, and you must gloss over certain things, it's good to have someone strong offering the punctuation. Otherwise, you start and end with a whimper, not a bang. And at the end of every twisty Twilight Zone, you deserve that bang.

Rod Serling wrote something like ninety episodes of the original Twilight Zone. He was narrator for all of them. He also rewrote various episodes by other superb writers and produced the entire five year series. Considering his ubiquitous presence, it's fair to state that the Twilight Zone represented (primarily) his voice, his morality, his artistic sensibilities. Since he was gone by '85, the new series had no choice but to find it's own voice. And it is here, that I think the show truly failed to live up to his legacy.

Take for example, one of the worst offenders, "Little Boy Lost." In this story, a woman photographer must make the choice between taking a new job or starting a family with her steady boyfriend. During the course of the story, she is haunted (on a photo shoot at the zoo) by the spirit of the child - a boy named Kenny - she ultimately chooses not to have. This is odd, because she's not even pregnant.

"All you have to do is want me,"
the boy tells her pitifully. Yikes! Under the surface of the narrative, there is a deep pro-life bias. The sweet little boy (Scott Grimes) asks his would-be mother why she does not want to have him; why she does not love him, and it's all so madly extreme that you expect Pat Boone to show up and lecture about the evils of abortion. As much as I disagree with this viewpoint - I could buy it as a straight morality play from that point-of-view.

Yet, the same episode entirely lets the boy's would-be father, Greg, off the hook. Why isn't he haunted by the son he chooses not to have? Why just her? A whiny little she-man and drama queen, Greg doesn't want to "compete" with the woman's career, so he makes a "choice" too...to break up with her. So isn't Greg just as much to blame for the fact that this "little boy lost" isn't born?
Greg could have been a stay-at-home dad, his wife could have had her career, and they both could have had the kid who wanted to live and be loved so badly. But no, the episode wears philosophical blinders about the man's role in this little reproductive drama. Greg wants to make no accommodation in his own life to have that family and child. He just wants the woman to do it. And then she gets stuck with the ghosts of children future.

Off the top of my head, I can't think of a single 1960s Twilight Zone episode that is so blatantly sexist, or that has aged this poorly...even after forty years. I mean, what's the real point here? That every woman who chooses a career is actually killing a potential child? That's what the episode seems to indicate, and that's absolutely reprehensible from a moral standpoint. As I stated, the woman isn't even pregnant, all right? She just wants to be a professional photographer! Choosing to be childless is not the same as terminating a pregnancy (at least until Sarah Palin is in office, then we'll have to talk again...). Choosing a career is not the same as having an abortion, yet "Little Boy Lost" can't make that critical distinction. As a result, the whole episode is icky. Greg is a self-righteous jerk, and the cute little kid is used as a bludgeon to make the lead character feel bad about a choice to live her life the way she wants.

Pack your bags, Zoners...we're going on a guilt trip! "Little Boy Lost's" ending narration backs away from the sexist interpretation of the episode as fast as it can, calling the story simply "a song unsung," "the wish unfulfilled," but it's too little too late.

Watching this episode last week, I was reminded of a comment on Serling's particular and singular ethos, one made at his eulogy: "He showed us people maybe we'd rather not think about. But with that keen perception and sparse dialogue, he grabbed you...and told you in no uncertain terms that these people deserved at least a little victory, breathing space, someone to care about them." "Little Boy Lost" is sort of the opposite of Serling's approach, isn't it? It judges. It makes a work-a-day character feel guilt, shame and pain for something by rights she has no reason to feel guilty about. (Again, not pregnant, just wants a career...)

"Shatterday" is another signature episode that fails rather dramatically. And that's a surprise, especially considering all the name talent involved. Wes Craven directs a short story by Harlan Ellison (adapted by Alan Brennert). And the installment stars a very young Bruce Willis as one Peter J. Novins, an ostensibly argumentative man who "pushes" people...until one day the world "pushes back." He's in a bar one evening when he telephones his apartment...and a doppelganger picks up on the other end. Turns out this doppelganger is a better Peter J. Novins than he is; and that this enigmatic double is setting right all the mistakes of his life. Meanwhile, our Novins starts to fade away, "becoming a memory."

Personally, I love the ideas lurking in this vignette. I love the notion of a doppelganger; and the conceit that someone else might live your life better than you can. But, alas, "Shatterday" never actually dramatizes Peter Novins being a bad guy. The story picks up immediately before the terrifying phone call. As a result, we're told he is a "pusher" (meaning a nudge, I guess) and a bad guy, but we never see it play out. All of Peter's actions in the episode are actually readily understandable, given that he believes an impostor is taking over his very life, aren't they? Wouldn't you push back too?

Allow me to make another invidious comparison to the original series. It would not have made sense, for instance, in the Serling episode "The Silence," if we had met the lead character there after he had made a bet to stop speaking aloud for a year's time. No, we had to see the loquacious central character babbling mindlessly and egotistically for a time, so we would understand the torture that he would go through in the course of the narrative. We had to understand the crimes of the jabberwocky before we got to see his sentence handed down by the mechanism of the twilight zone. The same is true in "Shatterday"...we have no empirical evidence that Novins deserves what happens to him. And there's just no fun in seeing cosmic justice meted out if we don't understand the cosmic violation in the first place. One on-screen example of his pushy nature would have sufficed. And I don't mean sassing a bartender. That's not a Zone-worthy offense if you ask me.

I hate to write negative reviews, especially about a series as good-intentioned and diverse in storytelling as this eighties Zone. So let me accentuate at least one positive story that seems - at least to me - absolutely true to The Twilight Zone's spirit and heritage. The story is titled "Wordplay," and it concerns a harried businessman (Robert Klein) who - because of a shake-up at the office - must learn the details of 67 new medical products in one week's time. All of these new-fangled products bear tongue-twisting names and are woefully technical. But then, something seems to change for the salesman...language seems to melt right out for under him. Suddenly, it's not just the products he can't understand...it's everything! The word "lunch" is replaced with the word "dinosaur." The word "throw-rug" replaces the word "anniversary." Suddenly, this little guy trying to make his way faces an entirely new challenge, re-learning the English language. The end of the episode is simultaneously devastating and hopeful, as this forty-something year-old man sits down heaviliyon his son's bed, and begins going through first grade picture books...meticulously learning one new word at a time.

The thing of importance here: this "little guy" has been dealt a raw hand (as the little guy often is). But he's not going to stop fighting. He's not going to be defeated by it. "Wordplay" reminds us that the human spirit -- nay, the American spirit - is indomitable. It's a terrific little tale; one that reflects how quickly the workplace was changing in the 1980s. (I remember, for instance that 1986 was the year my father began to learn Japanese...). So "Wordplay" was about something happening in the larger culture too; a pervasive fear that the old skills weren't going to be good enough in the newly emerging global workplace. "Wordplay" is a terrific show, and there were many such shows.

"Nightcrawlers," which I reviewed two weeks ago (for Friedkin Friday) is another stand-out installment, one which concerned PTSD and the repressed horrors wrought by the Vietnam conflict.

So what's my conclusion here? What's my closing narration? Perhaps just that you can't go home again. That it's damned difficult to revisit a classic. Especially when you don't necessarily have the arrows in your quiver (referring to the cheesy video...) to make your effort appear as stylish or as individual as what came before. The New Twilight Zone is thus a very mixed bag, and I suppose that's why even those viewers who "grew up with it" (myself included), find far more of interest (visually and thematically) in the Serling classic.

In the new series, you can spot a brief, almost subliminal flutter of Serling's iconic b&w visage in the opening credits, and that's all. He's really only there briefly in spirit too. For all the criticism Night Gallery has received over the years, there's much more of the Serling spirit present in that series, in stories such as "The Messiah of Mott Street" and "They're Tearing Down Tim Riley's Bar." For that reason alone, Night Gallery feels more like an authentic follow-up to the original Twilight Zone than this mediocre 1980s remake.

2 comments:

  1. Howard Margolin2:12 AM

    John, you mentioned it breifly in the first paragraph, but didn't go into details. I agree that "Her Pilgrim Soul" was an exception to the often-bland stories on the New Twilight Zone. I remember seeing it in syndication, in 1991, and found it one of the most gripping and well-written SF stories I'd even seen on TV, with engaging characters, and a strong message. I later read Alan Brennert's short story, and found it to be very close to what was presented on the show. Any chance of you doing a full blog on "Her Pilgrim Soul" someday?

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  2. Hey Howard!

    I love "Her Pilgrim Soul." Great episode -- one of the classics of the new series. I would love to blog on it in detail at some point...

    -JKM

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