Thursday, May 24, 2012

Underrated but Great #1: The Twilight Zone, Season 5 (1963 – 1964)


This week I’m inaugurating a new blog post category here, one that I plan to return to on a semi-regular basis.  I’m calling it: “Underrated but Great.”  The category is designed to examine the conventional wisdom that surrounds cult-television, horror films, or popular movies in general. 

Basically, my premise is this: critical reputations form around movies, TV episodes, TV seasons, and entire series over time….like shrouds.  Those reputations – even if not entirely true – are difficult to shake.  Sometimes, the conventional wisdom about certain works of art lingers for decades, even in the face of new evidence that that it might be wrong, or at least not representative of the whole story.

I want to start this category with a TV series that already boasts a reputation as a classic.  Across the decades, Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone has rightfully earned a vast number of plaudits.  The anthology is beloved by generations, and seemingly exists as a permanent part of the American pop culture firmament.   The series been re-made on television twice (once in 1985 and once in 2002), and a feature film premiered in 1983, with another one slated for release in the years ahead.

And yet to listen to the accepted narrative about it, The Twilight Zone’s quality degenerated as it reached its final year.  The fourth season experiment of making the series episodes an hour in length was hard to recover from, the legend goes.  Creator Rod Serling was burned-out after writing something like eighty episodes and long-standing writers apparently had copious complaints with the new producer, William Froug. 

While all of this background material may indeed be one-hundred percent true, an unbiased look at the final batch of Twilight Zone episodes reveals that the series was actually still in its creative prime.  The proof of the pudding is in the eating, so take a moment and just gaze across the episode catalog and you’ll see that the final tally of episodes feature some of the most well-remembered and often-talked about installments, including “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” about the gremlin on the wing of the plane, and “Living Doll,” the episode that introduced the fearsome toy, Talky Tina. 

Other episodes, like “The Bewitching Pool” and “Come Wander with Me” have also grown in critical esteem since they were produced, and become part of the Twilight Zone mystique, a discussion which always begins with the words “Do you remember the one where…” 

Incidentally, Season Five also aired the award-winning short-film “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” simultaneously a budget-saving expedient and a great Twilight Zone installment. And one fifth season episode "Steel," by Richard Matheson was remade recently as the film Real Steel.

Here are five highlights from the underrated Twilight Zone, Season Five

5. “Number Twelve Looks Just Like You.”  In this episode penned by Charles Beaumont, set in the year 2000, all eighteen year-olds in America must undergo a “transformation,” a physical re-shaping into a perfect specimen.  

The problem is that there are only a handful of available models, so by-and-large, everyone in this future society looks like everyone else.  

One girl, Marilyn (Collin Wilcox) doesn’t wish to conform to society’s standard of beauty, especially because all those who do, including her mother (Suzy Parker) seem vapid and obsessed with appearances.  Society eventually forces Marilyn to comply, and after her plastic surgery she immediately proves just as shallow and superficial as everyone else. 

Produced in 1964, this episode gazes at both excessive political correctness (it’s unfair for some people to be beautiful when others are not!), and America’s always-growing obsession with youth and unnecessary plastic surgery.  In the age of Paris Hilton and the Kardashians -- when appearance not substance matters -- “Number Twelve Looks Just Like You” is more timely than over.

4. “Living Doll.” I don’t really have to write anything about the values of this episode here except: “I’m Talky Tina, and I’m going to kill you.”  This episode is so intriguing because the terrifying living doll is actually, in a weird way, a force of good.  

Here, the doll grapples with a nasty stepfather (Telly Savalas) who emotionally brutalizes his new family.  Tina is murderous all right, but the stepfather certainly has it coming, and a little girl needs to be protected.

Justice is a concept the series often dealt with here, and here a talking doll is the one to mete it.

3. “The Masks” Directed by Ida Lupino, this Zone tells the story of an old man on the verge of death, Jason Foster (Robert Keith).  During Mardi Gras he holds a family gathering for the ungrateful relatives who seek to control and inherit his fortune. He requires each of his ungrateful relatives to adorn a hideous mask until midnight.  

The masks are grotesque, and carved by an old Cajun. Each of the masks expresses a quality of its wearer, showing, respectively, vanity, avarice, sadism and the like.  When midnight strikes and the masks are taken off, the wearers are permanently changed, their real faces now reflecting those inner qualities...for the whole world to recognize on sight.

This ghoulish episode, which also reveals to audiences the face of death, corrects a flaw in everyday human existence: You can’t always tell what’s in a person’s heart by looking at them, can you?  With these masks, you can see – straight up – the ugliness that might be found inside.  It’s a macabre segment, and though the victims wholly deserve their fate, one also feels a sympathetic sense of horror at the thought of having to go through life with a face twisted by those masks.

2. “Come Wander with Me.”  I’ve made no secret of my absolute love for this episode of The Twilight Zone. It’s one of my all-time favorites. Here, the Rock-a-Billy Kid, Floyd Burney (Gary Crosby) goes to backwoods Appalachia in hopes of exploiting the local music scene (and musicians), but instead comes across his own unpleasant fate, and a song that expresses his story. 

That particular song, “Come Wander with Me,” is one of the most haunting things you’ll ever hear, and as it is replayed in the episode, again and again, it grows increasingly menacing, changed with new and upsetting lyrics.  The song was resurrected by director Vincent Gallo for his 2003 film, Brown Bunny.

1. “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.” Written by Richard Matheson and directed by Richard Donner, this episode aired originally on October 11, 1963, and is one of the show's most legendary efforts. In fact it's one of those stories that has become part of the American pop culture lexicon, and seems to have effortlessly survived the test and passage of time (and was remade, in 1983's Twilight Zone: the Movie). 

You all know the plot of this episode by heart: a man named Robert Wilson (age 37), played by William Shatner has recently recovered from a nervous breakdown caused by "over-stress" and "under confidence." The incident that spurred his six months in a sanitarium occurred on a plane in flight.  Now Bob and his wife, Ruth (Christine White) fly home, and Robert spies a gremlin walking on the plane during flight..

I'll be blunt: if there is a more pitch-perfect half-hour of horror television in the medium's history, I haven't seen it. "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” loses none of its power (or terror...) on repeat viewing. The story draws you in, and the universal fear of flying renders the story riveting.  William Shatner’s twitchy performance is great, too.  He plays a man trying to hold on to his sanity, but a man who is likable and good. We relate to his predicament and his fear on a very deep, very basic level.  How good is “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet?”  So good that you don’t care that the monster looks like a cuddly, over-fed teddy bear.

Runner-ups on this list of great Season 5 episodes would include "Uncle Simon," about an old man's ultimate revenge upon his greedy niece, "Spur of the Moment" about a woman trying to correct her past and destroying her future, and "The Long Morrow" a tragic story about star-crossed, time-crossed lovers.

Next time on Underrated but Great: The X-Files, Season 8.

And now I’ll leave you -- just for chills -- with “Come Wander with Me:”




13 comments:

  1. Great new feature, John. I look forward to reading more of these, and not least for The X-Files' truly great eighth season.

    In terms of The Twilight Zone, this article now has me cursing you under my breath. I've dipped in and out of the series' back catalogue from time to time, and I am now of the firm opinion that I need to take the plunge and purchase the entire back catalogue! (To my undying shame, I've never even seen “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”!) Great stuff, as always, and I hope - and fully anticipate - that you'll be encouraging me and others to check out this and other overlooked classics from yesteryear.

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    1. Hi Adam,

      I'm looking forward to writing the piece on X-Files Season 8, a span of change...but also a span of brilliance, in my opinion. Criminally underrated, I would say...

      In terms of the Twilight Zone: I bought the whole series on DVD a few years back (maybe three years?) and I return to the episodes all the time. Lately, I've been watching one a night, after finishing up a Primeval episode...

      But TZ is definitely worth the investment!

      best,
      John

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  2. YES! “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.” is one of the all-time great show on Television, bar none. This looks like a wonderful idea for a series, John. I look forward to more of it.

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    1. Hi Michael,

      Ditto!

      I love "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet." Incredible direction from Donner, a great Shatner performance, and a universal fear to plumb: it's Twilight Zone genius, absolutely. I'd stack it against the best of the entire series, while definitely the best of season 5.

      Best,
      John

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  3. Strange, never knew that the last season was considered to be a weak link. In fact, as you point out, this one has some of the most famous episodes of the whole series.

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  4. Hi David,

    Yeah, the belief that TZ ended flat is repeated quite a bit, a sort of "non-fact based" opinion, if you ask me, and one that got more life than it clearly deserved. The last season is pretty terrific, but in terms of the history of the series, it must have been easier for some writers to talk about the show ending on a whimper -- with a creatively exhausted Serling -- than championing what was actually achieved in terms of storytelling.

    I hope that people will look at the catalog for themselves, and set the record straight. Even the Wikipedia article about the season's fifth season stresses the creative differences behind-the-scenes...

    best,
    John

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  5. I also look forward to your recap of X Files season 8.
    And now I have to look for the TZ episode with the Emmi Award winner and master thespian, too :) Thx.

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    1. Hi Jay-Jay,

      I love X-Files season 8, and also the Doggett character, so I'm looking forward to writing about the season in more detail.

      And yes, check out "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet." If you have any fear of flying (which I do...), Mr. Shatner's predicament will strike a chord with you.

      best,
      John

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  6. Anonymous3:46 PM

    John good TWILIGHT ZONE overview. It has always been my favorite anthology series ever. I first encountered it in reruns, as a boy in the ‘70s, after the seeing the entire first-run Night Gallery. I also enjoyed the 1994 telefilm Twilight Zone:Rod Serlings Lost Classics which included never produced scripts of two segments["Where the Dead Are" and “Theater”] written by Rod Serling and Richard Matheson. See it if you have not yet. "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" was brilliant with Shatner and replicated in the 1983 film with John Lithgow. In a funny nod this episode and film segment of "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" was mentioned on the late ’90s sitcom 3RD ROCK FROM THE SUN when John Lithgow character is picking up William Shatner’s character at the airport. Shatner tells him that on the flight he looked out the window and there was something on the wing! John Lithgow quickly responds “The same thing happened to me!”. Big laughs from the studio audience followed.

    SGB

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    1. SGB: Great reminiscences on The Twilight Zone, my friend. I never saw the "Lost Classics" telefilm, but I would like to. I'll have to keep an eye out for it, and see if it is available.

      I remember that 3rd Rock from the Sun and that exchange, and it still gives me a good laugh. Although critics all loved Lithgow in Twilight Zone, I always sort of preferred Shatner's performance. A true Trekkie, I guess...

      Best,
      John

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  7. Wow, what great timing. I just finished watching the entire season 5 (over the course of a few weeks). I'm not partial to the hour long eps of season 4, but I think season 5 was as good as 1-3. Surprised TZ couldn't have gone on longer. "You Drive" was kind of cheesy, but fun (a proto-Christine almost). "Ring-a-Ding Girl" was predictable but still very enjoyable. My favorite was probably "Number 12 looks just like you" or "The Masks". Looking forward to additions to this category!

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    1. Chadillac: I'm so glad to hear you've been watching the season 5 "Zones." They really are great, aren't they? I watched "Number 12" and "The Masks" one after the other one night, and I thought -- wow, this ought to be a blog post, these episodes are extraordinary.

      I agree with you that the Season 4 hour-long episodes don't feel as Twilight Zone-ish, perhaps, as the other seasons, and am especially glad you can back my assertion that Season 5 is as good as Season 1 - 3!

      All my best,
      John

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  8. Can't believe you didn't mention yet another remake, Terror at 5 1/2 Feet from Treehouse of Horror IV, heh.

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