Saturday, May 11, 2024

National Twilight Zone Day: "It's A Good Life"

In 1953, acclaimed author Jerome Bixby penned "It's a Good Life," a terrifying story later voted one of the greatest in sci-fi history.

Nearly a decade after the story's publication, television legend and producer Rod Serling famously adapted Bixby's story of a God-like (or Devil-Like?) child, Anthony Fremont (Bill Mumy), for The Twilight Zone during its memorable third season.

The result, which first aired on November 3, 1961, remains among the most famous -- and creepy -- installments of the landmark anthology program.

In his opening narration of "It's a Good Life," Rod Serling stands before a map of the United States and introduces viewers to the quaint little town of Peaksville, Ohio. 

As our guide soon relates in staccato, clipped tone, something strange happened in this little American burg. "A monster had arrived" there and the "rest of the world disappeared," leaving Peaksville in a New Dark Age without electricity; without any modern conveniences at all, for that matter.

This monster, Serling quickly informs the viewers, is "a six-year old boy" named Anthony Fremont, who can make things happen...with his mind.

Anthony can also "hear" what others are thinking and has a nasty habit of wishing away his enemies "to the cornfield."

This frightening psychic power means that the grown-ups of Peaksville are constantly re-assuring and excusing the boy's bad behavior, so he doesn't turn his laser-like glare towards them. 

"That's a good thing you did, Anthony. That's a real good thing you did."

On the night of a birthday party, Anthony's neighbor Dan Hollis learns about the terror of the cornfield the hard way when -- after drinking too much -- he urges his terrified neighbors to kill the dictatorial child. Nobody moves. Although Aunt Amy does contemplate a fireplace poker, at least for an instant...

You're a very bad man," Anthony tells Dan before transforming the poor sap -- in a horrifying moment -- into a living toy; a macabre, bouncing jack-in-the-box.

Anthony's father then urges the boy to wish the monstrosity away to that cornfield, where all of Anthony's misshapen, monstrous creations dwell.

The capper of the episode is overtly pessimistic. On a whim, Anthony causes a snow blizzard. This sudden, drastic alteration in the weather will likely result in the destruction of half the crops supplying the town's food supply...

For almost fifty-years, "It's a Good Life" has resonated with generations of TV audiences, and I suppose that's primarily because the episode expresses some brand of universal truth about children and parents. 

When a child doesn't know limits, when a child isn't taught limits, the result may very well be a selfish, entitled monster. Not a monster who can destroy the world, like Anthony perhaps, but a monster nonetheless. 

When a child goes out-of-control, and the community does nothing, everyone suffers. Or as Ben Franklin once famously suggested: "educate your child to self-control, to the habit of holding passion and prejudice and evil tendencies subject to an upright and reasoning will, and you have done much to abolish misery from their future and crimes from society."

So it takes a village to raise a child. Or the village suffers. Or something like that. 

Considering this notion, it's not difficult to parse this iconic episode of The Twilight Zone as a commentary on what I sometimes term parenting paralysis. Nobody is entirely immune to this condition. Not me, certainly, though I try to be aware of it. 

I define parenting paralysis as the refusal of a parent to step up and do something that needs to be done "in the moment," even if it's distinctly unpleasant. But the downside of avoiding conflict is tremendous. The next time the same behavior pops up, it will be even harder to address...

Instead of confronting Anthony, the Fremonts in "It's a Good Life" just keep appeasing him over and over, refusing to acknowledge that every time they engage in this appeasement they simultaneously encourage Anthony's bad behavior. 

Behavior like creating three-headed gophers...that bite.

I don't know that Anthony is actually evil, as some have suggested. Rather, he's merely Id unloosed. He's six, and he wants what he wants he wants, and there is no one in his family courageous enough to subject those selfish desires to an "upright and reasoning will."

I have to say, Captain Kirk did substantially better addressing a teenager with the same powers, Charles Evans (in the episode "Charlie X"). As a father figure, Kirk understood he had a kind of psychological authority over the boy, even if the boy was the one with all the powers. There's no one like that in Anthony's world.

One aspect of "It's a Good Life" that I still find remarkable is the meticulous attention paid to detail. Specifically, the episode's screenplay informs the audience that Anthony doesn't like singing, and that he doesn't like people to talk while the TV is on. But Anthony also, apparently, does not like art work. And if you look closely, every painting, photograph or other piece of artwork in the Fremont house is missing...sent to the cornfield, I would presume. Throughout the episode, you can see shading on the walls, tell-tale signs of locations where picture frames once hung.

Again, the episode doesn't specify this particular dislike by Anthony, but again and again we detect those rectangular outlines and variations in shading...reminding us that once upon a time, art work was present. 

What's the larger purpose of such a background detail? Not to sound cruel, because I am a happy father who loves his child to the moon and back, but "It's a Good Life" suggests that in having and indulging a spoiled child, parents stand to lose a lot. The "comfortable" elements of their lives (electricity, art work, music, bars of soap etc.) virtually evaporate as the child becomes the sole focus of their lives.

I also have to admit, I get a kick out of the episode's not-so-veiled critique of television. There is no television in Peaksville, save for what Anthony generates from his strange and childish mind. The drama he creates consists of dinosaurs endlessly growling and duking it out on volcano tops. There's no human interaction whatsoever.

To please Anthony, one of his neighbors notes, deadpan, "It's much better than the old television..." Now, on one hand, she's trying to ingratiate herself with the boy and this is an entirely appropriate remark. 

On the other hand, I think I hear Serling's voice there, commenting on the quality of a medium designed to sell cigarettes and laundry detergent.

Perhaps the freakiest element of "It's a Good Life," -- and as a kid I was absolutely terrorized out by this -- is the fate of Dan Hollis. The episode utilizes two shots to reveal this fellow's metamorphosis into a Jack in the Box. In the first shot, we see a close-up of Dan's bobbing head, wearing a pointed cap. In the next shot, sequentially, we see a silhouette of Dan's head, the springs, and the box, on the wall.

Somehow, this one-two punch seems more psychologically effective than seeing some special effect deployed. Because the transformation involves two shots -- and is never viewed entirely in one frame -- it's as if the viewer's brain has to assemble the pieces. And when it does, the image is grotesque and disturbing.

I also love that at the denouement of the episode, Rod Serling feels no need to expand or explain any of what has occurred in the narrative during the preceding half hour. 

"No comment here," he says. "No comment at all." Again, I think that gets at the universality of the theme: that parents make monsters of their children by not disciplining them; by avoiding conflict.  The parents are, therefore, the ones to blame.

On February 19, 2003, the UPN update of The Twilight Zone broadcast a follow-up to this tale called "It's Still a Good Life." The story involves a grown Anthony (Bill Mumy) still holding Peaksville hostage to his narcissistic whims. But now he has a young daughter, Audrey (Liliana Mumy), who has kept her similar powers a secret. Anthony's Mom, Agnes (Cloris Leachman) believes that Audrey can be made to turn against her father, and save the town.

In addition, Audrey possesses a psychic power Anthony lacks: a creative power. She can return everyone and everything that Anthony has banished into the cornfield over the years. I felt that this was an interesting narrative development, and an effective counterpoint to Anthony's destructive abilities.

In fact, if you view the end of the episode in this light, I would submit that Audrey pulls a fast-one on her Dad. She beats him at his own game by making Anthony feel, for the first time, what it's like to lonely. This is the very thing that allows Audrey to use her power and actually restore the entirety of the world. I guess some people felt that this episode features a downer ending, that it lets two "monsters" rule the day. 

I would argue the opposite. Audrey doesn't so much as join up with her Dad, as skillfully undermine him. She wishes away all of Peaksville residents so that she and her Dad are really and truly alone. When he confesses he's feeling the effects of that isolation, Audrey brings back the world. Airplanes. Cities. Communities

That's a happy ending, isn't it? 

Sure, if you ever see these tourists in your town, you should think only happy thoughts, but least the planet and human race are restored. The wrong of four decades ago is set right, at last. So if you want to see how things turned out for Anthony and his Mom, I recommend this follow-up episode so you can get a sense of closure.

However, If you are hoping that the story will be vetted with the same confidence, visual distinction and resonant imagery as the original you're going to be sorely disappointed by the pedestrian nature of the presentation.  The Twilight Zone's brand, for me, is expressive black-and-white photography, and staccato Serling-esque dialogue.  

"It's Still a Good Life" doesn't get the sound or images right, even if it is nice to see what became of indulged little Anthony.  

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