by Patricia Grandjean
May 4, 2011
09:01 AMBox Office
My "Twilight" Chronicles—No, not THAT "Twilight"
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6. "The Bard." Some fans groan that the Zone stank at comedy, but I think that's unfair—sure, the series had times when it tried too hard (particularly in trying to create custom showcases for Buster Keaton and Carol Burnett), but eps like "Jeff Myrtlebank," "A Penny for Your Thoughts," "A World of His Own" and this one have a sophistication that makes up for the broader misfires. An inside snark at the television industry—of which Serling was famously critical—"The Bard" stars reliably nudgey Jack Weston as hapless aspiring screenwriter Julius Moomer, who, having talked an exasperated TV executive into letting him write a show on black magic, decides to get some firsthand experience with the art and winds up conjuring William Shakespeare (John Williams). Figuring his career problems are solved, Moomer puts the Bard to work as his ghostwriter, forgetting that Shakespeare's blank verse doesn't square too well with 1950s beat poetry. There's a lot to love here, from hearing Weston toss out TV series pitches that sound more than ever like ideas for contemporary reality TV ("Choose Your Own Embalmer!") to a young Burt Reynolds' savage satire of Marlon Brando ("What is my tertiary motivation here?").
7. "Lateness of the Hour." Inger Stevens plays Jana, rebellious and socially-conscious young adult daughter of cold-fish inventor Dr. Loren (John Hoyt, a master at portraying the snotty and condescending) and his feckless wife (Irene Tedrow), who have retreated from the world into a home entirely designed to serve at their pleasure, staffed by emotionless, humanoid robots. When Jana finally manages to nag her father into submission over his dead-end lifestyle, and convinces him to destroy all his creations, she learns a devastating family secret . . . Like "Long-Distance Call," this ep was videotaped, so the existing kinescope looks like a scratchy old daytime drama—not very pretty. But if anything, that enhances its deeply disturbing conclusion.
8. "People Are Alike All Over." I have the same affection for Roddy McDowell that I've always had for Mickey Rooney—that is, I'm aware most people recall him as a twinkly juvenile who never lost those affectations no matter how old he got, but I still think he had real chops as an actor. Anyway, he's great in this first-season ep, which Serling adapted from Paul W. Fairman's popular '50s story, "Brothers Beyond the Void." McDowell plays astronaut Sam Conrad, a cynical sort apprehensive about his imminent excursion to Mars with co-pilot Mark Marcusson (Paul Comi). Despite Marcusson's assurances to the contrary (see episode title), Conrad fears the Red Planet's aliens will be hostile. Their ship crash lands, Marcusson dies and Conrad is left to fend for himself, letting his guard down only when he sees that the Martians are, indeed, not only Earthlike but of even higher intelligence. Alas, their snob appeal leads to his downfall. I've always felt that this ep was the yin to "To Serve Man"'s yang—though they both turn on the deadly implications of a double entendre, "People" floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee while "Man" is just, well, sorta clunky. They also share the Zone's seemingly endless reliance on what must have been a fire sale related to the 1956 film Forbidden Planet—in this case, you may recognize some of the movie's scenic backdrops.
9. "A World of His Own." The Zone's sole foray into classic screwball comedy, this first-season closer marks the first time Serling delivered a narration onscreen, rather than as just a voiceover (in the following seasons Serling's appearance would be de rigueur, much like Alfred Hitchcock's had been on his own shows), and it's the only ep in which the fourth wall is gleefully broken. (Watch it and see what I mean—my guess is that since TZ's future with CBS looked shaky at the end of the first season, this struck Serling et. al. as a good-humored way to go out.) More significantly, Geoffrey West (Keenan Wynn) is the first of the Zone's characters to be the absolute master of the kind of fantastic forces that undid previous protagonists, and we rarely see his like again through the remainder of the series—there's definitely a pretty obvious metaphor in his being a playwright. Richard Matheson—considered by Zoners to be primarily a master of plot and tension, as in "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet"—here shows a puckish flair for characterization, though it could be argued that he's more of a slave to '50s sexism than Serling ever was: Why else would a strong, independent, vibrant woman like Victoria (Phyllis Kirk) be a less desirable mate for a powerful man than the compliant Mary (Mary La Roche)?
10. "The Big Tall Wish." Not a novel story—its basic theme is "cynicism bad"—still, this 1960 episode was a groundbreaker in another way: As the first major TV show with an all-African American principal cast, it earned the Zone a Unity Award for Outstanding Contributions to Better Race Relations the following year. And to think, the story had nothing to do with civil rights. Down on his luck prizefighter Bollie Jackson (Ivan Dixon) breaks his hand before his comeback match and winds up on the canvas being counted out when suddenly, magically, he switches places with his opponent. He has no comprehension of how he's won until he's told of the "big, tall wish" made by Henry (Steven Perry), his neighbor's young son. Resolved sadly but sweetly, "Wish" is enhanced with a custom soundtrack by Jerry Goldsmith, who during his life rivaled John "Star Wars" Williams in the number of prominent movies he scored: Chinatown, Patton, Poltergeist, Hoosiers, five Star Treks, Basic Instinct, Rambo . . .