[Oct. 25, 1960] Great Expectations (the second season of The Twilight Zone

When does the New Year start?

Your first instinct might be to say “January 1, of course!”  But that’s simply the beginning of the calendar year.  Think of all the other days that kick off the next 365-year cycle.  For Jews, New Year is in September.  If you run a company, your fiscal year has a good chance of not matching the calendar.

And if you’re a student, a football fan…or a television viewer, you know viscerally that the New Year starts right after Labor Day.

Last TV year, writer/producer Rod Serling stunned his audiences with the exciting new anthology show The Twilight Zone.  Featuring half-hour episodes with science fiction/fantasy/horror themes, it was some of the best material the small screen had to offer.

It’s no surprise that Twilight Zone was renewed for 1960-61, but can the new season match the expectations set by the first?

So far, the answer is… no.  Let me go through the four episodes that have come out thus far, and then I’ll discuss the common elements that have been their undoing.

First up is King Nine will not Return, about a World War II bomber pilot who wakes up in the wreck of his plane stranded somewhere in North Africa.  The rest of his crew is gone, and his memory only gradually returns.  A nice hook, but it goes nowhere.  For 20 minutes, we get to watch the Captain laugh, cry, gibber, and run around.  Then he wakes up in a hospital, and it turns out it was all a battle-fatigue induced nightmare.  Except that his shoes are full of desert sand.

Then we have The Man in the Bottle, a prosaic little genie-grants-wishes story.  This episode is particularly maddening as the plot relies on the utter stupidity of the wishers (the genie, despite his rather sinister demeanor, is quite generous as genies go).  Granted four wishes, a near-bankrupt antique storekeeper and his wife wish: 1) That their display case glass be mended, 2) That they get a million dollars, 3) That they be unimpeachable rulers of a contemporary nation, 4) and (when #3 doesn’t work out), that they be restored to their former state.

The catch to their windfall of cash is the Internal Revenue Service, which claims most of the income.  Since (in a nice bit) the generous storekeepers give away about $60,000 right away, after taxes they are left with just $5.  As for the gratification of wish #3, you just knew the storekeeper was going to end up as Adolf Hitler on April 30, 1945.  And after #4, the storekeeper breaks the display case repaired by wish #1.  A complete reset.

Except, of course, that his neighborhood is $60,000 richer!  This isn’t touched upon, and it is a shame.  I would have liked to see the storekeepers’ community, now aflush with funds and overflowing with gratitude, helping to make their shop a success. 

Or, you know, for the storekeepers to make better wishes in the first place.

Nervous Man in a Four Dollar Room

A two-bit hood spends the episode in a dingy hotel room literally wrestling with himself after being given his first murder contract.  In the end, his suppressed nobler self takes control and turns away from a life of crime. 

And is subsequently gunned down by the mob.  Ah, my mistake.  That didn’t happen, or at least, it was not shown in the episode.  It’s a logical conclusion, however.

I actually probably enjoyed this episode the most, but that’s not to say it was good; merely that it was not horrible.  Joe Mantell turned in a pretty good performance as the pathetic “Jackie.”

Finally, we have A Thing about Machines, which my daughter and I were able to preview before it airs this Friday (in three days).  A martinet of a writer in a palatial estate finds fault with all of his mechanical devices: his television, his radio, his typewriter, his phone.  So they all plot their revenge.  The typewriter composes an eviction notice (somehow, the thing magically replenishes its paper store).  The television and phone harangue him.  His electric shaver slithers after him like a snake.  Ultimately, his car chases him into a swimming pool, where he dies of a heart attack.  The acting, cinematography and music are fine.  Shame about the story.

My daughter told me recently, “Last season, Twilight Zone was creepy with a twist.  Now it’s just creepy.”  She’s right.  Each story starts with a premise and then goes nowhere, developmentally speaking.  We’re back to that padded middle, crazy fellow screaming pattern that dogged the worst episodes of the first season. 

What’s the common element?  Rod Serling wrote them all.

In fact, Rod Serling, who previously only showed up in the previews for next episodes now walks onto the set at the beginning of every story.  I don’t mind when Hitchcock does it, but it rather breaks the flow in this show.  As for the quality of writing, the stories Serling provided last season were among the weaker entries, and he’s no better this season.  I have a great deal of admiration for Serling as a producer and a raconteur, but he’s got to let other folks contribute some screenplays.

Perhaps I’m being overly harsh.  It may well be that Serling is writing under strict budgetary guidelines, which limits his sets and number of actors (not to mention hiring out guest writers).  Between Serling and his restrictions, I don’t know that the show will survive the year.

On the other hand, next week’s episode is by Charles Beaumont.  That bodes well.

See you in two days with this month’s Fantasy and Science Fiction!

10 thoughts on “[Oct. 25, 1960] Great Expectations (the second season of The Twilight Zone

  1. They do sound as if Serling just didn’t have the time to write his, or rather others’, ideas properly.  Good luck with the next episodes.

    It does sound as if there was quite an interesting crime story could happen to Jackie.  Possibilities, anyway.

  2. Here in the future, I went through the first season, thinking I’d binge watch the entire Twilight Zone series, and then I flamed out in the second season. I keep meaning to go back. It’s surprising how many of the classic shows people remember were in the first season.

  3. Perhaps the reason why the third episode seems to work a little better than the others is that the premise has a deeper meaning rather than just being a plot gimmick.  Who among us has not confronted our imagined better self? 

    The first episode is OK, and can be interpreted as a study in survivor guilt.  The last one at least deals with the perceived perversity of machines.  (Haven’t we all had to slap the TV set a few times to fix it?) But the second one deals with the oldest fantasy gimmick in the world, the whole three wishes/be careful what you ask for thing, and does nothing new with it.

    I hope Serling can find a theme he cares passionately about, as in “Walking Distance,” or this series is going to turn into one corny old idea after another.

  4. That sort of lineup can’t be just Rod Serling’s fault.  It’s likely what the time-study folks call a “systemic failure.”

    Normally several/many people make running changes to a script, no matter whose name is on it.  And there’s a director and an assistant director who ought to know what they’re doing.  And a producer, and…  …and then you get down to the guys in the editing room, clipping and gluing strips of film together, and then their efforts are screened to the director and producer, who sign off on it.

    No single person can be responsible for this sort of thing.  Serling’s name is on it, and he certainly should carry the largest share of the blame, but there are people under and over him in the heirarchy who should know better.

    I suspect the real problem is that too many of the people involved don’t know what kind of show they’re supposed to be making.  Most of the “weird stories” series have been produced for radio, which has almost no overlap with television production. 

    The series started off something like, “Like Hitchcock, only eerier and maybe with occasional SF elements.”  But if this is where it’s going…

    I had a hard time with the last season, which kept switching between magic and technology.  So far the 1961 season isn’t looking much better.  Unless someone tells me it has improved dramatically, it’s not worth going outside and turning the antenna for Channel 7 instead of Channel 11, which is where my wife spends practically all her time anyway.

  5. Back on a previous topic, our local ABC channel has aired the first four Flintstones episodes already.  It’s even better than my brother-in-law said.  Too bad a color TV isn’t in our immediate future, though.  The BTL sent some cels along with my wife’s birthday present, and it looks like a very colorful show.

  6. You know, the implications of all the extra cash in the neighborhood or the idea that the mob is going to be rather unhappy with their minion never occurred to me. And that’s probably because I stopped thinking about these stories as soon as the credits rolled. The stories just haven’t been all that engaging so far, but it’s early days yet.

    I don’t really mind Mr. Serling’s appearance on-screen. They don’t take me out of the story any more than the voice-over narration did, and they’re a darn sight better than all those in-show ads that finally seem to be fading away. And he did appear on-screen once last season, in the very last episode with Keenan Wynn. Of course, that played into the joke of the story.

    My sources tell me that CBS has ordered some cost-cutting measures this year. Fewer sets, more studio work, that sort of thing.

  7. Wait, let’s do some math here. $1,000,000 minus $60,000 is $940,000. The highest tax rate for a married couple filing jointly is 91%. Even if they were taxed at that rate for the entire million dollars, that would only be $910,000, leaving them with $30,000.

    But wait! That’s a marginal tax rate, which means that they’re only taxed at 91% on the amount over $400,000 (by the table linked above — look up the rates for 1960). Amounts under that are taxed at lower rates. A back-of-the-envelope calculation shows that their actual tax liability on $1,000,000 would be $770,640. Which means that even after giving away $60,000, they’d still have over $160,000 left.

    IOW, the entire premise of this episode depends on the audience not understanding how taxes are calculated. This may indeed be a reasonable assumption for some percentage of the audience, but it would be enough to throw me right out of the story.

    1. Oh believe me, I noted that to.  I’m in corporate finance after all.

      I think some of the other government entities were involved, though why they had an omnibus collection agent, I don’t know.

      But I just went with the idea that it was wish money, and the IRS was supernaturally endowed and entitled.

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