Sunday, July 05, 2015

Thoughts on Missing Yet Another TWILIGHT ZONE Marathon

There are two times in all the year that I miss having satellite or cable TV, and those are New Year’s Eve/Day and the Fourth of July, when the cable channel formerly known as SciFi airs its semi-traditional The Twilight Zone marathon. I would leave the TV running all day. Even if I was out of the room for some episodes, it was comforting to walk in and see another Rod Serling-adapted morality play in progress that I could easily fall into. Sometimes I’d catch one of the 156 episodes I hadn’t yet seen. I never fussed much with the schedule. The surprise was part of the fun. 

I liked how the year was framed with these marathons. The Fourth of July is a celebration of the middle of the U.S. summer, and, by extension, the mid-point of the year. We are closer to the next Christmas than we are the last one. Participating in the Fourth of July Twilight Zone marathon is like being a devout churchgoer and attending the Wednesday evening service. It is a sweet, necessary boost to get one through the rest of the week/year.

That is, it was. According to my sources on the Facebook Twilight Zone fan page, the channel formerly known as SciFi has cut the length of the marathon by many hours, runs only half-hour episodes butchered to fit more commercials, while skipping the fourth season hour-length shows. It’s probably a safe bet they don’t run the extras like Rod Serling’s commercial spots for Chesterfield cigarettes, etc. like they used to. By the time I gave up satellite it was clear no one cared anymore, and not only on the channel formerly known as SciFi. 

What I like about The Twilight Zone is that the Zone is a magical realm where meanness and brute stupidity are punished, and the innocent and good rewarded. Whether you’re the cruel step-father who won’t begrudge his daughter a doll, the loud, arrogant jackass who destroys the computer in the cave that keeps the post-apocalyptic society alive, etc., you’re dead. You’re lucky if you get driven to the police station by the self-aware car you killed someone with.

There are a few downbeat endings, but very few. The first that comes to mind is one a lot will disagree with me about, “A Stop at Willoughby,” in which the harried advertising exec with the brutal boss, the duplicitous coworkers, and a heartless harridan for a wife escapes to the unhurried life of turn-of-the-19th-2oth century Willoughby by jumping from a commuter train—only to have his body carried off by Willoughby and Sons Funeral Home. As the protagonist kills himself for a fantasy, I fail to see how this is anything but a bleak, depressing episode, but we’ll agree to disagree.

Then there is the sad irony of “The Midnight Sun,” in which a overheated woman suffers as the Earth falls into the sun. But we learn she’s only dreaming—the Earth is actually falling away into freezing darkness. The most notable outlier is probably the delirious nihilism of writer Jerome Bixby’s “It’s a Good Life,” with the little boy terrorizing a town with his uncanny ability to shape reality to his whims. 

While great and memorable episodes, neither of these represent the sum total of The Twilight Zone experience. For all those outliers are the concentration camp commander judged by the ghosts of his victims, the cad who thinks he’s in Heaven because it’s all going his way, only to learn he’s not; the official for the totalitarian regime turned on by his own—there are many, many others in which the human monsters large and small get their comeuppance, and in ways that would never happen in real life.

Like leaving a really good service at a really good church, you leave The Twilight Zone marathon invigorated. We proceed secure in the knowledge that, if nowhere else, we’d be all right there. Are we not reasonable people who behave reasonably, and with honorable intent? Surely we shall find our proper the Twilight Zone. 

It’s a sweet delusion. As it turns out, I have a sweet tooth, so I’ll take it. Not from the channel formerly known as SciFi, but from fond memory, which is all we’re left with in the end, so there you go.