Sunday, June 10, 2018

The Twilight Zone: It's a Good Life (11/3/61)

Every now and then, I like to revisit a Twilight Zone episode that speaks to current events or my own particular frame of mind. "It's a Good Life" is an episode I loved when I was younger because it has one of the most terrifying monsters ever encountered on screen, and one of the scariest moments on the show, but I also appreciated it for portraying what most children would like to have: absolute control. This episode is so alarming that Rod Serling delivers an extra long opening narration just to adequately prepare the viewers for the chilling horror they're about to see:

Tonight's story on the Twilight Zone is somewhat unique and calls for a different kind of introduction. This, as you may recognize, is a map of the United States, and there's a little town there called Peaksville. On a given morning not too long ago, the rest of the world disappeared and Peaksville was left all alone. Its inhabitants were never sure whether the world was destroyed and only Peaksville left untouched, or whether the village itself had somehow been taken away. They were, on the other hand, sure of one thing--the cause. A monster had arrived in the village.
Just by using his mind, he took away the automobiles, the electricity, the machines, because they displeased him. And he moved an entire community back into the dark ages. Just by using his mind.
Now I'd like to introduce you to some of the people in Peaksville, Ohio. This is Mr. Fremont. It's in his farmhouse that the monster resides. This is Mrs. Fremont, and this is Aunt Amy, who probably had more control over the monster in the beginning than almost anyone. But one day she forgot. She began to sing aloud. Now, the monster doesn't like singing, so his mind snapped at her and turned her into the smiling, vacant thing you're looking at now. She sings no more. And you'll note that the people in Peaksville, Ohio have to smile. They have to think happy thoughts and say happy things because once displeased, the monster can wish them into a cornfield, or change them into a grotesque, walking horror. This particular monster can read minds, you see. He knows every thought. He can feel every emotion. Oh yes, I did forget something, didn't I? I forgot to introduce you to the monster. This is the monster.

His name is Anthony Fremont. He's 6 years old with a cute, little boy face and blue guileless eyes. But when those eyes look at you, you'd better start thinking happy thoughts, because the mind behind them is absolutely in charge. This is The Twilight Zone.

The episode opens with a lighthearted tune that somehow portends disaster against the backdrop of a rustic, country lane, as delivery boy, Bill Soames, rides up on his bike and stops in the yard where Anthony is sitting on the grass, playing with something out of view. The sweaty grocery boy greets Anthony cheerfully, commenting on what a good day it is, and Aunt Amy calls out from the porch that it's a hot day, drawing an unhappy look from Anthony.

Bill disagrees and says it's a fine day, and when he asks Anthony what he's doing, he tells him that he made a gopher with three heads. He then makes it dead, which somehow seems worse than killing it, because he was bored with it. Bill praises him for his pioneering work on genetically modified organisms, and lets him know repeatedly how much he is loved by all.

He brings the grocery box inside to Mrs. Fremont, who is putting a pot on her antiquated wood burning stove. She asks what he brought and he tells her they're out of laundry soap, as well as regular bar soap, which hasn't been available for over a year. He mentions that he brought some cans of tomato soup he found and asks that she let Anthony know he brought it especially for him, because he had heard he loved it.

She tells him not to be frightened of Anthony because he likes him. He asks her if she knows about what he's up to outside, and she correctly guesses that he's making furry animals. She tells him he invented something the day before that she's never seen before, with sharp teeth that tried to bite him, and trails off when she begins to say what she was hoping might happen. He says that he's glad he's making those things. She asks if he'll be coming over for television night, saying that Anthony is putting on a nice show, and that they would also be giving a surprise party for Dan Hollis. Bill confirms that he'll be attending.

Mrs. Fremont goes outside and asks Aunt Amy where Anthony is. She says he's in the barn and that she keeps telling him he shouldn't go there. She tells Amy that what he's doing is a good thing and that she needs to think good thoughts because he can hear what they're thinking no matter where he is. Amy complains that it's hot and hopes it will cool off for Dan Hollis' birthday party that night. She tells her it's not hot, and insists it's a real good day, while she waves to Anthony with a forced smile on her face as he approaches from the barn.

Mr. Fremont is inside washing up when he senses Anthony staring at him from behind. He says he was looking for him and heard he was in the barn. Anthony tells him he was looking at the cow, and he asks him if he was playing tricks on him, reminding him of how he turned the pigs into monsters, and praising him for his good work.

Anthony shares that he's going to make television for everybody and his dad tells him how much everyone enjoys that he makes television every week, adding that they'll also be having a surprise birthday party for Dan Hollis. Anthony complains that nobody came over to play with him all day, and his dad reminds him that the last time kids came over to play, he wished them into the cornfield, which made their parents unhappy, and that if he keeps wishing people away, there won't be anyone left, neglecting to educate him on what it means to be a caring friend, so that others will want to play with him.

A dog barks outside and Anthony recognizes that it's Bill Soames' collie, and his dad remarks that there aren't many dogs left since he wished them away. He claims he did it because they didn't like him, and says that he hates anyone who doesn't like him. His dad misses another teachable moment by insisting that everybody loves him and that he's their favorite. Anthony recounts a time when he heard someone thinking that he shouldn't have wished away cars and electricity, and asks his dad to remind him who it was. His dad tells him that Teddy Reynolds was the guilty party, and Anthony starts getting worked up, saying he set him on fire for thinking such bad thoughts.

The dog continues barking and Anthony goes to the window, saying the collie doesn't like him and is a bad dog. His eyes widen and the dog whimpers pitifully and then becomes silent.

His dad asks if he did something to the dog, and he says he put him in the cornfield. Mrs. Preston comes rushing into the room asking about Bill's collie in the yard, and her husband tells her Anthony put him in the cornfield and says it's a good thing. They try not to appear distraught as they embrace.

Anthony is making TV for the neighbors, which consists of some bloody stop-motion dinosaurs battling. Too bad the kid that could create a three headed gopher couldn't come up with CGI. Judging by the looks on the faces of the viewers, it's a good thing that he got rid of Nielsen ratings.

Mrs. Preston says it's time to celebrate Dan's birthday, and she tells Ethel to give her hubby his big surprise, that turns out to be a Perry Como record. He asks if they could play it. As everyone in the room exchanges nervous glances, he suggests they could listen to just the beginning instrumental before Como sings. Anthony looks displeased. Mr. Weston says he doesn't think they should take the chance, and tells him to wait until he gets home. This guy is clearly not doing his job as a dad.

Mrs. Weston says it's time for Pat Riley to play the piano, and he asks Anthony to tell him what he'd like him to play, while Dan Hollis is off in a corner with a bottle, working on getting wasted. Anthony tells him to play anything, and Riley decides on Moonglow, which everyone agrees is a good tune. Dan is starting to get sloppy and rattles the glassware as he continues to imbibe, which draws Anthony's ire, and he asserts that he doesn't like any noise when the music's playing.

Pat Riley is sweating and Dan Hollis is attempting to reach alcohol poisoning levels. Mrs. Weston signals Ethel to intervene, which she does, but he gets loud and claims he's only enjoying his birthday gift of peach brandy. Pat stops playing and Mr. Weston tells him to continue. Dan starts talking about how good the brandy is, and decides it's a good time to inform everyone about the specific details of the town's dwindling liquor inventory. He gets upset and complains about not being able to play his Perry Como record, and stupidly smashes one of the few remaining bottles of liquor in town in the fireplace.

Ethel runs to him, but he walks away from her, and tells Pat he wants him to play the Happy Birthday song, as he begins to sing it to himself. Anthony starts to look angry, and Ethel begs him to stop singing. He asks Pat again to play it, but he continues to play Moonglow. Dan stumbles around the room, knocking over a lamp, and blames the Westons for having the kid.

He starts to sing You Are My Sunshine and Anthony gives him an angry look. Dan calls him a dirty, little monster and murderer. He tells him to think bad thoughts about him, and suggests someone with guts could sneak up behind him and bash his skull in to end their torment.

Anthony says he's a bad man and Dan encourages him to keep thinking that, and begs someone to sneak up on him and end it while he's thinking about him.

He implores someone to get a lamp or bottle and end it, but Anthony points his finger at him and turns him into one of the most terrifying things ever seen on screen.

His dad pleads with him to wish it into the cornfield, and the sickening jack in the box disappears.

Anthony tells Ethel that she also shouldn't think bad thoughts or he'll do the same thing to her. His Dad and Pat Riley tell him that he did a good thing to Dan. Aunt Amy starts saying how she liked it better when there were cities and they could get real television, and Mrs. Weston stops her and asserts that Anthony's TV is better than anything else on TV. His dad agrees, and a wind suddenly blows through the window. Mr. Weston observes that it's snowing outside, and asks if Anthony is responsible. He admits that he is, and his dad gets angry and says it will ruin half of their crops. His mom stops him in time so he can pull himself together to say that it's a good thing.

Before he can say any other dumb things, Rod Serling interrupts him with the closing narration:
No comment here. No comment at all. We only wanted to introduce you to one of our very special citizens. Little Anthony Fremont, age 6, who lives in a village called Peaksville in a place that used to be Ohio. And if by some strange chance you should run across him, you had best think only good thoughts. Anything less than that is handled at your own risk. Because if you do meet Anthony, you can be sure of one thing, you have entered The Twilight Zone.


Since Mr. Serling has no comment, I assume he wants us each to draw our own conclusions from this disturbing half hour of television, which is quite appropriate since this is a real meaty episode of TZ, with many different takeaways to ponder. I believe the crux of the episode is when Dan Hollis blames the parents for the little monster they created.

It underscores the notion that children will learn to be hateful or caring as a result of their parents' child rearing efforts. It may also present the horrifying possibility that a child may behave in a sociopathic manner, despite caring interactions and proper guidance from loving caregivers. The question is whether you agree with Dan Hollis that the parents are to blame or not, and I appreciate that Serling allows viewers to decide for themselves.

It should be acknowledged that the Westons abdicated their responsibility to teach Anthony that it's wrong to hurt others, and give him proper guidance on how he might use his powers in a positive way to benefit his family and community. When he says he hates anyone that hates him, they should have informed him that not everyone will like him, and that's to be expected, especially when he treats others cruelly. Imagine if he became a powerful leader of a country with that attitude, and subsequently called people rude names, sowed discord among citizens, and caused the breakdown of critical negotiations between nations as a result.

Anthony's lack of care or respect for animals, by tinkering with them, causing disfigurement and suffering, and then killing them at his whim, prepared us to hear that he set someone on fire for thinking thoughts he deemed unpleasant. His willingness to torture and kill animals was a sign that he would do the same to people. How did he miss out on learning to respect all living things?

It's interesting that Anthony decided to stop the electricity and machinery from working. Is he a luddite, believing that the world is better off without advanced technology? He seems a little young to be satisfying an urge for nostalgia. You'd think the kid might at least appreciate the benefits of having an electric fan on a hot day, or would miss having ice cream from a freezer. I have to wonder what's up with the car lying on its side on the property. When Anthony got mad at machines, did he use his mind to toss it around like a toy car?

Surely Rod Serling is getting in a dig about TV production by allowing Anthony to have complete control over what is presented on TV, which he only provides once a week, denying anyone else the right to choose anything other than his vision on screen. It suggests that Anthony had to create his own programming because he was unhappy with what was available.

At the end, when Dan Hollis begs someone to bash in his skull, it's hard not to hope that Aunt Amy will be the one to do it, and then be horrified to realize that we're hoping for the murder of a child. With WWII still fresh in the minds of people when it aired, it was probably difficult not to see the connection between those following despicable orders out of fear, and the way Anthony terrorizes those around him to support his unspeakable acts, and not wish for the destruction of the monster. His ability to read people's thoughts and emotions, and thereby exert control over what they think, may be his most terrifying ability.

Dan's drinking may cause some reflection on the consequences of overindulging in alcohol. If he had been more in control of his faculties, he could have come up with a better plan to garner support to take down the kid, so he could listen and enjoy his beloved Perry Como record. On the other hand, it could have been the alcohol that lowered his inhibitions, allowing him to consider taking the little monster out and setting the town free.

This episode may inspire you to consider what you might do if you had Anthony's powers, or what you would do if someone else had those powers and used them the way Anthony did. I love this episode! The acting is fantastic, the horror has a lasting impact, and it inspires deep thought. After all, what is a good life?