Monday, March 3, 2008

Twilight Zone: Vol. 4

The fourth volume of the Twilight Zone DVD set doesn't have many episodes fondly remembered as classics. Actually, it doesn't have any. They're all workmanlike efforts--solid and entertaining if a little silly in places--but nothing that stands the test of time to make others nod and say "Ah, yes. I remember that one. Great episode!" when mentioned in conversation. That's not to say there's a lack of talent here--in fact, the impressive acting lineup almost reads like a 1960s Who's Who.

The first episode here, "Mr. Dingle, the Strong" (season 2, 1961), is the type of absurd Twilight Zone shtick that The Simpsons loves to lampoon with such gusto. Burgess Meredith is back, as a nebbish vacuum cleaner salesman who's put-upon quite often by burly gambler and barfly Don Rickles. When a gloriously ludicrous two-headed alien arrives and arbitrarily gives Meredith super-strength as "an experiment" the results are pretty much what one would expect in a melodramatic morality play. The kicker comes in the form of additional aliens, who grant the pathetic Meredith super-intelligence, with predictable results.

"A Passage for Trumpet" (season 1, 1960) brings back Jack Klugman for another go-round, this time as an alcoholic trumpet player desperate for one last gig, or one last drink, whichever comes first. After being struck by a truck in a half-hearted suicide attempt, Klugman finds that nobody can see him, and assumes himself dead. That is, until he encounters another trumpet player who gives him something of a low-rent version of the "It's a Wonderful Life" treatment. Up until the end of this encounter, I expected it to turn into some sort of deal-with-the-devil riff. That's not exactly how things turned out. The final resolution fell somewhat flat, not worthy of the broad set-up, although Klugman did manage to give his character an air of convincing desperation.

"Two" (season 3, 1961) is an interesting episode, in that it was an ambitious post-apocalyptic tale about trying to rediscover one's inherent humanity after continuous war has killed it off. A young Charles Bronson is a soldier trying to survive in the abandoned ruins of a city, and a young (and brunette!) Elizabeth Montgomery is a soldier from the "other side" attempting the same thing. There's a quaint innocence running throughout this episode--a sort of "Ozzie and Harriet visit the apocalypse"--that couldn't possibly exist post-"Mad Max" or even post-"Saving Private Ryan." Bronson talks too much, Montgomery too little (although she does fire a mean laser rifle) and the viewer has to wonder how many cans of pre-cooked fried chicken one can reasonably expect to find in a post-apocalyptic ruin. But in the end, I can't help but root for those two crazy kids to make a go of it amid all the radiation mutants and killer robots no doubt lurking just outside of camera range: Hey, it's Charles Bronson and Elizabeth Montgomery, after all.

The final episode of the disc, "The Four of Us Are Dying" (season 1, 1960), is the one most resembling an episode of The X-Files (interestingly enough, since that show was so often compared to The Twilight Zone during its run). Ross Martin, best-known for his work as Artemus Gordon on The Wild, Wild West plays one persona of a man who can alter his looks at will to mimic any other human being. The X-Files episode "Small Potatoes," in particular, seems directly inspired by this one, in which a shape-shifting con artist assumes the identities of four other people for petty gain, and in the end, winds up dead for his efforts. The narrative is pretty linear, but there's little substance to the story. These measures of revenge and lives the main character assumes have little meaning for the viewer, because the backstory and connections are all missing. Were the setup fleshed out, perhaps, in some sort of surreal noir motion picture clocking in at 2 hours or so, that might make for compelling viewing. As it is, the half-hour format gives us just the conclusion without any of the setup that would make the viewers care one way or the other.

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