Thursday, November 3, 2011

TZ Promo: "It's a Good Life" (11/03/1961)

Season 3, Episode 8 (#73 overall)
Cayuga Production # 4801

Fifty years ago tonight, the entire world disappeared, save for one little town in Ohio. How? Why? Well, if we must assign blame, we must gaze down at a six year-old boy, who might just wish us away into a cornfield for bothering him.

“It’s a Good Life,” adapted by Rod Serling from a short story by Jerome Bixby, is one of the best offerings in the series’ five-year run (it’s in my top 20 favorites). Anthony Freemont, well played by Billy Mumy (in the second of his three TZ appearances, before he gained fame as Lost in Space’s Will Robinson), appears to be a normal kid. Well, guess what? He’s ANYTHING but normal. He has mental abilities that border on the godlike. As Serling tells us, he wished away the entire world, except for his hometown of Peaksville, Ohio. He can create hideous creatures (a three-headed gopher, for example) or transform people into…. well, other things. He can also read minds, so you’re never really safe.

The performances, particularly those of John Larch (the psychiatrist in season one’s “Perchance to Dream”) and Don Keefer as the unfortunate Dan Hollis, are uniformly excellent. This is a collective of people who live moment-to-moment in a prolonged state of teeth-clenching fear. At any moment, they might say or do (or think) the wrong thing, thereby incurring Anthony’s devastating wrath. It’s like the denizens of Orwell’s 1984, trying not to commit thoughtcrime, teetering ever closer to the bleeding edge. These folks are borderline hysterical, every waking moment. We can only assume Anthony can’t read their dreams, or perhaps they’ve trained themselves to dream only happy, safe dreams.

I like the suspended-terror aspect of this episode. Nothing really changes or gets resolved… we merely spend 25 minutes in this horrific world. There’s no comeuppance for Anthony, and no relief for his victims. There are no character arcs to speak of (unless you count Dan Hollis’s drunken standoff with Anthony, which we presume has been building for years)… funny, I complained about this sort of static storytelling approach with regards to last season’s “The Odyssey of Flight 33,” but here I’m not complaining at all. The only event that could really shake things up would be for one of the adults to, in the words of Dan Hollis, “lay something heavy across (Anthony’s) skull.” But then you’ve got a child getting bludgeoned to death on national TV (in 1961!), so I can kinda see why they didn’t go that route.

But don’t get the wrong idea ---- this episode certainly isn’t soft or sanitized, particularly when you start thinking about bigger-picture issues. Anthony doesn’t just separate the townsfolk from the rest of society… he basically uncreates THE ENTIRE FUCKING WORLD. Real life is precarious enough (random acts of violence, catastrophic so-called acts of God, etc) but here we have a planet with billions of inhabitants suddenly blasted into nonexistence with a simple thought from a child’s mind? Every evolutionary leap forward, every advance in technology… gone in a microsecond. It kinda renders everything --- and I mean EVERYTHING --- pretty moot, doesn’t it? This is either chaos theory on steroids or a universe ruled by a malevolent deity. Along those lines…. could Anthony Fremont be from the Q Continuum? Wait, wrong show.


During Dan Hollis's ill-fated confrontation with Anthony, a very noticeable tendril of drool escapes from his mouth. This is either great acting or an embarrassing mistake. Either way, slobber on, Big Dan!


Jeremy Licht (whoever that is) as 1983's Anthony. Yeah, whatever.

“It’s a Good Life,” along with three other TZ episodes, was remade as part of 1983’s Twilight Zone: The Movie. It, well… wasn’t pretty (only season five’s “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” was treated well in that particular enterprise). Don’t get me wrong… the film isn’t as bad as, say, the 2002-2003 UPN series… it’s just misguided. The sensibilities are off somehow. It feels more like a feature-length episode of Steven Spielberg’s Amazing Stories than The Twilight Zone that we know and love. Oh, and speaking of the UPN series….

A sequel (“It’s Still a Good Life”) was produced in 2003 for the UPN series, starring Bill Mumy and Cloris Leachman reprising their roles from the 1961 original. It’s actually not a bad effort, and it’s nice to drop in on these poor unfortunate souls once again. Anthony is a middle-aged adult, and he’s raising a daughter (guess he wished his wife away at some point… you know, speaking of that, I kinda wish ---- wait, honey, put down that frying pan!). Minor spoiler alert: this new story isn’t static at all. Things change dramatically for all concerned. It makes a nice bookend to the original. Watch 'em back to back.... I will be, as I view the original tonight, on it's 50th anniversary.

Calvin & Hobbes fans will likely enjoy the following gem, which draws a pretty convincing parallel between Anthony and the rambunctious Calvin. It's not an actual C&H work by strip creator Bill Watterson, but it's great nevertheless. Click on it to see it full size:

And of course, who can forget the nod to "It's a Good Life" on The Simpsons? The parody was part of the third season's Treehouse of Horror II episode. Bart Simpson as Anthony? Yeah, I can kinda see it.


The music in “It's a Good Life” is sourced from Bernard Herrmann’s score for the CBS Radio Workshop’s 1956 adaptation of Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World.” This score (like much of Herrmann’s radio work) was subsequently added to the CBS Music Library, and its various cues found their way into several TZ episodes. The score was released on vinyl in the early 80s by Cerberus Records (Bernard Herrmann: Music for Radio and Television), and on CD in 2003 by Prometheus (Bernard Herrmann: The CBS Years Volume 2: American Gothic).

Next week: What did the Jew say to the Nazi? “Payback’s a bitch.” Okay, bad joke… but GREAT episode. Don’t miss it.


Matt Vandermast said...

This episode is in my top 25 or so. Props for the Dan Hollis spittle alert. One of the series' great unintentionally classic moments.

Let history mark this as my first comment here using a Google account (one I just set up today). The picture is of Honus Wagner. True greatness should never go unrecognized.

Craig Beam said...

Welcome, Matt! Let this be the first of many comments. :0)

Tanya said...

I didn't care for the tidy ending in the movie. I like the creepy feeling you're left with when things aren't resolved. It's why The Obsolete Man and Midnight Sun will always be my favorites.