SyFy (formerly Sci-Fi) has opted to replace its annual Fourth of July Twilight Zone Marathon with a Greatest American Hero marathon. First, I hadn’t realized there were enough GAH episodes for which to justify a “marathon, ” (pathetically, there are). And second, WHY?! Don’t they want people to stay on the channel for long periods of time? They might as well have rolled out ALF too, make it a full-out Guantanamo Bay-style retreat.
I am crushed. For more than a decade I have settled in with family to watch the bi-annual event: Twilight Zone on New Year’s, again on the Fourth of July. Yes, a marathon of viewing, through the ham-handed and the sublime, the silly and the profound. Rod Serling, a corny but cool guide through the dimensions, signposts ahead. War, paranoia, love and fear. Superstition and weakness, bravery and resolve. This was the time to reflect, holed up in air conditioning with a thousand familiar archetypes: the key character who always loses it when a nuclear strike is imminent or he crash lands on a planet. The misfit. The hero. The shrill wife. The comely naif. The vexed soldier. The greedy fool. The old man. The insufferable snob who gets his. The cynical man who gets to go back. The astronaut who never will.
I’ll miss those magic, tragic moments of irony — the doof with the stop watch who cracks it when the world has been stopped, the incorrigible bully and the player piano that exposes him, the thieves whose greed outlive the price of gold, the poor sap who spends a lifetime trying to catch the devil — only let him escape one more time. I’ll miss James Coburn mocking, “old man! old man!” and then seen splayed out dead with the rest of the village, having defied the “old man’s” advice not to gorge on the toxic canned food. I will miss the alien “cookbook” and I will miss grandfather and his masks, which he gives to his “changeless” family as a New Year’s coup de’ grace and they emerge, twisted and perverted, wearing “all that was inside them and they’ll wear them for the rest of their lives, said lives now to be spent in shadow.”
I will miss Cliff Robertson with his 1860’s rifle and Cliff Robertson the dummy. I will miss boyish Charles Bronson mixing it up with cat-like Elizabeth Montgomery in our apocalypse. I will miss Telly Savalas falling over an evil Talky Tina to his death at the bottom of the stairs and Roddy McDowell when he first discovers he is now an exhibit at an alien zoo. I will miss a young and already balding Robert Duvall coursing with need over the doll house at the museum. The only thing better than William Shatner going bonkers on the plane is William Shatner hugging a clairvoyant devil doll in any-diner-U.S.A. I will miss Inger Stevens and her creepy hitchhiker, and when Rod Taylor and Jim Hutton realize they are part of a disappearing team of heroic astronauts and when the department store manager does a double-take on the mannequin who looks just like the customer (Anne Francis) he left resting in the front office the day before …
It is us at the breaking point — the frailty of our species. The kernel of fear and insecurity in all of us that forces us to conform during the day, but turn on our neighbors and abandon civility at night. Are we really that bad? Was Rod Serling just a pessimist? Just the same, we love to take that ride down Maple Street at dusk, and take in the hysterics at Dr. Stockton’s basement when a nuclear attack is supposedly at hand. The fun is — we never know.
After the neighbors make complete monsters out of themselves trying to get into Stockton’s shelter — and then the attack turns out to be a false alarm — emerges one of the best exchanges in the series’ history (written with the signature Serling ham):
- Jerry Harlowe: We could throw a nice big block party, just like old times! Anything to get back to normal! Right, Bill?
- Bill Stockton: Normal? …I don’t know what normal is. I thought I did once; I don’t anymore.
- Jerry Harlowe: Oh, we’ll pay for all the damages, Bill.
- Bill Stockton: Damages? I wonder…if any of us has any idea what those “damages” really are. Maybe one of them was finding out what we’re really like when we’re “normal.” The kind of people we are, just underneath the skin–and I mean all of us–a lot of naked, wild animals who put such a price on staying alive that they’ll claw their own neighbors to death just for the privilege! We were spared a bomb tonight, but I wonder…if we weren’t destroyed even without it.
There are planes with no people, and planes stuck in the land of dinosaurs and planes that come out of the sky from World War I to change the future. There are misanthropes and masochists, meanies and malcontents. There are aliens and primitives, beauties and bozos, heroes and saints. They are all of us and none of us and we can laugh it off or we can see ourselves and maybe take more than five minutes to think about it. I mean, many of us do have the weekend off.
1960 in black and white relief — but mirrored back at us. A fun and eerie reminder that we humans are so “changeless,” despite how quickly the superficial trappings of fashion, politics and culture whiz by, leaving our Willoughbies behind. SyFy, in its infinite short-sightedness and stupidity (or maybe, plain thriftiness, I mean, have you seen those in-house “movies” they produce exclusively for the channel?) have cast me a blow, and maybe, too, the numerous, numerous others who have been resigned to this simple exercise in thrill and pop-culture anthropology for the last ten years or more.
I guess I can go check out the John Wayne marathon at AMC. But it just won’t be the same.