(art by Aireen Arellano - to view larger version, click here)
SHOW: The Twilight Zone
EPISODE: “The Invaders”
FIRST AIRED: Jan. 27, 1961
Submitted for your disapproval, an unspoken rule, a blasphemous observation, a cold hard dose of reality-shaking truth: half of The Twilight Zone’s episodes were just not very good.
Of course, the classics are the classics are the classics: “Where Is Everybody?” “The Midnight Sun,” and “The After Hours” live on as witty and memorable forays into the darkest corners of the human condition. But for every “Eye of the Beholder,” the writers served up a pile of other episodes that remain forgotten for a reason.
In looking at the lackluster1983 movie, the 1985 or 2002 TV reboots, or countless attempts to translate the Twilight Zone format to niche audiences (VH1 mounted a supernatural music anthology series in 2001 called Strange Frequency), one might wonder why no one can seem to replicate The Twilight Zone’s creative success. It may have something to do with the fact that the progenitor series had a middling success rate itself.
Rod Serling and company were anything but hacks. They were brilliant, daring dreamers who swung for the fences weekly. But the very nature of an anthology series nullifies the most reliable rules of thumb that writers follow to engage a television audience. Familiar characters, settings, and themes aren’t at the forefront. Ideas take center stage. Suggestions. Offerings.
This is what most if not all Twilight Zone episodes were: not taut stories but provocative “What if?” prompts meant to do nothing more than propose a devilish idea and pin it with a neat little twist. Many of these episodes weren’t fully formed works of fiction. They were narrative zygotes.
All of this makes Season Two’s perennial classic, “The Invaders” that much more thrilling: in a five-season collection of hit-or-miss episodes that lacked resolution, meaty character arcs, or (let’s face it) good old-fashioned logic, this macabre tale of man vs. monster really does have it all.
(art by Aireen Arellano - to view larger version, click here)
SHOW: The Monkees
EPISODE: “Too Many Girls”
FIRST AIRED: Dec. 19, 1966
The Monkees is one of the most beloved rip-offs of all time. Its primordial soup is a cynical stew of corporate calculation, an A-to-B paint-by-numbers formula meant to cash in on the popularity of a certain 1960s rock band that also just happened to have a misspelled animal-inspired moniker, four bowl-cut guys with dimples and endearing personalities, and a sense of rollicking fun and romantic whimsy that pervaded their entire oeuvre onscreen, onstage, and on the turntable.
Still, despite what boardroom schemers may believe, eventually something new and exciting, unexpected and genuine has to enter somewhere into the boiling pot in order to capture our collective imagination. So even though The Monkees was constructed as a Hard Day’s Night-esque TV show first and a band second, and even though the group was widely known since its inception as “America’s answer to the Beatles,” what aspects of the whole enterprise transmuted it from mere carbon-copycatting into a fresh and memorable entry into the pop culture landscape?
As demonstrated in “Too Many Girls,” an enjoyable Davy Jones-centric outing from Season One of the half-hour sitcom, the magic of The Monkees depended upon two things: the creative team’s masterful use of the medium, and hey hey, the Monkees themselves.
art by Aireen Arellano (to view larger version, click here)
SHOW: Get Smart
EPISODE: “The Groovy Guru”
FIRST AIRED: Jan. 13, 1968
The opening scene of “The Groovy Guru” finds our hero Maxwell Smart sporting an unfortunate mushroom coif and color-clashed getup that makes him look like a Monkee caught in a thrift store explosion. He meets up with an agent undercover as a hippie chick who spouts fresh-off-the-shelf slang that all the kids are using these days: “Enough here for the fuzz to peel and freeze.” Quoth Agent 86 in response: “Huh?”
It shouldn’t take long for a viewer even dimmer than Max to realize that this is going to be a Let’s-Make-Fun-of-Youth-Culture episode. Get Smart, one of the looniest live-action cartoons to ever bombard television, was a veritable funhouse of slapstick and satire, designed to poke fun at the Cold War, foreign policy, xenophobia, the spy genre itself, and anything else that heated up the pop cultural and current event thermometers between 1965 and 1970. Its roundhouse punchlines and absurd sight gags amounted to that double helix of “dumb humor + smart satire” alive and well in modern fare like South Park, Arrested Development, or Childrens Hospital.
(art by Aireen Arellano / to view larger version, click here)
SHOW: The Dick Van Dyke Show
EPISODE: “Coast-to-Coast Big Mouth”
FIRST AIRED: Sept. 15, 1965
Most enduring sitcoms stick in our collective consciousness because their central concepts play on some sort of universal yearning. The king and queen of social issue comedy, All in the Family and Roseanne, reigned due to their ability to cut through the pundit-speak bullcrap that permeated all spheres of class, race, and political party. On the extreme end of the kitsch factor, even the saccharin Technicolor nightmares that were The Brady Bunch and Full House were about families rebuilding themselves in the face of unexpected grief.
And then there’s The Dick Van Dyke Show, which despite its adult-oriented wit, exists in a kind of sitcom nether-universe. It’s half a workplace show and half a family show, but there’s very little struggle here. Rob and Laura Petrie love and respect each other and have a well-behaved son in a lovely little apartment. At Rob’s day job as a television writer for a popular show, his main task is to lob joke ideas back and forth with snappy co-workers Buddy and Sally. Even more than Leave It to Beaver or Father Knows Best, which “tackled” several at-the-time taboo issues like alcoholism, sex, and theft, The Dick Van Dyke Show was probably the most frictionless that sitcoms ever skewed.
It’s all too fitting, then, that “Coast-to-Coast Big Mouth,” one of the hallmark episodes of the show, revolves around the wild insecurities of Rob’s irascible boss Alan Brady. By pitting his vain-angry-schmuck act against the studied and earned perfection of the Petries, it spins the middle-class “nothing is wrong” fluff of The Dick Van Dyke Show into brilliant comedy.