Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Orange Is the New Twilight Zone

A non-spoiler non-warning: This post briefly discusses an episode from the new season of Orange Is the New Black but not in any way that would ruin anything for you. However, this post will spoil a 52-year-old episode of The Twilight Zone, in case that is also a concern.

Midway through the fourth season of Orange Is the New Black, one character uses an episode of The Twilight Zone as a metaphor for mental illness. In the context, it’s actually pretty effective: This Twilight Zone in particular involves a couple who wake up in a strange town that’s inexplicably deserted and full of fake items—fake food in the fridge, fake grass, a fake squirrel on a fake tree. They’re just lost, hopelessly, in this strange, empty town. If you’re not familiar with The Twilight Zone, you might think this episode would be good. After all, it was apparently memorable enough to warrant a mention on a show airing half a century later. I would like to take the opportunity to relieve you of this belief, however. It’s terrible.

Whenever I catch a bit of the New Year’s Day Twilight Zone marathon, it’s almost always this episode that I end up seeing, just as a result of dumb bad luck—though I’m sure Rod Sterling would have me believe it’s part of some conspiracy to teach me a lesson about flouting societal conventions. I’m sure there are worse episodes. They made 156 of them in the original series alone, and there’s bound to be a few clunkers. But just as a result of the fact that I’ve seen this one again and again, I am adamant about it being one with a decent enough premise but a terrible payoff made all the crappier by a plot hole big enough to drive a Borgward Isabella through.

Here, then, is why the episode in question, “Stopover in a Quiet Town,” is terrible—so you can know without sitting through all thirty minutes of it yourself.

Like Orange Is the New Black says, it centers on a couple—Bob Frazier (Barry Nelson, the first person ever to play James Bond onscreen) and his wife, Millie (Nancy Malone, who bears a passing resemblance to Amy Poehler). They wake up in a strange house. They’d been at a party the night before, and Millie drove home because Bob was too drunk to get behind the wheel. Neither can remember how they might have ended up in this house, however, and only Millie has some vague recollection of a strange shadow pursuing them. Figuring some kindly strangers took them in, they head downstairs. The house is empty. The fridge opens, but there’s only a prop loaf of bread and a prop turkey inside. The phone doesn’t work.

They head outside, and while everything looks like a normal suburban town, none of the houses seem to be occupied. They assume everyone left for Sunday morning services, but the church is also deserted. They begin to lose it, and Bob starts implying that Millie may have gotten them lost. Millie thinks that they might have been in an accident, died and gone to hell. Bob lights a cigarette and the grass catches fire—because it’s papier-mâché. Finally, they hear a train whistle and get on the train, which is also empty but which they’re happy to find because it could potentially take them anywhere that’s not this Creepsburg, USA. Soon enough, however, the train pulls back into the exact same train station they just left.

At a loss, they get out, but then the shadow returns, moving over the landscape. Bob and Millie run in terror, but it catches up to them. The shadow was from a hand, it turns out—a giant hand that belongs to a giant little girl. Bob and Millie art ant-sized in this girl’s hand, and she just giggles at them menacingly.

Then we see a mother (also giant) stride into frame: “Be careful with your pets, dear. Daddy brought them all the way from Earth,” she says. The Fraziers are placed back down in their prison, and Sterling delivers the closing narration: “The moral of what you’ve just seen is clear. If you drink, don’t drive. And if your wife has had a couple, she shouldn’t drive either. You might both just wake up with a whale of a headache in a deserted village… in the Twilight Zone.”

Here are all the problems I have with this episode:
  • The level of detail in the giant child’s playset is astonishing. For example, they woke up in a made bed. Did this horrible little girl’s giant, stubby fingers have the dexterity to arrange sheets and a comforter? That was enclosed within a bedroom?
  • The Fraziers didn’t notice if the house had electricity or not.
  • When they go outside, it just looks like a sunny, quiet street, when there shouldn’t have been a source of sunlight—or, you know, sky, since they would have looked up and seen it was a child’s bedroom, albeit a supersized one.
  • The aliens who kidnapped the Fraziers look and act exactly like humans, just bigger.
  • They speak English.
  • They call Earth “Earth.”
  • The giant girl has no apparent means to feed the Fraziers, nor to dispose of their waste once they are fed.
  • The giant girl’s father purportedly went to Earth just to get two tiny humans and nothing more—which seems especially weird considering that the giant family put no system in place to ensure the Fraziers’ survival.
  • If our planet were to be visited by a person who was proportional in size to humans as humans are to ants, then, like, the entire continent of North America would probably see it. It would be a history-shattering emergency. Also, if Space Dad landed on Earth, I assume he’d destroy it or at least knock it hopelessly off its orbit. So I guess Earth is done for in this story.
  • Finally, the moral sucks. It’s laudable for the writers to be cautioning against drunk driving, especially during a time during which I imagine all Americans to be constantly drunk, constantly smoking and constantly throwing garbage from their car windows as they drive their cars, which they also do constantly. But the way Sterling’s narration states it, it smacks of sexism today. “Don’t drive drunk, men. Also, even if your idiot wife is under the legal limit (as Millie would have been if she only had two drinks, like she says), she can’t drive either because she might stupidly drive your car onto a giant man’s spaceship without realizing it.” It’s just very of-the-era but nonetheless awkward the way the message is framed at men first, and then extended to women as well, as if anyone needed reminding that alcohol affects women more or less the same way as it does men.
Again, there are other Twilight Zone episodes that have giant plot holes and tacked-on morality, but this particular example keeps popping up in my life, and I just wanted to warn you against letting Orange Is the New Black making you think this was something you should seek out. That, I suppose, is my PSA.

In case you don’t believe me, here’s the episode in all its clunky glory.

EDIT: I realize I have actually have mentioned this episode before as an example of terrible Twilight Zone plots in my Lousy Twilight Zone Plot Generator. Give it a spin! See where that gets you!

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