Thursday, January 11, 2018

The Urban, the Ex-Urban, and the Twilight Zone Between: Part II

An enraged mob of neighbors ram the one complete shelter in the neighborhood in "The Shelter." (The Twilight Zone)
This is the second part of what will be a three part essay (Originally this was planned to be just two parts) about the perception and representation of urban and ex-urban space on television during the late-1950s. Particularly during the five season run of the seminal science-fiction/fantasy prime-time television show The Twilight Zone. If you did not see the episodes when they were originally aired, or you missed the yearly SyFy New Year's marathon, know that this essay contains spoilers.

Read "Part I" and "Part III"

In episodes such as “The Shelter” and “The Encounter,” the spaces of the ex-urban neighborhood are brought into question when characters are put into comprising positions.[i] [ii] [iii] In “The Shelter” the interrelationships among a handful of suburban neighbors is strained to breaking when the prospect of nuclear annihilation looms.  As only one of the families has a stocked shelter, neighbors demand entry in hopes of saving their lives.  Among many readings of this episode, including racial prejudices in some scenes, one can see a very clear critique of Modern suburban ideals.  When the concept of shelter is put into question, the characters suburban lifestyles, which are predicated on the idea of private home ownership, are also broken down.  

In “The Encounter” the idea of shared space is also explored when two men, sharing the same town, are forced to share the same physical space when they are trapped in a single-family home attic.  A conflict erupts when one character, a WWII vet, explains his discontent with his post-war life.  This is exasperated by the fact that the other character is a Japanese-American, a neighbor, that until that point could have easily been avoided by the shell-shocked vet.  In both of these cases, the careful balance of the suburban neighborly relationship is tipped ever so slightly when the participants are forced to share spaces that are normally the private domain.

The Encounter, staring a young George Takei, was so controversial when it aired it was never put into syndication. It would be decades before anyone would see the episode again on DVD and eventually streaming services. (The Twilight Zone)

A similar uneasy balancing act is examined, perhaps to the greatest effect, in “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street.”[iv]  When anomalous power outages happen across a small-town neighborhood, the residents quickly turn on each other in search of an explanation.  The spatial aspects of this episode play out in an intricate back and forth between the street and the front porches of the houses.  The street acts as a place of public, or mob, indignation and discussion, while the front porches fill in for private fortifications as suspicious friends peer at each other over hedge rows.  In each of the above cases, the “public” spaces, or the nearest thing to them, the neighborhood itself, and private spaces, the homes, are pressed into each other.  Unable to deal with this conflation, every one of these instances results in the breaking down of civilized social structures.  As an urban counterpoint to this, the episode “Two,” a season premier, shows us how two opposing soldiers find common ground as they navigate the civic spaces of a post-apocalyptic city.[v]  Whether it be finding food in a store's storage room, cleaning up in a barber shop, or finding a new dress in a department store window, neither character has ownership of any space.  Through these interactions throughout the city they eventually are able to put aside their indoctrinated differences, and share what is left of their world.  

This concept of the healing nature of shared urban spaces reoccurs in other episodes such as “The Night of the Meek” and “The Big Tall Wish.”[vi] [vii]   This very direct commentary of latent issues of the ex-urban by looking at how residents space is clear, but it is by no means the only way in which the Twilight Zone interrogated middle America.  

[i]     Serling, Rod. "The Shelter." The Twilight Zone. CBS. 29 Sep. 1961. Television.
[ii]    Goldsmith, Martin M. "The Encounter." The Twilight Zone. CBS. 1 May 1959. Television.
[iii]   “The Encounter” is considered the most controversial episode. After it was first aired, it was never played in syndication because of complaints from Japanese-Americans over parts of the episode that implied the use of Japanese-American spies in the Attack on Pearl Harbor, something that is completely unsubstantiated.  Presnell, Don, and Marty McGee. A Critical History of Television's The Twilight Zone, 1959-1964. Jefferson, N.C. (Box 611, Jefferson 28640): McFarland, 1998. Print. p.189
      The Japanese-American character in this episode was played by a young George Takei. Oh my!
[iv]   Serling, Rod. "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street." The Twilight Zone. CBS. 4 Mar. 1960. Television.
[v]    This episode was the Season Premier of Season 3.  Pittman, Montgomery. "Two." The Twilight Zone. CBS. 15 Sept. 1961. Television.
[vi]     Aired two nights before Christmas 1960, “Night of the Meek” follows an alcoholic department store Santa Claus, who's one wish is to give presents to the homeless and poor of the tenements he walks by everyday.  He eventually finds a large sack in the alley that produces whatever is asked of it making him a real Santa.  This episode takes place between the opulence of the department store and the alleys of the neighborhood.  In many scenes specific care is taken to show children of multiple races.   
      Serling, Rod. "Night of the Meek." The Twilight Zone. CBS. 23 Dec. 1960. Television.
[vii]  This episode revolves around an over the hill African American boxer.  Through out the episode scenes of his loyal neighborhood fans happen on the front steps of his NYC walk-up.  The roof is also used as a place of contemplation and community with the young neighbor boy, who wishes for  the boxers safety.  The roof emphasizes the urban nature of this episode with a back drop of a city skyline.  Serling, Rod. "The Big Tall Wish." The Twilight Zone. CBS. 8 Apr. 1960. Television.