Wednesday, January 3, 2018

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

Twilight Zone host Rod Serling explains the imposed isolation of a small town in "It's a Good Life." (S2-E8)
This is part one of a two part essay 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.

Part II and Part III available here.

By 1960 90% of all households in the United States had a television set.[i] Through the popular programming of the 1950's, television played an important roll in representing and enforcing the ideals of a quickly suburbanizing white middle class. Through what Lynn Spigel dubs the “antiseptic electrical space” viewers became comfortable with the world they watched on their tv.[ii] It is in this “antiseptic electrical space” that The Twilight Zone infiltrated the homes of middle America. Though the episodes were often set in contexts familiar to the viewers, the plot lines often subverted the normally understood vision of those same contexts. Through a thin veil of sci-fi and fantasy, Rod Serling was given the freedom to comment on this understanding.[iii] This resulted in Modern lifestyles being examined and compared, often with conclusions differed from those of the shows 1950's predecessors. Many of these themes would eventually be the same defining concerns that would spawn the cultural revolutions of the late 60s and 70s. 

Due to the show's short air time of 22 minutes a week, each episode often took a very focused look at a single situation that was “solved” over the course of an episode. This often meant that the setting of the show was a single context, if not a single space. At a macro level, approximately equal consideration was given to urban and ex-urban spaces (rural areas, small towns, and suburbs), but the conclusions about, and attitudes towards, these spaces, and the lifestyles they represented, were drastically different.

As opposed to the bucolic representation of ex-urban life that was common in 1950's television, The Twilight Zone took a decidedly cynical view of what had become a new norm. Instead of the visions of the friendly small town neighbor-like characters in shows like Leave It to Beaver or Ozzie and Harriet, The Twilight Zone gave viewers scenes of neighbors revealing their prejudices and paranoia,[iv] [v] which often degraded to the point of neighborhoods ripping themselves apart at the first signs of adversity, or in some cases, simple diversity. This can be read as a means of criticizing the “superconformity” and homogeneity that often came along with ex-urban life.[vi] Urban life, in contrast, was often represented in a more flattering light. Though urban spaces were frequently shown as the realm of either the rich or the poor, as opposed to the middle-class life of many viewers, themes of neighborliness and the overcoming of prejudice were often presented. In both, urban and ex-urban cases, the show strategically deployed spatial tropes in order to position characters and highlight the relationships of those characters and the places they chose to live.

In "The Jungle" (S3-E12) an urbanite is haunted by African wildlife in a vacant New York City. 
Though not a completely new concept in the late 1950's, the dystopic ex-urban setting was nearly unheard of in television when the show first aired in 1959. The very first episode of The Twilight Zone, “Where is Everybody?” plays on this theme that would be often repeated throughout the series. The episode follows an amnesiac as he wonders through an abandoned small town.[vii] Unable to remember who he is, or how he got there, he searches for residents throughout all the civic spaces of the town. Passing from diner to police station to department store to theater, a sense of imprisonment and alienation overwhelms him. At one point, this reaches a zenith when he becomes momentarily trapped in a glass phone booth in the town square, crying out that he thinks someone is watching him. A twist at the end of the story finds the man waking up in an isolation chamber as part of an experiment by the government to test the effects of long term space travel on the psyche. Likewise, in the episode “It's a Good Life” the small town as a prison is all too real to its inhabitants, as an omnipotent small boy wills away the rest of the world, leaving only the inhabitants to work together to please their pint-size overlord.[viii] In both of these cases the sometimes uncanny isolation of the small town is foregrounded. 

Yet, when the show presents similar situations in episodes that are set in the city the resulting conclusions had a very different mood. In “The Mind and the Matter” a disgruntled office worker is given similar powers of will as the boy in “It's a Good Life.”[ix] He quickly realizes that he can will away the crowds on the subways and elevators in his life, as well as silence the “cacophonous din” of the open office in which he works. As he becomes unnerved by the silence and boredom of his world without people, he brings everyone back, but all as copies of himself. By the end of the episode he is obliged to put the world back to its original state, submitting that his life is not as bad as his initial inclination, in effect de-urbanizing, then re-urbanizing his life in a homogenous way, only to settle back at the normal state of diverse, noisy urban life. The theme of de-urbanization is presented again, to a more fatal effect in “The Jungle” as a man is terrorized in the streets and parks of New York City.[x] His work on a dam in Central Africa has resulted in a curse that empties the city of its people and infests the it with ravenous wild animals. This particular episode is a clear critique of the modernization of the non-urban world, yet the means of doing so only seem to reinforce the positive attributes of the urban setting. Fear comes when the main character can no longer rely on urban technology to find safety from the imposed wilderness. Unable to take a cab home, or call for help from a pay phone, by the time he reaches the perceived safety of his hi-rise apartment he is too late to save his wife, or himself, from the lion that has moved in. In a lighter, but still anxious episode, “The After Hours,” a similar sense of alienation is played with as a women becomes trapped in a closed urban department store.[xi] The important difference in this case is that there is salvation for her. This comes in the form of the community that she had forgotten she was a part of, that of the mannequins that “live” in the store. Each of these episodes explored concepts of de-urbanization or an exaggerated complete isolation of the ex-urban, but in many ways the criticism put forth by these episodes is indirect. When the show does take a more direct stab at the ex-urban condition, the results are a more powerful, and sometimes controversial.

[i] This is a rise of over 80% from the 9% of households with a television in 1950.

Stienberg, Cobbett S. TV Facts “Sales of home Appliances”. New York. 1980. p.142

[ii] Lynn Spigel describels the the “antiseptic electrical space” as the the space provided by electric technologies (Radio, telegraph, TV) for “people to travel from their homes while remaining untouched by the actual social contexts to which they imaginatively ventured.” Spigel, Lynn.Welcome to the Dreamhouse: Popular Media and Postwar Suburbs. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2001. Print. pg.35

[iii] After many years of writing realistic fiction for TV and radio, by the late 1950's Rod Serling became frustrated with the censorship of sponsors and networks. In order to tell the stories of complex human conditions, which he hoped to comment on, he found it easier to appease censors by veiling his work in fantastic story lines.

Lavery, David. The Essential Cult TV Reader. Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky, 2010. Print.

[iv] NBC President Pat Weaver remarked that television would have the ability to make the “entire world a small town” Weaver, Sylvester "Pat" L. "The Task Aghead: Making TV the 'Shining Center of the Home'" Variety 6 Jan. 1954: 91. Print.

[v] Spigel discusses at length the perception of the wholesome neighborly characters of 1950's sitcoms. Opening credits would often depict characters either exiting their front doors (Donna Reed, Leave it to Beaver, Make Room for Daddy, Ozzie and Harriet) or leaning out their windows to greet the world (The Goldbergs). Establishing Shots would often show the surrounding neighborhoods (Father knows Best, Ozzie and Harriet, Leave It to Beaver, Make Room for Daddy, The Goldbergs). Spigel, Lynn.Welcome to the Dreamhouse: Popular Media and Postwar Suburbs. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2001. Print. pg. 43

[vi] Cultural Critic Harry Henderson described the idea of superconformaty and 'keeping up with the Joneses' in his 1953 study of Levittown, New York. This entailed the pressure of a neighborhood on individuals to conform to the greater group, at least in appearances.

Henderson, Harry, “The Mass-Produced Suburbs”. Harper's, New York, Novemeber 1953: pg.25-32

[vii] This was the pilot episode of the Twilight Zone.

Serling, Rod. “Where is Everybody?” 2 Oct. 1959. Television.

[viii] Serling, Rod. "It's a Good Life." The Twilight Zone. CBS. 3 Nov. 1961. Television

[ix] Serling, Rod. "The Mind and the Matter." The Twilight Zone. CBS. 12 May 1961. Television.

[x] Beaumon, Charles. "The Jungle." The Twilight Zone. CBS. 1 Dec. 1961. Television.

[xi] Serling, Rod. "The After Hours." The Twilight Zone. CBS. 10 June 1960. Television.

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