Wednesday, January 03, 2018

A Second Chance at an Imperfect Life

The original Twilight Zone ran for five seasons, and episodes were 30 minutes long in four of them. But in the fourth season, episodes ran for a full hour.

In September 1962 Twilight Zone was replaced on the CBS schedule by an hour–long program — then Twilight Zone was brought back in midseason to replace the replacement. For the remainder of the 1962–63 season, episodes would have to be one hour in length to fill the time slot, which did not sit well with the writers. Creator Rod Serling said the series was "the perfect half–hour show" and warned that the quality would be adversely affected by the expansion.

The quality of most of the episodes was hurt, but there were exceptions. Such an exception could be found in the episode that heralded the program's return to the prime time schedule 55 years ago tonight, "In His Image" starring an up–and–coming George Grizzard who had appeared on Twilight Zone a few years earlier.

Grizzard's character was returning to his hometown, accompanied by his fiancée. They had known each other for only four days; nevertheless they fell in love and became engaged, and Grizzard was eager to show her his hometown.

The only problem — and it was a doozy — was that nothing was like he remembered — not people, not places, not anything.

His home was occupied by someone he had never seen before, and the occupant claimed to have lived there for several years. People he thought he knew turned out to be names from the distant past; some were dead, including one person with whom he believed he had shared a meal less than a week earlier. The local college where he believed he was employed had never existed.

Then when he went in search of his parents' graves, he found a different couple buried there.

In an inexplicable homicidal rage, Grizzard ran off his girlfriend — and then he was struck by a car while he stood in the road. That was when he began to discover the truth about himself. He wasn't killed, but the impact caused a cut in his arm that wasn't bleeding. When he peeled back the skin, he found wires and rods, not flesh and bone.

Concluding that the name on the tombstone held the key to his problems, Grizzard looked up the name in the phone book and went to the address he found there. Its occupant looked exactly like him.

That person held the answers that Grizzard was looking for. He had created Grizzard a week earlier, giving him all the qualities that he believed he lacked and sending him out into the world. He had also given him all of his memories of his hometown, but those memories were quite dated. Some of the people were deceased. Some of the buildings no longer existed. Some of the people and places had never existed at all.

The two got into a fight. One survived and left in search of the girlfriend. Turned out that the one who survived was the creator; his creation lay lifeless in his abandoned home.

The creator picked up with the girlfriend where the creation left off — and that may be what I liked best about this episode. For the most part the episode lived up to Twilight Zone's reputation for creepy stories — but at the last minute it became a tale about redemption, loneliness and second chances.

I have always felt that the longer format allowed this story to successfully pull off the old switcheroo. I didn't think it could be done as effectively in 30 minutes.

Perhaps the one false note in the episode came at the beginning when Grizzard encountered — and eventually killed — an old woman who wanted to save his soul. Its relevance to the rest of the story was never clearly established. I got the sense that it was largely there to fill time, the writers not being accustomed to writing hour–long scripts, but it did manage to set the table for the primary character's homicidal urges, perhaps an unintended consequence of the creator's attempts to duplicate human life.

OK, some of the shifts in the story were a little too implausible, but it had the twist ending that Twilight Zone fans had come to expect.

"There may be easier ways to self–improvement," Serling said in his closing narration, "but sometimes it happens that the shortest distance between two points is a crooked line — through the Twilight Zone."