I wonder if viewers of The Twilight Zone of the 1960s felt as I did with the series in 2019. I could not help but think that Jordan Peele wanted to hit me over the head with a message where I had little memory of one existing from the original series. I think the stories were conceptually better, but maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the message was just too close to home in the newer series. But The Monsters are Due on Maple Street is no less over-the-head with its message reminding us of the dangers of prejudice. Then maybe I should just accept that Peele was actually doing exactly what he should have been doing: making us take stock of ourselves. In this classic, a neighborhood descends into madness and suspicion after things start going wrong. And they’re silly things too: a car fails to start, lights go off… but it’s enough to unnerve people. Coming out of the 1950’s I suppose it was no surprise that we might be questioning one another. McCarthy and the House of Unamerican Activities made us doubt our neighbors, so Serling just added a dash of sci-fi and turned longtime friends into foes. I don’t know that I can really say that Peele was doing anything different, could I?
The thing is, this is a great episode conceptually and a terrible episode for holding up a mirror to a nation. I think it’s sinfully accurate, depicting how scared people will react with one another including age old friends. Serling says it well: prejudice can kill and suspicion can destroy. I mean, we’ve seen it in action in recent years, so how can I knock Peele for doing what Serling did? Well, actually I think I can because Serling added a layer of science fiction to it that is a step above what Peele was able to do. In so doing, Serling created a narrative that was fun to watch on its own merits if the viewer didn’t want to dig below the surface. In fact, it would probably dawn on him or her later after the episode finished. Serling does have aliens behind the attack, making it a contained narrative. They stay out of the way and off screen until the last few minutes, but it’s no less an invasion. Looking at where Peele wrote a story about the evils that men do in Not All Men, we are given only some half-notion that an asteroid made us that way but at the end, maybe it was with us all the time… and you’re not really sure it had anything to do with the sci-fi element and so, you can’t escape the message. In that way, Serling delivers a masterclass in tension making the viewer wonder who the alien is without making us wonder if we’re about to get lectured. Frankly, my money is on Tommy, who is, from the start, the most likely candidate to be an alien since he plants the seeds of doubt to begin with. (Of course, then we’d have whole networks of aliens. In fact, I’m convinced Tommy went on to a lucrative career on CNN spreading terror to the masses.) The beauty of Serling’s script is that the threat is really the humans themselves, because no one can accept that there could be differences among one another. You know what I’d do if I found out there was an alien living across the street? Do somersaults with glee. The thing is, it’s not about aliens; it’s about how people are so thick and refuse to accept differences. Is that guy gay? Is she trans? Does that guy really like vanilla more than chocolate??? Serling exploits these terrors by putting a threat over them but the sickening thing is, what does any of it matter? If the neighbor is gay, how does that affect me? If the neighbor is an albino democrat, Puerto Rican, Eskimo Jew who likes Butter Pecan ice cream and prefers playing card games to video games while listening to jazz music… why should any of that bother me?
What I really love about this story is that if you really think about it, the people would have been better joining forces on either side of the coin. If there were aliens, best thing they could do is to make friends with them and disarm the threat; become allies. Show the aliens that we are better than they thought. If there were no aliens, the best thing they could do is also join forces because then they stand a unified front and could support each other through the power outage. Instead, Charlie guns down a neighbor. I mean, good God! I’d be far more devastated by killing my neighbor than finding out s/he’s an alien! This episode is a damned shame in some ways because if the signal is just reaching deep space, and the aliens are watching this one thinking the attitudes are current and are probably high tailing it to Zeta Reticuli without looking back! Actually, come to think of it, they are current, so they are probably right to leave but man am I bummed… Any hope I had of making intergalactic friends has just been run out of town like a common pygmy.
Incidentally, this story reminds me of The Outer Limits episode, A Feasibility Study. I think it’s because of the outdoor neighborhood and the strange events that befall the townspeople. I think both are stellar episodes from their respective series and in both we are confronted with an alien invasion but of a very different sort. Ironically, in the Outer Limits episode, the people do band together, accepting death by holding hands; they are one people, regardless of who likes jazz, what their religious denominations are, their sexual preferences, their political inclinations, or if the differ on best flavors of ice cream. I think that becomes a superior story for that reason alone: they do what the people of Maple Street epically failed to do: they embraced their humanity thus triumphing over fear and prejudice and suspicion. Of course, if I had my way, they would have joined forces for an entirely different reason: to help the aliens find a cure. Oh well… if wishes were horses and all that …jazz.
I think The Monsters are Due on Maple Street is an incredible episode and a lightning fast half hour of television. I just wish we could let potential friends from the stars know that we’ve overcome prejudice and left it behind, but alas, that’s one nightmare that we have not left behind in The Twilight Zone. ML
The view from across the pond:
Appropriately for an episode about people being influenced by others and behaving like a mob, I need to talk once again about fans of television shows behaving like sheep following a herd. As a Doctor Who fan, this has been noticeable with the reversal of fortunes of certain stories. For example, The Deadly Assassin was once one of the most disliked Doctor Who stories and The Celestial Toymaker one of the most loved, until those positions were reversed. Was fan opinion anything to do with the respective qualities of those stories? Not really. The fans were simply influenced by a few well-written reviews. I’m not going to lie; by and large I’m in tune with what people think are the best or worst episodes of a television show, and it would be foolish to claim there’s no correlation between quality and popularity, but there have been one or two occasions where I’ve had to cry “Emperor’s New Clothes!” when writing about the best-loved episodes of sci-fi shows, for example Star Trek’s The City on the Edge of Forever (mediocre) and Doctor Who’s The Caves of Androzani (awful). So get your pitchforks ready, because I’m about to strike again at the heart of another sci-fi fan community. The Monster Are Due on Maple Street is not a very good episode of The Twilight Zone. Compared with last week’s effort, for example, which is largely an unsung episode, this is a disappointment.
I’ll start with a big proviso: the message Rod Serling is trying to get across is an excellent one, and I’ll come back to that. The problem is the way he gets that message across. To a certain extent, it’s down to the limitation of the 25 minute format, but not entirely. This is hailed as an example of what could actually happen, but how many of the characters really behave in a believable way? Go on, ask yourself that question and try to answer it honestly. Do you think that an incredibly irritating child like Tommy could start talking about the plot of some sci-fi stories he read after a power cut, and everyone would immediately assume they are inside the plot of one of his books? If so, then perhaps we should be taking a different moral from this story: don’t take any notice of what an annoying child says, and leave the adulting to the adults. Having said that, there is only one believable adult in this whole story anyway. Perhaps the most absurd of all is the man who goes to check the next street (the only person who does that very sensible thing, note), stays there without explanation until night fall, and then shuffles back in the dark, approaching a mob without saying anything. The majority of the story is driven by a jerk with a big mouth, who calls somebody else an oddball, while wearing this shirt himself:
I suppose if you really want this to be a good episode you could try to believe that everyone would immediately start behaving like a mob (which actually happens the moment the power goes out – just look how everyone crowds around Steve’s car when he first tries to start it) and that they would take their cue from a nerdy kid and a moron who is suggesting that building a ham radio makes somebody a little green man, and if you think that’s all a realistic portrayal of what could happen, fair play. It’s an opinion. But even allowing for the validity of that opinion, it’s still hard to watch 25 minutes of people behaving like total jerks. It’s hard to feel sorry for any of them, especially not Charlie the murderer or Tommy the troublemaker when the tables are turned on them both, and if the frisson of schadenfreude at seeing them get their comeuppance is your reason for praising this, then that’s simply a form of sympathising with the mob attitude anyway.
But here’s where I need to return to my original proviso, because as clumsy as this episode is at getting across its message, I do believe the message is a good one, and given the right circumstances (i.e. a whole lot more fear-mongering than could be achieved by a Charlie or a Tommy) a lot of people would behave like the residents of Maple Street. And there is a moment of genius to be found here: the closing monologue:
“For the record, prejudices can kill and suspicion can destroy…and a thoughtless, frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout all of its own, for the children and the children yet unborn. And the pity of it is that these things cannot be confined to the Twilight Zone.”
Sixty years on, those words cut just as deep. We still don’t get it. RP
Read next in the Junkyard… The Twilight Zone: A World of Difference