I don’t recall if I’d seen A World of Difference before, but if I had, it was a very long time ago. Long enough that I was not working for a company that dedicates a huge portion of its research to the area of mental health. Now when I watched this episode, what I see is a view of people’s understanding of mental health in 1960 and it’s alarming. We are introduced to Jerry Reagan, an actor whose life isn’t what he wants it to be. Luckily for him, he has a break with reality and starts to believe he’s the character he’s playing, Arthur Curtis. He goes through the episode pleading with his peers to believe him, to accept that he isn’t who everyone thinks he is. The thing is, he is who they think and it’s Jerry who has lost touch with reality.
Rather than being the scary episode it might have been in 1960, I was saddened by it. I saw a man in need of help who would not listen to those around him, largely because he feels they are not listening to him. Equally, no one will even entertain his idea because they know it’s utterly ludicrous. They all know him and his break happens right in front of them, on set, while filming. I can understand why they disregard his “crazy” idea, but one thing we’ve learned in the last 50 years is that people in a position like this need to be heard and helped; they are not “crazy”. Jerry has a “harpy” of a wife threatening him with financial disaster and work colleagues who threaten him to get his act together or he’ll be ruined. Threats don’t help; they exacerbate a situation like this. No one is willing to hear him out barring one friend who, at best, buys him time. It’s a small consolation. The whole story is made worse the instant he assaults a little girl on the street. We know he’s not trying to hurt her, but he scares her and in his mind, he wasn’t doing anything wrong. That would not help the mother and child as they think a man might have kidnapped the poor child! The sad truth is that we are witness to a man in the midst of a breakdown. In the end, when he seems to go back to his original world, I wondered if the writer (Richard Matheson) was trying to give us something to wonder about, but the mental health aspect is confirmed when we see that the real world is that of Jerry, not Arthur. Jerry vanishes without a trace having somehow made it back to the fantasy world. It’s a semi-happy ending for him in that he gets his illusion, but it’s not reality.
Being the science fiction fan I am, I was hoping we’d be left with a mystery. Had the audience been left in that limbo state, I might have wondered about Mirror Image and speculated that Jerry and Arthur flipped from one world to the other; that perhaps both were real, but that’s not The Twilight Zone; these stories, try as I might, are not connected. That terrible confirmation that Jerry Reagan had a breakdown is what we are left with. The only mystery left is: where did he go? I’m left feeling far more morose about this episode than I would have expected. Jerry needed help and he ended up helping himself by slipping away quietly into the Twilight Zone. ML
The view from across the pond:
I’m sure I read somewhere that a sign of madness is repeating the same actions and expecting a different result. If that’s the case, Gerry Raigan is a prime example of that mindset. He tries to phone home. The operator says there’s no such place. He drives there. His home is missing. He accosts his daughter. It’s not his daughter. He phones his office. There’s no office. This is a trap that The Twilight Zone falls into far too often. A writer comes up with one big idea, and really doesn’t have much else to offer, so the writer has the character repeating a particular behaviour that always leads to failure, while refusing to accept reality. Each time it happens it adds nothing to the story that we didn’t know after the first attempt. Between the big idea at the start and the twist at the end, everything is just padding, and that’s an odd thing to do with only 25 minutes of drama. It’s not like there’s a huge amount of time to fill.
Luckily, the big idea here is a really big one: a fourth wall break (of sorts), with Arthur Curtis realising he’s a character and the actor is the reality. It isn’t quite as brave or clever with the idea as Anthony Newley would manage later the same year in his series The Strange World of Gurney Slade, which genuinely does smash through the fourth wall between viewer and television show. Having seen that series I was a bit spoilt for watching this, which was bound to disappoint in comparison, but it’s no good hankering after the level of genius and bravery that Newley displayed when he put an unhinged version of himself on British television screens, talking directly to his viewers. British television wasn’t really ready for a genuine fourth wall break, and US television certainly wouldn’t have been in 1960. But although it wimps out on the idea to a certain extent, skirting around a revolutionary idea like a fourth wall break still places this episode ahead of most episodes of The Twilight Zone in terms of originality and inventiveness, and that’s saying something for a series like this.
You can certainly see why Gerry would want to become the character he is acting rather than live his own life. Fame and fortune are very clearly shown to be a false path to happiness, and one wonders to what extent the writer’s own feelings were laid bare with lines like this:
“Sometimes I’d like to escape myself, away from this turmoil to a simpler existence.”
Rod Serling spoke of some of the frustrations of being a television writer at the time, so it wouldn’t surprise me if Richard Matheson shared some of his sentiments, or at least wished to reflect them in his script. I think perhaps he (or whoever did the casting) was making a subtle point about the ageing process. As soon as Arthur Curtis was introduced as 36 years old in Serling’s opening monologue, I was thinking, “yeah, right.” Maybe the choice of 47 year old Howard Duff to play the part was a way of illustrating not just the practice of actors playing younger than themselves but also a man hankering after a younger life of greater freedom. Instead, he’s cursed with a failed marriage to a “harpy”. Nora has to be one of the most revolting characters I’ve seen in a television show, heartlessly bullying a man who is clearly mentally ill, and even shouting at him in rage to sign a cheque to her. No wonder he is desperate to escape into a fantasy world.
… and that’s exactly what happens. At least, I think it does. The ending is very unclear. Will Gerry be found somewhere behind the dismantled set, curled in a ball? Has he genuinely crossed over into some kind of other dimension? Serling’s closing narration seems to suggest the latter, but it’s not really possible to rationalise the ending. Whatever way you try to put the pieces together, they just won’t fit, so it’s probably for the best that Matheson doesn’t attempt to clarify what has happened to Gerry/Arthur. This kind of character/fantasist story will eventually become a relatively familiar idea for sci-fi or fantasy series that are brave enough to try, but writers will learn that the most interesting way to explore the idea is to cross back and fourth between two realities and keep the viewers guessing as to which is real (there are magnificent examples in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Doctor Who had a decent crack at it too). Instead of that, Matheson leaves us in no doubt at all that Gerry is the reality and Arthur is the fantasy, until the confusion of the final twist, but without any groundwork to raise the possibility of Arthur as anything other than a character in the mind of a man having a mental breakdown, it doesn’t really work. This is an unremittingly miserable episode, largely thanks to the monster that is Nora Raigan, but at least there’s a clever idea at the heart of the story, even if the writer is never quite sure how to explore it. RP
Read next in the Junkyard… The Twilight Zone: Long Live Walter Jameson