It’s a Good Life is one of those Twilight Zone episodes I’ve seen dozens of times before, but when you plan on writing about a show, you see it again as if for the first time. You notice things that didn’t stand out when you were just sitting back and taking it in. This episode is still the same episode, but one of the most glaring things that stands out now is how it’s less science fiction and a lot more sociology. What I mean by that is that I’ve met this kid. Sure, the story is exaggerated to make it science fiction but I’ve been in stores with this kid. You probably have too. It’s the kid who controls his parent with the vice-like grip of terror that has to be placated or he’ll start caterwauling in the shop. The parent tells the kid to be quiet, or worse, that they can’t have the toy they want, so the kid goes into full meltdown mode and the parent acquiesces to his or her demands just to save face around others. Sure, they can’t make the parent go to the “cornfield”, although I suspect many a parent wouldn’t mind for a bit of peace and quiet.
Granted, little Anthony Freemont is a bit more frightening than those real-life counterparts. He creates a three-headed gopher, makes a dog disappear and sets another man on fire, blissfully offscreen. He also turns his neighbor into a living jack in the box, which is a marvelous piece of cinematography for the time, using shadow to really drive home the horror of the situation. One thing you can’t take away from Rod Serling is that the Twilight Zone does know how to be creative. On the other hand, one thing you can take away from him is his ability to write likable characters. The truth is, he has a track record of writing some really despicable characters and little Anthony might lead the charge. Anthony is played by now-veteran SF actor Billy Mumy of Lost in Space and Babylon 5 fame and it’s clear from his youngest days that the lad has talent. Having a loathsome villain is not a bad thing provided you have strong heroes, but let’s call a spade a spade: no one here is likable. Every person we meet is a terrified shell of a human being. The only one who is willing to stand up to Anthony only does so once he’s imbibed enough liquid courage that he basically goes on a suicide mission.
The big tough question though is: why didn’t one of the other adults kill Anthony in that moment? I mean, it’s clever writing because Anthony is a child and that may be the genius of what Serling gives us. How can you justify killing a person on screen especially when the victim is a child? Answer: you can’t. And maybe that’s where the 25 minute format really fails this story because in a movie or a multi-episode series, there would have to be a victory; a way to beat the monster. Maybe they would subdue the child or use something to keep him asleep while they figure out what to do with him. But for an episode of the Zone, we don’t get that. We are given a look at the life of the inhabitants of Petesville: a group of terrified humans with no way of escaping the horror waiting for them on their own doorstep.
The one question I walked away with was: could Anthony bring things back? He is clearly able to create things, so when his dad freaks out about the snow killing the crops, is there really any reason to be worried? Can Anthony just bring them back? Create new crops? There’s a lot about Anthony’s powers that are never explained, and that’s ok because, again, the format doesn’t give enough time for it. But I think it would have added a lot to the story to fully understand what the people of Petesville really had to deal with. The rest is just speculation around a kid who throws one heck of a tantrum. ML
The view from across the pond:
I don’t care much for this episode of The Twilight Zone, but it’s a very popular one. Sometimes when that happens it’s hard to understand why people like an episode so much, but there is no such mystery here. It’s a Good Life is an effective horror episode, very well acted. Billy Mumy was clearly a child actor with a rare talent, and he’s superb here, while the other actors do a great job of portraying their lives of extreme anxiety. But I just couldn’t find much to like about an episode that is basically 25 minutes of adults sucking up to a brat.
The big problem is a lack of an actual story. Bizarrely, this gets praised a lot, as if it’s somehow a brave move, but that’s double standards. If it’s a problem for other episodes that Rod Serling has a big idea and then does nothing at all with it, then it’s a problem here too. Laziness doesn’t become cleverness just because the writer got a lucky break and everyone making his dud script did a stunning job with the material they were given. I’ll praise everyone here, except Serling. The director is inspired. The standout moment of the episode is the shadow of the human-headed jack-in-the-box, which manages to be truly horrific without trying to show the impossible and unbroadcastable at the time. But I just wanted Serling to be clever too. Anthony desperately needed to get his comeuppance, and other reviewers point to the simple fact that the story couldn’t have ended with a child getting killed. Fair enough. That’s the whole point of the story, after all: what do you do about evil, when it’s in the shape of a six-year-old child? But it’s the writer’s job to find a clever way around that, and there are a whole range of options, from having him tricked in some way, to having him lose his powers for some reason, or better still finding a way for him to learn the error of his ways and change as a person.
What we are seeing here is basically the consequences of the child/adult power balance being reversed. Empathy is something that is gradually gained by children, but most can’t make much use of it in their decision making processes until they are a little older than Anthony, so he’s simply putting what he wants first. Most children his age would do that, and it’s the job of a parent to help them find a moral compass. Anthony might not be physically bigger and stronger than his parents, but he is more powerful than them, and is capable of creating what he wants and destroying what he doesn’t want, but the only push back we see against him is a ranting drunkard who is smashing stuff up in his home. This is another misstep from Serling, undermining his whole story, because Anthony is actually remarkably tolerant of the drunken antics before he metes out his punishment. The guy has to literally beg the other people in the room to murder Anthony before he reacts, and even then it takes a while. What we never see is somebody making a serious attempt to rationally discuss with Anthony the harm he is doing, much of which is unintentional. The kid doesn’t want the destroy the crops. He just wants to enjoy a bit of snow. Where is the adult who attempts to set the moral compass pointing in the right direction, by explaining how the snow, for example, will mean they have nothing to eat in a couple of months? If we had had a moment like that, and Anthony had reacted with a punishment for the reasoning adult, then we would have an even more chilling horror story. If he had reacted more positively and started to see the errors of his ways, you have the path to some kind of a resolution. Either way, a scene like that could only strengthen the story, instead of feeling like an obvious and logical possibility that the writer ignored for the sake of a lazy 25 minute script, showcasing a bunch of gutless adults foolishly telling a child he’s doing good things when he’s actually doing wrong. I don’t credit Serling with attempting any kind of a message here, because it’s too much of a phoned-in script for that, like most of his efforts, but if there were a moral to this tale then it would be this: you can’t be your child’s friend. That’s not what they need from you. You have to be their parent.
That’s the true horror here. It’s not the powerful child who is the problem; it’s the weak adults. Everyone is an appeaser to an evil-doer, but nobody is willing to step up and be his mum and dad. RP
Read next in the Junkyard… The Twilight Zone: Deaths-Head Revisited
Many thanks for these reviews, as always. I like this episode, although I understand Roger’s criticisms. I also like Jerome Bixby’s original story. I have a vivid memory of reading it for the first time at the age of twelve or so.
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My first introduction to It’s A Good Life was actually The Twilight Zone movie’s version, with the visiting school teacher played by Kathleen Quinlan becoming the salvation for the powerful boy. That made finally seeing the classic series version very hard to take in. The sequel in one of the Twilight Zone reboots, with Bill Mumy playing Anthony as an adult and finally coming to terms with what his power has ultimately cost him, is very interesting and I won’t spoil the resolution. Suffice to say it might enhance your point, RP, about weak adults being the real danger.
Because Anthony clearly didn’t have mind-controlling powers like the children in Village Of The Damned. So It’s A Good Life can certainly have a good deal to say about parental morality even with all the sci-fi elements that made Anthony seem especially fearsome. After all, certainly for Serling’s hopes for the TZ, sci-fi including sci-fi horror is a great tool for opening people’s minds towards undeniable but hopefully changeable realities. Dangerous children in reality is indeed among our most serious problems. So all the adults empowered enough to inspire children and certainly the most gifted children to be better individuals are the heroes that Anthony’s parents should learn from. John Larch and Cloris Leachman still gave good performance as son-fearing parents though. Thank you both for your reviews.
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