“The Big Tall Wish” (Season 1, episode 27; originally aired 4/8/1960)
In which a little boy doesn't get his wish.
I thought I was going to hate this. I read Stephen King’s Danse Macabre back in high school; if you’re unfamiliar with the book, it’s King’s overview of the horror genre in literature, film, and television, and it’s a fun read, especially considering I was a teenager desperate to find new things to try. The only problem is, King’s very opinionated. That’s good, because it makes him passionate and invested in what he’s talking about, and he’s smart enough to justify most of his opinions. But there are sections of Danse which can be outright dismissive, like King’s tirade against the filmography of Ed Wood, and his somewhat condescending take on The Twilight Zone. Basically an excuse to boost The Outer Limits by taking the better known Zone down a few pegs, King criticized Serling’s purple dialog, his often predictable reliance on twists, and, as is relevant to today’s first episode, Serling’s occasionally soppy sentimentality. Even though I’d long since realized that, much as I admire King and enjoy his work, I don’t always agree with his critical judgment, I still had it in my head that “Wish” is a “bad” episode.
Now that I’ve actually seen it, I no longer think this is true. Maybe “The Big Tall Wish” benefited from my lowered expectations, but this one worked for me. Sure it’s soppy, but there’s enough pain and sadness that the soppiness feels earned. After all, this is the story of a little kid with the power to make whatever he wants happen, just by wishing it; only, it doesn’t matter, since any wish he makes big enough to make the world better, nobody’s going to believe it long enough for it to take hold. This episode would make a fine companion piece for “It’s A Good Life,” a third season episode in which a sociopathic eight year-old (ie, an eight year-old) holds an entire town hostage with the power of his mind. Both episodes transform the intensity and passion of a child’s ability to believe in the impossible into a power with a demonstrable effect on reality. In "Good Life," this effect just happens to be absolutely terrifying. "Wish" is more optimistic about the dreams of young boys, or at least one young boy. Henry (Steven Perry) just wants everything to work out for the people he loves. But it's just not as simple as wanting.
Henry's had some luck with his wanting before; his mother, Frances (Kim Hamilton) tells family friend Bolie Jackson (Ivan Dixon) that was short on rent last month, and Henry made what he called "the big tall wish," and a check that just happened to match the amount she needed came in the mail next day. But that was an easy enough wish to pull off. The check came from Frances's aunt, and required little in the way of suspension of disbelief. It was easy to assume it was all just a coincidence; Henry seems like an intense kid, he's probably always saying crazy stuff. But his next wish isn't so simple. Bolie is a washed up prize-fighter going back into the ring for a match there's no hope he can win. He's broken, beaten, and down on his luck, and he could use a lucky break. Only, when Henry gives him that lucky break, wishing so hard that he changes the outcome of the fight right at the moment when Bolie seems most likely to lose it, Bolie can't quite accept his good fortune. He wants to, he really does, but he's sure deep in his hear that the world doesn't work this way. Losers don't get second chances, and little kids can't change the world just by wanting it. So Henry's wish loses its magic, and Bolie is brought back to the fight, and this time he loses just like he knew he would.
Given the episode's reputation as a mire of sentiment, I was surprised by that ending. There's not a lot of hope in it. Bolie's still a good man, and no one dies or suffers unduly, but the sight of a good man so wrecked by experience that he can't accept it when he's given an amazing gift isn't exactly a pick-me-up. You could read Bolie's lack of faith as a refusal to accept a hand out, even one given with the best of intentions, but it doesn't play that way. The moral or message or punchline of "Wish" is that magic does exist; it's just that most grown-ups are too wrecked by their own lives to accept it. I suppose there's a religious allegory in there somewhere, but the episode doesn't seem to be pushing one. It's more interested in the way innocence allows children the freedom to believe that life could be better than it is, and adulthood means accepting that, no, it probably can't.
"Wish" overplays this card to a certain extent; a decent chunk of the episode is taken up with Bolie talking about how miserable everything is, and saying how he can't accept that life might not be miserable. This starts off as sad and understandable (and Dixon is great in the role), but by the end, well, we get it. Bolie is a depressed dude, he has every reason to be glum, and we don't really need him to flat out say, "I guess there's no magic because no one believes in it any more." We get it. We just watched twenty-five minutes demonstrating it. There's also a scene between Bolie and a guy at the boxing arena that exists entirely to remind us that Bolie is supposed to lose this fight, and that he's got integrity, and while it's not a bad scene, in retrospect, I'm not sure why it's there. Maybe to justify Bolie's later inability to accept Henry's wish? That's fine for what it's worth, but the first half of half of the episode is building towards a plot that never really comes into focus. It almost might've made sense to focus more on Henry, since he's the one who goes through the character arc, even more so than Bolie. At the start of the episode, Henry believes can wish the world different; at the end, he doesn't.
Still, by and large "Wish" is effective, because Henry's arc (which is just a mystical way of framing the loss of childhood innocence) is a powerful one, even if we see it mostly from the sidelines. The story's simplicity is one of its strengths, because it doesn't chicken out in the end or offer any compromising optimism, but it's also not painfully grim. It's simply stating the facts. Bolie doesn't die in the end when he loses the fight, and while he's disappointed, he's still essentially enough himself to make it a point to come wish Henry good night. Life goes on; it just doesn't have room for big tall miracles.
For all its tendency to overstate its message, "Wish" also has its share of subtleties. This is the first episode we've had with a predominantly African American cast, but no one makes a big deal out of it. You could read Bolie's lack of belief or Frances' poverty as symptomatic of being a repressed minority in world run by greedy white dudes, but you don't have to. The episode makes you put those pieces together on your own. There's also the contrast between the two realities Bolie experiences; when he wins the fight, everyone's clapping him on the back and congratulating him, but when he loses, nobody will look him in the eye. The acting in the episode is strong on all counts, and I especially liked how Perry plays Henry--a sweet kid, but there's something a little too intense about him. When he makes his big wish for Bolie, he has to run up to the TV screen and press his face against it, in a way that's so nakedly desperate it almost makes you uncomfortable, whether or not he succeeds. Kids are like that; when you get down to it, kids believe harder than anybody. In the end, that might be what won me over on "Wish"; the idea that maybe the world is full of kids with the power to make wishes, big or tall or otherwise, but growing up means accepting wishing only goes so far.
What a twist: Henry has the gift to change the world, but it's not enough to change the mind of his friend.
I'm very curious as to the critical reputation of this episode. As I said, I thought it was going to be awful.
There's something wonderfully childish about Henry's wish for Bolie; he gives Bolie the chance to win his fight on his own terms, and waits right up until the moment when Bolie basically loses before changing things. Bolie can't accept this because it doesn't fit in with his idea of how the world works, but it's hard to blame him--the kid is asking for so much.
"A Nice Place To Visit" (Season 1, episode 28; originally aired 4/15/1960)
In which you wouldn't want to live there.
You could fill a conference hall with The Twilight Zone's "small, hungry" men. Hell, you could fill a football stadium. There are plenty of episodes in the series with nuanced characters and complex relationships, but ever couple of weeks, Rod and his writing staff (in this case, Charles Beaumont) would trot out either an "idle dreamer" or one of those afore mentioned weaselly bastards, and you knew you were in for it. The most fundamental sin in the Zone is selfishness, and all the pain it causes, and it's a mark in the show's favor that all these greedy creeps at least had an illusion of depth, even if there wasn't much to distinguish them. Take Harry Francis "Rock" Valentine (Larry Blyden), the protagonist of "A Nice Place To Visit." He's not one of TZ's most iconic leads, not by a long shot, and his character is mostly defined by his convenient inability to grasp the irony of a situation until the episode requires him to do so. But there's that certain edge to his desperate want, and his general anger toward the world. Like all of his ilk, he's furious because he believes he's been cheated, and this speaks to a hole in the center of him, something that whines and snarls and can never be entirely sated. It's a step up in complexity from your standard "I'm just evil because the narrative needs a villain" bad guy, but that only goes so far. And given how much "Visit" relies on us caring--or at least being interested in--the fate of its lead, that's a bit of a problem.
In his The Twilight Zone Companion, Mark Zicree describes "Visit" as a "prolonged one-liner," and I can't really argue with that. We start with Rocky in the middle of a robbery, a shop owner (presumably) dead on on the floor next to him, and we know from that moment on, Rocky's fate is sealed. Which means when Rocky seems to get shot by a cop, and wakes up next to a chummy gentleman in a white suit, we don't trust this gentleman's apparent chumminess. There's irony a'coming, and that becomes more obvious when the gentleman (who's only ever referred to as "Pip") starts offering Rocky anything his greasy little heart desires. There's a well-furnished apartment, beautiful women, any money he wants. Whenever he gambles, he always wins; whenever he plays pool, he always wins. And so on. We spend a lot of time watching Rocky be perpetually astonished at how kind fortune has become, and, since we're not idiots, we're waiting for the other shoe to drop. Eventually, Rocky gets bored with all his wealth and pleasures. He's decided he's in Heaven, but he's sick of how Mr. Pip caters to his every whim, and he wants to leave. That's when Pip tells him in he's not in Heaven, and then the Devil laughs uproariously, and we're done.
There's just not much to this. We've talked before about 's occasional tendency towards one-note storytelling, and this is about as pure an example as I can imagine. Given all the time we spend with Rocky, we don't know anything about him at the end of the episode that we didn't know at the start. There's some fun in watching him bounce of Pip, especially since we know everything Pip says must have a buried threat behind it, but there's no real dramatic dynamic between them until the very end. Blyden is a caricature as Rocky, but it's hard to blame him, since that's how the character is written. Cabot has more fun, and he is genuinely terrifying when he laughs at the end, but it's not really enough to justify the episode. It's entries like this that helped TZ become such an anecdote generate machine ("Didja see the one about..."), because it works well in description, but there's nothing you get from watching the episode itself. It's thin, and it never shows much interest in being anything but thin.
Could this have worked? I'm not sure. I think maybe. The cliched, too-much-of-a-good-thing style of ironic punishment is a little silly as presented, especially given just how far Pip is willing to go to grant Rocky his desires. Episodes with ironic punishments need the audience to wince when the punishment is revealed; the effectiveness of the irony depends on us being both taken by surprise at a good turning into a negative and really believing in that negative once it's revealed, and that doesn't really happen here. Sure, it would get boring to keep winning every time you gambled, but gambling isn't the only avenue Rocky has available to him. He can have any woman he wants, and people are constantly praising him whatever he does. He can torment the cops who tormented him in life without fear of reprisal. It's hard to buy that he'd be sick of all of this after, what, a month? I can accept that a world without conflict or risk could get boring, but "boring" really isn't sufficiently sadistic to justify all the time spent. As far as Hells go, the "wow, partying is kind of a drag" Hell really isn't going to scare anyone straight, and while it's possible to interpret the ending as a sort of, "Ho ho, now that you've figured out the secret things can get really nasty," it still feels like everything leading up to that moment is just a clever sort of stalling.
But like I said, maybe it could have worked, if you wanted to view Rocky's punishment as less a cheap gag about being careful what you wish for, and more a statement on the emptiness inherent in the character himself. It's easy for me to think, "Oh man, I would have so much fun in this kind of Hell," but this isn't my Hell, if such a thing even exists. (My Hell would have a lot more razor blades and Kardashians.) This is Rocky's Hell, and it's suited to exploit the central hollowness of his character. He wants the satisfaction beating the system he's convinced is rigged against him, but now that he's finally won, it's not enough. He's still empty and small, and you could use that to justify why his dreams don't ever go beyond the "dames and dollars" level. He can't take full advantage of this particular Hell because of who he is.
Except Rocky shows a fair bit of psychological insight at the end of the episode, when he explains to Pip why he's so unsatisfied by his "perfect" life, and, while I realize this would've been difficult to pull off on a television show from this era, that insight makes me wonder if maybe Rocky's dreams might not have been a little more complex than we're allowed to see. If he'd exhausted more possibilities, if his fury at the world had gone beyond messing with the occasional cop or being rude to a woman, I would've been more satisfied by the episode's conclusion. For fun, imagine an episode in which Rocky's afterlife really did start off as a paradise, but his pettiness and hate slowly degraded that perfection, and day by day, week by week, his initial joy turns into something darker, something sadistic and vicious. He turns to torture, to violence, to destruction, he murders dozens, then hundreds of strangers, he takes over the country then the world, and it's still not enough, it still doesn't sate his hunger, so he starts launching bombs just to see what they'll do, and in the end, it's Hell on Earth, but it's a Hell he created, because Hell is the only thing he could create.
I'm not saying this would've been a story you could've told on The Twilight Zone (although having typed it, I now want to write it), but the point is, my alternate version would've at least created some kind of dramatic arc for the episode. "Visit" has its moments, as its always fun to see someone getting everything they want, even if the getting eventually sours. Ultimately, though, it's too shallow and limited to be worth the time.
What a twist: Rocky thinks he's gone to Heaven, where he can have whatever he wants, but he's actually gone to Hell, where he doesn't really want anything.
Sign of the times: Rocky can have any woman he wants, but when we see him in bed with three dames, they're all playing cards. Wooo!
The future: We'll be on holiday hiatus for the next two weeks, but be back here January 7 when Todd has a "Nightmare As A Child" and makes "A Stop At Willoughby."