“Mighty Casey” (season 1, episode 35; originally aired 6/17/1960)
In which Casey strikes out, although not in the way you’d expect
It sounds like the premise for a Disney movie: A down on its luck baseball team (named the “Hoboken Zephyrs,” no less) is desperate for a break. They haven’t had a win in ages, and with the current crop of talent, this doesn’t look to be changing any time soon. But then one day, a stranger arrives, a new pitcher with a fastball that leaves sparks, and a curveball so nutty it comes with its own loopy sound effects. The team’s manager signs the stranger on the spot, but not before learning the astonishing truth: The new pitcher is a robot.
Wacky, huh? Oh boy is it wacky. All it’s missing is a little boy with a dead and/or missing parent, pining for hope in a cruel world where all he’s loved has abandoned him. And it gets better, too, because after a few successful games, the robot’s real identity is discovered by the authorities, and the scientist who created him is forced to give the guy a heart, so he can pass as “human.” But wouldntcha know it, giving somebody a heart means they go all sappy and sweet, and suddenly, the robot with the perfect pitch isn’t so keen on striking out batters anymore. They look so sincere, the robot says. He can’t bear to hurt their feelings.
All of this is about as adorable as you can imagine, but, unfortunately, it doesn’t make for great television. “The Mighty Casey” is sweet enough, with a game cast and decent structure, but the corn here is significantly higher than an elephant’s eye. How much you enjoy the episode depends on how patient you are withTwilight Zone comedic episodes; I have to confess, I’m not a huge fan. Something about the tone sets my teeth on edge. There’s no real harm meant by “The Mighty Casey,” and there’s enough to enjoy in it to prevent me from calling it “bad,” but few things bother me like aggressively unfunny jokes. Bad enough I’m not laughing; worse still that the show keeps metaphorically poking me in the ribs going, “Eh? Eh? Eh?”
Looking past that, and it’s not that difficult to find some nice comments to make. Jack Warden returns to the Zone for his second leading role, starring as Mouth McGarry, the Zephyrs’ manager. Warden wasn’t Serling’s first choice for the role; as Mark Zicree related in The Twilight Zone Companion, Serling wrote the part for Paul Douglas, the lead of the original Angels In The Outfield. Douglas was in poor health through filming, and died a few days after the episode finished shooting. Given the situation, and the fact that the visible evidence of the actor’s last legs contrasted painfully against “Might Casey”’s light tone, Serling paid out of his own pocket to have the role recast and the scenes refilmed. I’ve never seenAngels In The Outfield, and am not familiar with Douglas’ work in general, but Warden is quite good here, as always, and he helps make the few jokes that do land work. It’s a nice contrast against his work in “The Lonely;” both times he played desperate men, but whereas in “The Lonely,” the protagonist was raging despair, McGarry is more exasperated than depressed, and always looking for some way to get back on top.
The other performances in the episode are solid enough. As the robot Casey, Robert Sorrells certainly looks the part, all gangly and goony-eyed, and his acting fits his face; from time to time he presses the dopiness just a little too hard, but that’s more symptomatic of the episode as a whole than his work in particular. In fact, along with Warden, the best actor in the bunch is Abraham Sofaer as Dr. Stillman, Casey’s inventor and ancestor to Dr. Soong. More than anyone else in the episode, Sofaer’s approach is low-key and straightforward, and he helps provide most of what little grounding the episode has. There’s something wonderfully reassuring about him, and it’s amusing to realize that, as a mad scientist, he’s not much different than any of the other jump-in-without-thinking nutters who’ve come before an after him. He built Casey because he wanted to see what would happen, and when the baseball commissioner threatens to kick his robot out of the game, Stillman offers to give him a heart, since logically, that’s all one really requires to be a human being. It’s a lucky thing that Casey just goes full Tin Man when he gets feelings. If he suddenly decided he was in love with McGarry, or he was filled with rage at being so handily exploited, this story could’ve gone much differently.
“The Mighty Casey”’s other saving grace is its setting. Things get ridiculous quickly, but there’s a nice authenticity to the episode at the start, and that authenticity helps to make this work as much as Sofaer’s restraint. One of the advantages of the anthology series is its ability to offer new environments and new perspectives every week. Sure, a cop show can bring in new types of criminals, and a doctor show can have unusual patients, but those stories are still almost always told through established main characters, which means everything we see is already filtered through doctor or cop eyes. (Plus, when’s the last time a Law & Order-style show covered a subculture in a way that wasn’t horribly cheesy?) Sure, “The Mighty Casey” casts a robot as a pitcher, and it often plays more like a child’s fairy tale than anything approaching realism, but those opening shots of spring training, and the clear, immediate impression that these players are a bunch of, well, losers, helps to catch the audience’s interest right off the bat. (Sorry.) This episode never quite works as a story: It’s too glib, and the silliness is often painfully forced. But the world here is one I didn’t mind visiting for a while, and that goes a long way.
What a twist: Dr. Stillman puts a heart into Casey the Robot, so he can pass muster as a human; unfortunately, having a heart makes Casey empathize with the batters so much that he can’t bear to strike them out, and decides to quit baseball for good.
- Stillman seems awfully untroubled at the thought of his robot wandering the world like Kaine in Kung Fu.
- “When the Hoboken Zephyrs win one game, we have to call it a streak! When contract time comes around, you won’t have to.”
“A World Of His Own” (season 1, episode 36; originally aired 7/1/1960)
In which a writer dictates himself into a better life
Here we are at the end of the first season of The Twilight Zone, and I hope we’ve all learned some valuable lessons. Make sure your glasses are indestructible (better still, get surgery); know the difference between infatuation and love; before you murder your fellow astronauts for water, make sure you haven’t crash-landed on Earth; never trust an alien; if you keep seeing the same hitchhiker, check your pulse; and you’re probably a mannequin. The basics, really. While not every episode of the show’s first season has been a classic, Rod Serling, along with a talented group of writers, actors, and directors, managed to establish a clear concept and style right off the bat, and made some absolutely terrific television in the process. Plenty of shows take some time to establish themselves, struggling through a few clunky early episodes where the ensemble isn’t behaving quite the way it should, and the world it lives in is more a series of suggestions than a place—but not our Earth. Maybe that’s another strength of the anthology show: everyone on screen is a one-off, so they’re supposed to be sketches.
As finales go, “A World Of His Own” isn’t bad. It’s cute, but not wince-inducingly cute as “Mighty Casey” so often is, and it has a pleasantly meta vibe running throughout. The story sticks to pretty much one room, and is told entirely through three actors, which means the whole episode has an enjoyable intimacy to it. If it weren’t for the elephant which shows up halfway through, this would basically be a bottle episode, and given the nature of the premise, that’s a smart choice. Keenan Wynn plays Gregory West, a playwright with the power to make actual flesh-and-blood creations out of his work. It’s a fantasy idea with no real restrictions, which makes it both appealing and dangerous to storytellers; appealing because hey, you can do anything with that, and dangerous because, well, stories need to have restrictions to work. There’s no narrative tension when the hero can simply make up whatever he wants to have happen, and then it happens, and without any tension, it becomes far too easy for the audience to realize what an utterly ridiculous idea this all is. We should be worried about what West is going to do next, not wondering just how he got his magical gift, and if other writers have it, and where the heck do these people keep coming from, anyway?
For me, “A World Of His Own” never entirely gets around those difficulties. This is probably a function of my watching the episode the first time already knowing all the twists; nothing surprised me here, not Gregory’s secret, or the real nature of his wife, or the fact that he creates a new wife, or even the immensely clever bit where he throws “Rod Serling”’s envelope into the fire. You strip the episode of all these surprises, and that gives you a lot of time to think about just how little sense all of this really makes. Still, the episode is constructed with an eye towards distracting the viewer from asking the sort of questions I found myself asking. Once West tells his wife about his gift, and she tells him she thinks he’s crazy, West could theoretically conjure up anything to prove her wrong. Maybe he’s restricted to what he can effectively imagine on the fly, but he spends most of the time telling her how everything happened, and trying to impress her with his sincerity. When he does finally do some conjuring, he initially just brings back Mary, the young woman his wife saw him snuggling with earlier. Then he creates an elephant in the hallway, in case what wasn’t enough convincing.
I’m not going to criticize the episode for not giving us more of West’s creations, because it’s the right call to make here. In a sense, West is trying to convince us as much as he’s trying to convince his wife, and while we’re more naturally inclined to believe him (with The Twilight Zone, and genre fiction in general, the safest bet is always the craziest one), if West spent the whole time bringing more and more creatures to life, the episode would be more about trying to surprise us then it would be about West’s relationship with the people he’s made. Besides, the few creations we do see become more special when there aren’t that many of them. The elephant works very well in this context, because it’s shocking and weird enough to stand in for a whole host of possibilities. “A World Of His Own” had the limitations of budget and time, but the elephant pushes just hard enough against our expectations of what a show like this can do, that it answers any lingering doubts about West’s abilities. If he can make an elephant appear in the hallway, well, he can do anything, and the rest of the story follows from there.
My problem, then, is that I don’t find the story here to be as effective or interesting as the way in which it’s told. The actors are fine; Wynn helps make a potentially creepy character sympathetic and charming, and the two women in his life, played by Phyllis Kirk and Mary LaRoche, are well-contrasted against each other. Kirk is West’s wife, the one who doesn’t believe him and also doesn’t realize she’s just as fictional as everyone else. She’s a bit shticky, and sometimes she looks like a skull with some good foundation and eyeliner on, but she does manage to avoid coming off as a shrew. She and Wynn play off each other well, and one of the frustrating aspects of the episode for me is that their relationship ends just as it starts to get interesting. West reveals that he created Mrs. West because he wanted the “perfect” wife, and he created Mary, his mistress, because he realized he couldn’t live with perfection all the time. But now Mrs. West is behaving “against his will,” so he isn’t sure it’s going to work out. He’s willing to try, though, but before he can, Mrs. West grabs the envelope which has West’s recorded description of her, and she throws it into the fire. She realizes her mistake too late, and disappears.
Knowing the episode’s reveals in advance means I spent most of the time watching this wondering about the implications of it all, and picking at various plot holes. Keenan Wynn is really the biggest asset here, because if you cast someone even slightly threatening in the same role, the story would become less about a sweetheart of a guy trying to find happiness, and more about a power-mad bastard who gets off on making his own sex slaves. Even with Wynn, I wasn’t completely convinced by West’s good nature, and I couldn’t shake the fact that he’s essentially shut out the world so he could live with the products of his own mind. That’s not really healthy, even if the episode presents it as such. From a practical standpoint, “A World Of His Own” suffers every time we see (and hear) West dictating one of his amazing descriptions, because, quite frankly, the descriptions aren’t amazing. They’re adequate, but not particularly evocative or precise. We’re supposed to believe he developed this amazing ability because his work was just that good, but we’re given no evidence of it. Admittedly, that’s a standard issue with fictional artists, but given how the entire focus of the episode is on West’s talent for dreaming up the people who inhabit his life, it’s a bit disappointing.
Still, this is entertaining, and I’m more than willing to give it the benefit of the doubt. While the various twists weren’t new to me, I did appreciate how they were handled. It’s a well-constructed episode, and I can imagine a situation where Mrs. West’s true nature would’ve caught me off guard. And of course, the end of the episode is a fine way to close out the show’s first season. For the first time, we see Rod Serling intruding on the action, appearing on the desk in West’s study as his brand new (and presumably less-perfect) wife makes him a drink. Serling comments on how all of this is ridiculous, West doesn’t like the comments, pulls out an enveloping with Serling’s name on it, and burns it. Serling disappears, with a “Well, that’s the way it goes,” although he’s still around to provide some final closing narration. It’s a sweet ending to a fairly sweet episode, and not a bad conclusion to the season as a whole. Here in The Twilight Zone, the writer is king, and it’s only appropriate he should have a happy ending every once in a while.
What a twist: Gregory West makes up people so real they become real. He made up a mistress, and a wife, and, it turns out, the narrator of a fairly popular television program.
- Another oddity: West is a playwright. I understand this is to make him a Serling-esque stand-in, but for playwrights, characterization is done more through dialogue and stage business and, ultimately, casting, than it is through description.
- Did Mrs. West never know she was fictional? Also, have other people seen her? Because I can imagine that getting fairly awkward. “Hey George, where’s the missus?” “Oh, she inadvertently erased herself from reality. Have you met my new wife?”
Next week: Todd covers the original pilot. Or he does something else entirely. Suspense!