“Black Leather Jackets” (season 5, episode 19; originally aired 1/31/1964)
In which you should never trust anyone, especially if they look cool...
It’s a silly week in The Twilight Zone. A silly, silly week. Gird your loins, batten down the hatches, maybe see if something else is on TV—that sort of thing. Although to be fair, “Black Leather Jackets” isn’t overtly comedic. It’s goofy and campy and the premise is utterly absurd, but it at least has the decency to present us with a story with actual stakes and consequences. It offers a premise, and however ludicrous that premise is, it follows through to the bitter end, for better and for worse. The commitment helps a little. If this is going to be nonsense, at least we know an entire civilization gets destroyed by the nonsense.
Also helping: this is so silly that, for a while, the episode can get by on novelty alone. We open with a trio of black-leather jacket wearing dudes on motorcycles, looking like an offshot of Marlon Brando’s The Wild Ones. In a clever edit, we see the young men walk into the real estate office of one R.C. Jones—and then we cut to an R.C. Jones Realty sign in front of the house which the trio just presumably purchased. Why an an alien invasion force would want to set up cover in a suburban neighborhood, and why they’d go to lengths to establish that cover via legal means, isn’t answered. But it does give us the sight of the three guys driving into a quiet neighborhood on their roaring bikes, pulling up neatly to the curb, and then setting up house together. So either it’s gay panic or it’s juvenile delinquency panic, or some marvellous combination of them both.
From a certain angle, it seems clear that writer Earl Hamner, Jr. is mimicking a kind of Rome And Juliet, girl-falls-for-boy-on-wrong-side-of-galaxy model. There’s a family living next door to the invaders (who Serling labels Steve, Scott, and Fred, although those aren’t their “real” names), and that family has a daughter, and the daughter falls for one of the guys, as teenagers are wont to do. Far weirder is that Scott (Lee Kinsolving) falls for her right back, even to the point of trying to sabotage his main mission in order to save her life. What little real drama the episode has comes from Scott’s efforts, although the tension never gets particularly high. The strange, not-quite-comedic tone that makes the first part so endearing also serves to make it impossible for any of the characters to be more than walking pieces, fitting into roles with pre-determined outcomes in a way that’s amusing, sometimes interesting, but never really thrilling.
The main problem isn’t tone, though: it’s that the story, stripped of its more baroque adornments, is about as dull as an alien invasion story can be. There’s no twist here, and no big surprise. The bizarre black-leather-jacket guys are, in fact, from outer space, and they are here, along with groups like them all over the world, to test out a bacteria that will kill every human being and domesticated animal on the planet. The tests go successfully. Given the size and scope of the invasion, the odds that humanity will be able to save itself are practically nill. The closest the invaders come to failing is when Scott steps in, and his efforts as a revolutionary are unsuccessful, to put it kindly. Which means that this is a story in which there are no reversals, no upsets, no impressively big reveals. The discovery that the black leather jacket guys are aliens is the only real surprise, and given what kind of show this is, that’s not really enough. Everything else follows pretty much a straight line. And while there’s a certain amount of power to be had in going with a premise to its logical conclusion without any attempt to mollify or soften that conclusion, it makes for pretty damn dull drama.
Still, those baroque adornments are curious enough to elevate this above the series’ weakest outings. The black-leather jackets are one thing; there’s also the slang the aliens throughout in their effort to maintain cover—a cover, one might add, that really only serves to draw attention to them, given the environment where they set up shop. (Although, since the aliens have also infiltrated the local police department, I guess they don’t really give a damn.) There’s the communication device the aliens use to receive orders, a standard-for-the-time collection of boxes with blinking lights that’s topped by a screen that only ever reveals a close up shot of a single eye. All very low-fi and cool. Maybe the aliens’ boss is a big Tolkien fan. The work looks for him, anyway. (And he’s definitely a him, despite the fact that all we ever see is the eye—that’s a very masculine voice booming out of those speakers. In fact, every alien we see is male.)
I’m also fond of the guy living next-door’s assumption that the reason the television isn’t working is because the leather jacket wearing dudes are ham radio operators. He says “ham radio” three or four times, and it gets funnier every time he says it. And hey, the plot to dump bacteria into the town water supply is specific enough to be kind of cool. Scott and Ellen (Shelley Fabares) have a tepid, almost parodic relationship, and their moony exchanges are the most overtly funny scenes of the episode, although it’s questionable if their amusement value is intentional or not.
It’s not enough, though. Nor is there much effort to exploit the automatic tension between social classes here; sure, the black leather jacket dudes are aliens, but their attire and behavior makes them suspect even before we know their identities, a fact which is ultimately utterly irrelevant. No one treats them poorly or dismisses them out of hand because of what they’re wearing. The closest we get is that whole “ham radio” thing, and the family’s suspicions about Ellen dating someone. When Scott starts ranting about alien invaders, the response is about the same as he’d get no matter what he looked like: everyone thinks he’s crazy, and eventually they call the cops, who just so happen to be aliens themselves. As a result, it’s a half hour with several potentially interesting quirks which delivers the shallowest possible version of those quirks; the results are frequently amusing, but never memorable.
What a twist: It was aliens.
- I hadn’t thought about it while watching the episode, but Mark Zicree makes a good point in his entry on this episode in The Twilight Zone Companion: why doesn’t Scott use some of his crazy mental powers to prove his story to Ellen? He doesn’t offer any evidence at all to support his claims, which makes it impossible to really blame anyone for not believing him.
- This is another sci-fi story in which aliens decide humanity is too violent to live. Very Old Testament of them.
“From Agnes With Love” (season 5, episode 20; originally aired 2/14/1964)
In which we find love in the last place we look...
There’s wacky music playing in the first five minutes of “From Agnes With Love,” and if that doesn’t send you running, you have a stronger stomach than I do. Or else, like me, you’re obligated to watch every episode of the series, regardless if they’re supposed to be “funny” or not. Whatever the reason, we’re stuck with this, and it’s a rough slog. There’s a lot of mugging for the camera, a lot of overplayed physical comedy, and worse, there’s just that awful assumption that all of us out in the audience are going to find what we’re watching absolutely hilarious. Not every intentionally comedic episode of The Twilight Zone is terrible, but enough of them are to suggest some sort of endemic problem at the heart of how the show tries to create humor. Maybe it’s because these particular episodes always work so hard to reassure us that everything we’re seeing isn’t meant to be taken seriously.
That’s an issue with this episode, anyway. There’s some effort at the beginning and near the end to remind us that Agnes, the super-computer nebbishy James Elwood (Wally Cox) is in nominal control of, is an important part of Science for Science reasons. There’s a mission to Venus and that sort of thing. But while this information at least makes Elwood’s time with the machine more than just an intellectual problem, the stakes never become particularly high. What Agnes does when she isn’t offering Elwood romantic advice is essentially irrelevant. That’s not a fault in and of itself, since the focus of the story really is on the relationship between man and machine, but it means that, if that relationship isn’t interesting (or if Elwood’s romantic woes don’t grab you), there’s nothing else going on worth caring about.
“From Agnes With Love” is largely focused on Elwood’s efforts to get a date with his attractive co-worker, Millie (Sue Randall). He keeps asking her out, and offering her gifts, all with limited success. Then Agnes starts offering tips, and Elwood follows them. The tips at first seem well-intentioned, but each one ends up backfiring, until Elwood finally ends up pushing Millie into the orbit of a far more attractive co-worker. This, it turns out, was Agnes’s plan, because it—she—is in love with Elwood. This discovery drives him temporarily insane, enough so that his bosses finally take him off the project, and that, minus a minute or two of Serling narration and a lot of “Gah, women!” eye-rolling, is that.
So, like I said, no damn stakes anywhere. Elwood’s determination to find a girlfriend seems like it’s at least something to care about, but on his first real date with Millie, he spends the whole evening reading aloud to her from a science book filled with science. When she tries to get him off his feet to dance with her, he has no idea what’s going on. See, it’s funny, because she’s a lady and she’s into romantic things, and Elwood is a nerd, so he… um… damn, I thought i had something for this.
There are elements in this scene which could’ve made sense in another context. Elwood’s social ineptitude is necessary for the story, and the fact that he has no idea what to do once he’s actually close to the girl of his dreams can sort of kind of nearly count as ironic commentary. But it’s not that he fumbles or trips up or anything remotely recognizable. After vehemently pursuing Millie, once he actually has a chance to get to know her, he shows no apparent interest in her whatsoever. The switch is bizarre, and it’s especially bizarre considering that even after their disastrous first date, Elwood is still determined to win her over. Not because he’s learned something, or because he’s realized what she means to him, or even because he’s just a creep who can’t take no for an answer. He keeps pursuing her because if he didn’t, the episode wouldn’t have a third act. Elwood’s attempts at romance don’t connect to his character (although Wally Cox works hard to make sense out of them); they exist solely because you need the pursuit to build the connection between him and Agnes, and to make Agnes’s big reveal have any sort of meaning at all.
Millie doesn’t fare much better. She seems at first indifferent to Elwood, and then, during their apartment date, she’s super keen on him, to the point where she’s actively trying to seduce him (which he doesn’t get at all, because ha ha nerds r dum). Then Elwood brings her flowers she’s allergic to, and she still agrees to go on another date with him, even though the two have apparently nothing in common apart from working in the same place and both wearing glasses. Elwood, taking Agnes’s advice, bring Millie to see one of their co-workers, and that co-worker turns out to be a virile, confident man whom Millie immediately takes a shine to. She’s less a human being than a free-floating particle of affection, attaching herself to whatever likely target comes along.
Actually, it’s worse than that: Millie, much like Agnes, exists to frustrate Elwood by not giving him what he wants. The episode mitigates this by making sure Elwood is such huge doofus that it’s not really Millie’s fault that they don’t end up together. (The two seem like they’d make a terrible couple anyway.) But in doing so, Elwood becomes too much of an idiot to be someone we can really root for. After that awful first date, it’s clear that he’s not just awkward around people, he’s fundamentally incapable of forming the kind of connection he thinks he wants. Yet because the episode is so hellbent on making sure we never forget how silly it all is, there’s never any chance to take his plight seriously. What should be deft and quick moving turns into a long slog of knowing exactly what’s coming (oh hey, Elwood is going to fail again) and not being at all surprised when it arrives.
It’s a joke that takes so long to get to the punchline that by the time Agnes reveals her true feelings, it’s too late to be funny anymore. The most interesting relationship in the episode is between Agnes and Elwood, and the closest the episode ever comes to having a strong character is Agnes—she’s not the much better developed than the others, but she’s consistent, and there’s enough mystery about her to make her intriguing. She still ends up more a curiosity than anything else, though. Serling’s closing narration about how male programmers need to worry about women is about as funny as everything that came before it, and suggests a script held back, at least in part, by some shallow, reductive ideas about both sexes. Also, it would’ve been nice to hire someone who could write actual jokes.
What a twist: Agnes, the computer who’s been giving Elwood advice all along, is actually in love with Elwood, and has been sabotaging his attempts at romance to get closer to him. Elwood is not happy to learn this.
- I don’t know if it’s intentional or not (and it certainly isn’t referenced anywhere I can find), but the story here is suspiciously close to the plot of Kurt Vonnegut’s “EPICAC.” Both feature computers that fall in love with humans, and try and offer romantic advice, albeit with much different results. Anyway, the Vonnegut story is much better, so maybe we all should’ve read that instead.
- Another Richard Donner directed episode. There are some nifty close up camera angles, and I like how he films the chaos in the computer room. (I doubt Donner is responsible, but the design of the “computer” isn’t bad either; it’s just suggestive enough of having a face without being a complete cartoon. Unlike the rest of the episode.)
Next week: We see what happens in the “Spur Of The Moment,” and check out “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.”