“The Last Rites Of Jeff Myrtlebank” (season 3, episode 23; originally aired 2/23/1962)
In which Jeff Myrtlebank haint misbehavin’
(Available on Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon.)
How on Earth do I keep getting stuck with these episodes about well-meaning bumpkins? “The Last Rites Of Jeff Myrtlebank” isn’t a bad episode, but there’s certainly nothing vital about it. It’s another joke-y episode, where the whole thing is building to the punchline of Jeff being something beyond human and being the father of a great politician. There’s some okay stuff here, to be sure, but there’s also a lot of stuff that feels like it’s just there to kill time. For God’s sake, two of the major characters in this thing are named Comfort and Ogram, and the whole thing seems to steer as far away from conflict as it can at almost every opportunity. I mean, I love Dub Taylor as much as the next guy, but there’s not a lot to dissect here.
This is one of those things I’ve been saying all too often this season of the show, but I’m just not sure what the point of this episode is supposed to be. In a way, it provides a kind of nice little duet with “To Serve Man,” the other episode I’m reviewing this week, in that both are sort of about how initial impressions often turn out to be the correct ones, so always be on guard. It’s decidedly a strange message to drop into the center of this show, considering how many episodes of The Twilight Zone are about not jumping to conclusions based on inborn prejudices. But, then, I suppose there are also occasions when it’s important to not let go of your critical thinking skills, to accept that if something seems too good to be true, it probably is. But it’s still strange how we get this big glut of episodes around this general theme at this point in the season.
At the center of this episode is one Jeff Myrtlebank, a good ol’ boy from the southern part of the Midwest. He’s very recently died, leaving behind his parents, his sister, and his fiancée (the aforementioned Comfort). At his funeral, the coffin starts to shake and shudder, and then the top opens, and Jeff steps on out. He doesn’t remember dying, and the doctor, instead of trying to figure out what supernatural event might have occurred, simply tells everyone that Jeff must have had a sickness—one that he seems to make up on the spot—that made him seem to be dead. The townspeople more or less accept this, but then Jeff’s behavior begins to strike them as strange. He’s a much harder worker than he ever was before, and he’s able to beat Ogram in a fistfight. Yes, whatever happened to Jeff in the afterlife, he hasn’t come back as himself. Could it be possible he’s a haint, a spirit made to walk the Earth in the body of a man?
If there’s an idea that I like in “Jeff Myrtlebank,” it’s in that paragraph above. I find the whole idea that Jeff’s turn toward being a hard worker and a strong competitor in a fistfight is seen so suspiciously, as if the very idea of self-improvement would need to have a demonic basis. (As it turns out, these people are right to be suspicious, though we never get a firm sense of just what Jeff actually is. I’m going to assume he’s a haint, because I’ve always liked haints.) There’s some sly satire here about how people are always suspicious of those who are able to successfully change themselves for the better, because changing yourself is such a complicated and lengthy task that usually, it’s just easier to not even bother. Jeff’s resurrection from the grave is what initially sets people toward finding him slightly off, but the fact that he comes back different—and, for the most part, positively different—is what makes everybody truly suspicious of him. If he’d been the same layabout as before, it’s likely nobody would have said a thing.
There are some other nice touches here. I like the way that the gossip spreads through the little town, with Jeff’s sister telling one of the young boys she pals around with what’s “wrong” with her brother, then that boy telling his mother, then his mother telling somebody else. The news spreads just as it would in a small town, and pretty soon, there’s this posse of men down at the general store who know they need to do something but aren’t quite sure just what to do. Ogram tries to whip them into a fervor, and for a second, it seems like we’re going to end up in the standard story of a “monster” who is persecuted because the men around him don’t understand that he is just as human as any of them. That the story takes a sidestep is welcome. That it does so as a sort of strained punchline is not.
Ultimately, I think “Jeff Myrtlebank” just tries to do too much. Look at all of the relationships it has to establish for any of this to make sense. Obviously, Jeff needs to have connections to his three family members, but we’ve also got to see his connections to Comfort and Ogram, as well as their mother (who doesn’t like him much). The townspeople also have to have time for their own reactions, and even if they’re primarily led by Taylor as Mr. Peters and Edgar Buchanan as the doctor, there’s still plenty of time spent on their scene in the general store. Like so many Twilight Zone episodes, “Jeff Myrtlebank” is a parable, but it’s a parable that never clearly establishes the rules of the field it’s played on, something that’s absolutely necessary for an episode that’s hoping to impart a lesson along with its twist. Instead, it plays as something closer to a joke, but one that takes too long getting to its ultimate destination and, thus, robs itself of the humor it might have had.
I certainly don’t feel poorer for having seen this episode. It’s filled with lively performances, and the central conceit has some sly humor to it. But Montgomery Pittman’s script and direction rob the episode of what power it might have as drama or comedy at every opportunity. Moments when the episode seems as if it might get into some of the genuine horror and isolation of returning from the dead are always undercut with a comedic beat or two, and moments that seem as if they might be amusing stretch out for far too long. There are some neat ideas in “Jeff Myrtlebank,” and a tonal mishmash that might have been entertaining in surer hands, but as it stands, the whole thing falls curiously flat.
What a twist!: Jeff Myrtlebank actually did come back as some sort of evil spirit, something only Comfort gets real proof of. Later, his son will go on to be a devious senator of some sort, though only Rod Serling knows this.
- Once again, this episode is burdened with an absolutely bizarre score. The music is constantly getting in the way of everything the episode is trying to do, and that makes some of the moments incredibly cringeworthy.
- In researching this article, I learned that Dub Taylor was in the Pace Picante Sauce commercials that were such a big deal in the ‘90s. The more you know.
- I rather like that Comfort, who always wanted Jeff to commit, doesn’t seem to mind if he is an evil spirit, so long as he’s ready to get married. It’s kind of a dumb joke (and it plays into a stupid stereotype), but it’s at least somebody realizing what a good thing a haint-ed Jeff could be.
“To Serve Man” (season 3, episode 24; originally aired 3/2/1962)
In which it’s a cookbook
(Available on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, and CBS.com.)
“To Serve Man” is a twist-ending in search of a story to support it. I hadn’t seen this episode in so long—probably since high school—that essentially all I could remember about it was the twist, which has been parodied and repeated ad nauseum throughout this great popular culture of ours. And as I watched the episode, I remembered the unearthly way the Kanamits speak and move, how they seem almost human but so evidently are not. But for the bulk of the running time, I was surprised by how little this episode deviates from the idea that we’re just waiting for the other shoe to drop. The Kanamits show up. They take care of everything on Earth. The audience waits for the twist to come.
What I found myself thinking about this time through was this idea: Would it really be so bad to be a human in this scenario? I mean, yes, the idea is that we are basically turned into cattle. The Kanamits stop us from killing each other, and they keep us healthy and well-fed that they might take us back to their home planet and devour us. We never see the aftermath of Patty realizing that the book, To Serve Man, is actually a cookbook. So I suppose it’s possible that humans are kept under lock and key after that, as Mr. Chambers is on board the ship. But at least in this episode, people are free to head to the Kanamits’ homeworld when they so choose. The Kanamits can’t kill all of us—as they might in a typical alien invasion story—because they need a breeding population to keep their main course coming. Yes, I can see the horror here, but there’s also a certain appeal that is easier for me to see now than when I was a teenager. A world where your every want and need is taken care of could be a nice one. A world without war could definitely be a nice one.
The question, I suppose, is how much you value your own independence, how willing you are to push against the grain. “To Serve Man” has become one of those episodes of this show that gets so often shown in high schools because it promotes those sorts of thoughts at a time when many teenagers are starting to really question everything they were raised with in earnest. Adolescence is a time of rebellion, and “To Serve Man” paints a scenario where rebellion is called for, but everybody is lulled into complacency by basic creature comforts. The Twilight Zone couldn’t afford to do a full-scale alien invasion, so it instead adapts a Damon Knight short story where the classic theme of a few aliens subduing an entire human population crops up. The Kanamits seem like they would be so easy to fight back against, but nobody does so. They’re too blinded by the stuff they’re getting.
That, of course, is perfect for a teenager, certain that his parents are too complacent because of their creature comforts, certain that all of the adults she sees are blinded to the coursing emotions and pain of everyday life. To see this at 17 is to think that, yes, you would fight back against the Kanamits. Even if you couldn’t decipher what was in that book, you would realize something was up, that your species was to be decimated via the least likely means possible. To watch as an adult, however, is to realize how sadly plausible this all is, to realize just how nice it might be to not have to worry anymore. To watch as an adult is also to realize just how riddled with plot holes this thing is.
I try not to criticize works of fiction based on plot holes unless they jump up and grab me around the throat. All stories have gaps in them, places where the logic doesn’t entirely make sense or where the characters do things for the convenience of the plot, and insisting that they don’t is to force every story into the drudgery of operating only under the rules of logic. But stories also have an internal logic, and “To Serve Man” violates that sense of internal logic we all have constantly. The whole story is building to that twist, a twist that makes less and less sense the more you pry it apart. For starters, how on Earth is English a one-to-one match for whatever language the Kanamits have? And if we assume that the Kanamits made the book as a decoy (as we very well might), then why did they fill it with recipes? And why did they simply leave it laying around at the United Nations? Don’t get me wrong. “It’s a cookbook!” is a fantastic moment, a gut punch of an ending, but the road to that point is filled with so many things we have to accept to make the story move forward that it all becomes a bit much.
What’s also abundantly clear is that the story on the way to the twist is vamping for time. Once everything snaps into place, the “humans become cattle” thing is diabolically clever and fun. But I don’t know that we needed all of the scenes where people are suspicious of the Kanamits, then have their suspicions overcome by the Kanamits seeming to be exactly what they say they are. There’s a scene where one appears before the United Nations. There’s a scene where one takes a lie detector test. We hear all about the various things the Kanamits do around the world. It’s the same story beat, hit over and over and over again, and it eventually becomes a little wearing. What’s more, the opening scene with Chambers on board the spaceship (which I had forgotten entirely) makes it abundantly clear that these aliens are not as they seem, which leads to even more time waiting for the shoe to drop.
I’m not trying to take down a sacred cow here or anything. I still like “To Serve Man.” I just have my doubts about its place as an all-time classic episode of the show. By and large, it’s all about the ending, and once you know the ending, then the rest of it becomes that much easier to pick apart. I guess what I’m trying to say is that “To Serve Man” is the perfect episode of the show is what you primarily value about it are the closing twists, because the closing twist is a doozy. But what I tend to value about the show are strong stories, great guest performances, and the eerie sense one gets as the show throws our political ideals and values underneath a science fiction or horror microscope. “To Serve Man” is a very good episode of this show, with some very good moments, a great ending, and some interesting subtext. Yet I don’t know if I’d call it a great one. Its reputation, such as it is, rests entirely on three words, blurted at the end and not really enough for everything else to stand on.
What a twist!: C’mon. Do I really need to tell you? The book the Kanamits left is a cookbook, not a guide to serving humans.
- Richard Kiel, probably best known for playing Jaws in several James Bond films and videogames, pops up here as the Kanamit we see most often. The thing I might love the most about this episode is the unearthly way the Kanamits move and speak. They communicate telepathically, so they pipe in their little speeches on a speaker, which means Kiel stands there, head cocked to the side, mouth hanging open. It’s an eerie effect that absolutely works.
- That scene at the United Nations is an accent-palooza, huh? That said, I really like when the Soviet ambassador can’t stop chewing on his pencil.
- I think what makes this episode ultimately work is the hint of humor in all of it. Without that, it could seem too overbearingly serious. Yet Serling’s narration, especially, is very cheeky, and it makes the whole thing go down a bit easier.
- It’s interesting to me that a show that was so anti-war on so many occasions seems here to suggest that humans’ militaristic spirit might come in handy on some occasion.
- I thought the score in this episode was really quite good. I should have. Turns out that it’s stock stuff from Jerry Goldsmith’s previous work on the show.
Next week: Zack tracks down “The Fugitive” (not that one), then goes in search of a “Little Girl Lost.”