I've written a 2000 word feature today on The Twilight Zone episode, "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street." Excerpt here. This is really good. Very strong.
What you’ll note about the best television programs is that they arrive almost fully-formed. They do not ramp up to quality. That first season of The Twilight Zone contains both a perfect work of television drama, and arguably the most forward-looking program of that time period, or maybe any other, with the way our world is playing out in the digital age of fake news, paranoia, Woke mobs, humans hunting humans.
The work of perfection would be the fifth episode, “Walking Distance,” Serling’s paean to the life we have known and loved, which no longer remains, and the search for the life that may be better-loved yet. And then we have episode twenty-two, “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” the signpost—to filch a noun from Serling’s opening voice-over narration—that shows the way from 1960 straight to 2020.
The prefatory montage to each Zone episode was like a crisscross of Dali and Cocteau, a serged seam that, when perforated, took us into another world, but with “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” it’s as though those foggy mists of time and the cosmos are burned off by the heat of what we’re told is a late summer day, and then we see a literal sign post, telling us that we have come to Maple Street. Welcome, stranger.
A neighborhood teems with life. Kids bust away from a game of baseball to surround the ice cream man, while adults, busy at their chores—watering the lawn, washing the car—hobnob with each other, affable multi-taskers. You have the sense they have come out of their houses on this day less for chores, more for camaraderie.
The sign for Maple Street which crowns this block in suburbia where you can stroll down the middle of the road, with little passing traffic, the perfect spot for foregathering. Among the gregarious men is Steve Brand, played by Claude Akins. He’s one of those actors whose presence all but assures quality. Serling knows this, as did Howard Hawks, who stuck Akins in the besieged jail of Rio Bravo the year before. As a viewer, you centered on his presence. He’s the character actor form of veracity. For good or bad.
Akins was often a “heavy”—and he had the build to fill out both parts of the description—but in this episode he’s more ursine, a protective bear—for the block as a whole. A meteor passes overhead, witnessed by all. It’s curious that we think of this as a strictly night phenomenon, as we do a ghost. A glimpsed spirit in the day is theoretically more discomfiting than encountering the Billowing Lady at night, and so it goes with this projectile from the stars tumbling to earth on a summer afternoon.
There’s a curiosity factor—a communal query of “What the heck was that?”—which modulates to fear when a teen boy named Tommy says, matter of factly, that this is just how the alien takeover begins in his comic books. Textbook form, actually.
The casualness of his tone is disarming, akin to how so many of us speak now when we’re relaying something we’ve not vetted, as if something mentioned on the internet becomes the chapter and verse of realty. All the more so if the representative of that chapter and verse is on the proper side of the fearmongering and identity politics of the day. Here in our society, if you say that you found a rope in a tree that is really part of a man’s exercise equipment, and if your intention is to get people to believe that hangings were about to commence, then the goal is easily realized. The White Knights ride. But state the clause, “The White Knights ride,” and someone can say you advocate for the Klan. We feel that anything can get us. It’s not that it can—it’s that thinking it can get us, and not rising above that, allows it to get us.