The Twilight Zone and all the images you see in this recap are owned by Warner Bros Television and based on the series created by Rod Serling
Episode directed by Allison L Brown
Welcome back everyone to the long-overdue return of my Twilight Zone recaps! It’s been almost two years since we last covered this series, and while I can give you a laundry list of excuses as to why this fell so far down the priority list, the truth is that I probably shouldn’t have let it go the way that I did given how far into the series I got. Well, that’s all gonna change as I am determined to finish this series once and for all, and what better episode to start with than what is arguably one of the best episodes of the entire series? It’s the kind of high concept and dismal portrayal of a future gone wrong that has led to some of the best speculative fiction like Brave New World and The Obsolete Man, but can it hope to compare to those classic stories, or is it straining to hold all of its big ideas together? Let’s find out!!
The episode begins with the idyllic middle-class life of Donna and Ted (Bonnie Somerville and Steve Bacic), though things have been less idyllic lately as Ted’s been out of work for some time and the bills are piling up. It’s far too early for the housing market crash, but maybe he was a victim of the Dot Com Bubble. Either way, he’s going for an interview this morning that will turn it all around and get their lives back on track. Donna is cautiously optimistic as she sends her son Wylie to school and enjoys some personal time at an affordable spa, but then things come crashing down in an instant when she gets one of the worst phone calls a parent could get; her son didn’t show up for school and is missing! Without missing a beat, she rushes to the police station to report her son’s disappearance only to be accosted by some dude named Nick Dart (Wayne Knight); the host of a reality show called How Much Do You Love Your Kid, and it looks like Donna is an unwitting participant in this game of theirs. Seems legit given how clearly we’ve demonstrated how little we care about the safety of children in the last few years.
Now we’ve definitely heard this story before as we get a few of these every generation; just adapted to suit the culture that it takes place in. In the sixties, they called it They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? , in the eighties, it was The Running Man, and today it’s called Squid Game. A story about the dehumanization of people for the amusement of others, and almost always has a classism bent to it. Here though, the classism stuff, while present, is definitely secondary to the other object of criticism here which is Reality Television. More specifically it seems to call to mind stuff like Survivor and Fear Factor; endurance tests that participants put themselves through for money that are all done to amuse the audience at home. This takes it to the logical extreme where all it requires is “licenses and permits” to effectively kidnap a child and hold their life over the mother’s head to participate in this gross exploitation of someone’s emotions. What’s worse is how oblivious everyone but Donna is to the implications of this as all side characters in this story, including actual police officers are gleefully participating with big smiles on their faces as they get their fifteen minutes of fame. It’s an excruciatingly frustrating setup that rivals some of the darkest moments in this show or even the original series!
So with no other choice in front of her, what does Donna have to do to get her kid back? She has sixty minutes to follow a series of clues to follow the trail of the kidnapper; hopefully getting closer and closer to her son with every puzzle she solves. It’s a pretty barebones setup as far as a reality show goes, but what it excels at is wringing out drama and distress from Donna whose exasperation and terror are very well realized by Bonnie Somerville. You are completely on her side as she is struggling to even comprehend what is happening and how everyone around her can be so heartless as to treat this like a game. Wayne Knight’s character in particular is utterly fascinating in this regard as he comes off as a true believer in whatever despicable end goal this show is supposed to have. He monologues about tapping into real human emotions and the price they are willing to pay to get there but said price is not being paid by the studio or even Nick. It’s even more sickening when he does show compassion and even helps Donna on this quest as it’s clear that he thinks he’s doing something good here and that the ends will ultimately justify the means with every tear down Donna’s face and every exasperated hunt for the next clue providing him and the network content to show to the masses. It’s a fine line that Wayne Knight has to walk to keep his character from going into outright mustache-twirling villainy, and it’s amazing just how good of a job he does with it here and I really wish that he would get a lot more credit as a great actor. Donna eventually manages to catch up to the kidnapper and gets into a car chase with them (Nick and crew capturing all the footage from the backseat), and then something unexpected happens when the car loses control and smashes through a barricade and into a ditch below!
Now I have done nothing but sing the praises of this episode, but the third act is where I think they may have tipped their hand a little too far and the messaging ended up feeling a bit muddled. The crash happens and the kidnapper limps away while the kid is stuck in the car. His injuries are bad but they aren’t life-threatening. Still, Donna feels utterly despondent after all this and good ol’ Nick gives her an opportunity. The game is not over yet if she doesn’t want it to be, and he hands her a gun to hunt the jerk down. She takes it, races after the kidnapper, and finally corners him to exact her revenge. This final chase feels a little misplaced since the whole idea is that the kidnapper is part of the show so I don’t know why she’s thinking of the kidnapper as a separate entity from Nick as his crew, but the fact is that she had to hunt him down to get to the big Twilight Zone twist of the episode; that the kidnapper was her husband Ted! TWILIGHT SHOCK! Ted tries to quell her fury and disappointment with how much money they’re gonna make with all of this; and it’s not like the kid got THAT hurt, right? With the kind of money they made, they can buy brand new ribs and pay off the mortgage! Donna is not persuaded by his economic arguments and shoots him dead in a fit of impulsive fury; an act she immediately regrets but puts a big smile on Nick’s face as he finally got what he wanted. He finally got what he wanted which was the purest expression of human emotion on screen, and with the money she won, she’ll have the best lawyers to try and avoid the death penalty; which I can only assume would also be broadcast to the masses.
Donna gets dragged away in handcuffs and our humble guide gives us the coda of the episode.
“There’s reality and there’s entertainment. There’s a life you lead and the fantasies you’re led to by a small but powerful group of people known as television executives, who recently discovered the entertainment value of real life. And in the future, if you think there’s a risk they won’t take, a line they won’t cross, then we have an offer to make… and some time for you to spend… in the Twilight Zone.”
Without question, this is a brilliantly put-together concept and executed about as well as anything else we’ve seen from this series which earns it some very high marks from me! Where it falters though is less in anything truly wrong with the story but in how I feel the ending could have been improved and even more biting. The brilliance of this story is how it handles the dehumanization of people, especially those in the lower class, in the pursuit of profit and fame. Daytime television is pretty much built off the backs of exploiting lower class people for reactions and drama, and the way that corporations like Disney can influence laws just by their presence in a community is not something we should ignore. To me though, it feels like the writers ended the story there with the ending monologue giving us a grave warning as to the power that corporations can wield. That’s a good message, but the more interesting thing about this story is how the rest of the world is in on it; how the lower class and even those in the middle, are willing to partake in this exploitation. The people smiling for the camera as this woman is running around the place trying to find her kid, the cops’ indifference to the situation even when things are clearly going wrong, I feel like the better message is one that has the target audience self-reflect on their own consumption of this media instead of just wagging their fingers at corporations who won’t even notice. There’s that, and I also think the episode didn’t exactly know what to do with Nick so he kind of skates through the ending in a way that doesn’t make sense. Now sure, the lower class playthings of the corporation fighting amongst themselves while leaving those truly responsible unscathed is a message I understand and implied in this story, but just from a narrative level, I don’t see Nick being able to escape so easily. A comparable example would be Dean Winters’s character in Future Trade who is similarly taking advantage of the lower class with slick promises and emotional manipulation, but his villainy is apparent long after he himself leaves the story. If it was up to me, I’d probably have Donna shoot them both and by the time she’s being dragged out, the network already has someone else to play host; showing the futility of a single person taking action, even ones as extreme as that, making any change to the power structures that are ruining their life. At this point though, I’m well past the point of actually criticizing the work, so just to bring it back down to Earth for a second, it accomplishes its goals as well as any episode of this or even the original series. Do I wish it could have been more? Sure, but I’m not gonna let that keep me from loving this episode and loving Wayne Knight! You did good, Officer Don! You did good!