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Throwback Thursday - The Twilight Zone - The Monsters are Due on Maple Street

Written By: Rod Serling

Directed By: Ronald Winston

Original Airdate: March 4th, 1960

Throwback Thursday is a weekly article in which we look back at our favorite TV episodes from the past.

Joseph McCarthy.

Anyone who’s studied their U.S. history, or even has a fleeting understanding of it, knows that name very well. It’s a name that became associated with one of the darkest and most troubling periods In U.S. history, a name that still reverberates even to this day because of the fallout associated with the man in question. I’m referring, of course, to the era of McCarthyism.

To summarize: During the late 1940s and early 1950s, Cold War tensions were steadily increasing, and anti-communist fervor was growing here in the States. President Truman signed an executive order to screen federal agents for potential associations with any totalitarian, fascist, communist, or subversive groups. Inspired by such efforts, Senator McCarthy decided to up the ante even further. He wanted to weed out anyone in the States that he suspected either was a communist or sympathetic to communist causes, fearing they were infiltrating all aspects of U.S. life. There were televised hearings, smear tactics galore, even an unofficial Hollywood blacklist that cost many actors, writers, directors, and musicians their jobs in the process. Seriously, go look up the list of people that were blacklisted. It’s quite the fascinating, unsettling read. The “Lavender Scare” was an outgrowth of this investigation as well, and put many LGBTQ people at even more of a heightened risk than usual.

Problem was, however, that McCarthy’s criteria for who might have been a communist or sympathizer was...extremely thin, to say the least. As his efforts became increasingly extreme, he began facing a lot of criticism and backlash. News anchors openly called him out on air, and during one of the hearings, In what is often cited as the turning point in people’s view of McCarthy and his efforts, Joseph Welch, an attorney for the Army, finally got so fed up that he ripped into the senator with this infamous response:

“Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”

Eventually, between the growing public disapproval and an intervention from the Warren Supreme Court, McCarthyism withered away. His name, and that era, now hold only negative connotations, having become synonymous with any situation where someone, or a group of people, goes on a “witch hunt” to weed out those whom they perceive as a threat for whatever reason, and will use any and all means necessary to target and punish those they deem suspicious.

Now, I can hear you saying, “Thanks for the history lesson, but what does this have to do with The Twilight Zone?” Quite a bit, actually, as it was this very era that proved to be a strong source of inspiration for this particular episode, which was written by the show’s creator, Rod Serling.

“There is a fifth dimension, beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man's fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call the Twilight Zone.”

Chances are, even if you’ve never seen The Twilight Zone, you’re still familiar with the show and its concept to some degree. Perhaps you’ve hummed the eerie opening theme. Or you’ve seen some show that has referenced or parodied some of the series’ more memorable episodes. You’ve probably even felt that you’d entered the Twilight Zone anytime you found yourself in some bizarre situation. The series has become that ingrained into the public consciousness and pop culture over the past sixty plus years, to the point where it feels like it’s been around forever.

But of course, that’s obviously not the case. Viewers were first introduced to the surreal, creepy, fantastical world that is The Twilight Zone in October of 1959. Television was still a fairly young medium at the time, and most of the programming was very clean-cut, innocent fare – family sitcoms, game shows, and talk shows. Alfred Hitchcock had proved in earlier years that there was room for darker series on TV, but his stories were more suspenseful, and were set in the real world. Could a show as wild as Twilight Zone find its place amidst all of that?

Fortunately, it could, and it did. The series was popular with critics and viewers right out the gate, for a number of reasons. First, it had some real bonafide talent behind the camera. The show boasted intelligent, thoughtful, sharp writing, which wasn’t surprising given Serling’s involvement. He’d built up quite an impressive resume in the industry, receiving critical acclaim for his writing for other series. He further honed those skills on The Twilight Zone, and brought on a staff of equally impressive and talented writers, along with some of the best crew members in the industry. What’s more, the series featured a veritable who’s who of A-list actors – and the kicker is that many of them weren’t even well-known yet at the time! This show just seemed to have a real knack for finding and nurturing great talents.

Second, many of the episodes, like “Time Enough at Last” and “The Hitch-hiker”, were instant classics, thanks to their engrossing stories as well as clever, and often shocking, twist endings. These types of endings became a common element of the series – if social media had been around back then, there would have been spoiler alerts all over the place anytime people reviewed or discussed an episode. Modern viewers watching this series might be a little more jaded about that aspect, because shows with shocking twists are a dime a dozen nowadays. But back in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, those kinds of endings were still a novel enough device, and as such, kept viewers on their toes.

But perhaps the biggest reason the show appealed to viewers had to do with another common element that showed up in episodes like “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street”. As the series’ creator and writer of 92 of its 156 episodes, Serling had the floor, and by God, he was going to use it to make his voice and opinions heard. He saw the potential in the medium of television, believing it had the power not just to entertain, but also to educate and inform, a mindset that had shown up in his pre-Twilight Zone works as well.

Unfortunately, he’d also had to deal with network censors and nervous advertisers who’d often preferred to avoid controversial topics altogether. This was a large part of what made The Twilight Zone such an appealing concept for Serling. The show’s sci-fi premise was a perfect means for him to subtly insert his views and beliefs and address the important issues of the day. “Monsters” was a prime example of the kind of political and social commentary this show would come to be known for, and its inspiration came from his observations of the aforementioned McCarthy era.

So, with that backstory in place, let’s explore the events of this episode, and the themes it touches upon.

As is often the case for most of the characters on this series, things start off innocently enough. However, as Serling notes in his opening monologue, that innocence will not last long.

“Maple Street, U.S.A., late summer. A tree-lined little world of front porch gliders, barbecues, the laughter of children, and the bell of an ice cream vendor. At the sound of the roar and the flash of light, it will be precisely 6:43 pm on Maple Street. This is Maple Street on a late Saturday afternoon. Maple Street, in the last calm and reflective moment – before the monsters came.”

Indeed, we barely get much time to enjoy the peace and quiet before a shadow suddenly appears over the street, accompanied by the strange sights and sounds referenced above. Naturally, the neighbors are startled by this unexpected phenomenon, but they initially brush it off as some kind of freak electrical storm or a meteor. Except, the sun is out, so how can that be? Things get even more curious when everyone notices the power is out all over the neighborhood. The phones and ovens aren’t working, either, and even the battery-powered radios won’t turn on and cars won’t start. It’s all very odd – clearly this is more than just a simple power outage.

The group gathers to try and figure out what the problem could be, still certain it had something to do with that weird thing in the sky. Perhaps it’s sunspots? Two of the men, Steve and Charlie, plan to walk into town to see if others are experiencing the same issue, in the hopes of perhaps better narrowing down the issue.

Before they leave, however, a young boy, Tommy, pipes up and warns them not to go. He’s nervous, you see, because he claims to have read a story about an alien invasion that began with an incident just like this one. Apparently, in the story, the aliens came disguised as a family. They moved into the neighborhood, and covertly caused a power outage in the hopes of trapping the citizens, thus allowing their fellow aliens to strike.

“Well, I guess what we need to do is run a check of the neighborhood and find out which ones of us are really human.”

Of course, the adults all laugh this off. An alien invasion? How ludicrous! Just a boy’s overactive imagination at work. Still, they did lose their power (and more), just like the people in the story, and nobody’s been able to leave, at least, not easily…

The tension only continues to grow as the day wears on and more bizarre events occur. First, one neighbor, Les, comes under immediate suspicion when his car starts seemingly out of nowhere. Why did his car start, when nobody else could get theirs working? Why does he like to stand outside at night and stare up at the sky! Why didn’t he join the others to investigate the strange noise earlier?

“You scared, frightened rabbits, you. You’re sick people, you know that?”

He’s not the only one under scrutiny, however. There’s Steve, who the neighbors learn likes to tool around in his basement with a radio...that nobody else has ever seen. Charlie is getting increasingly antagonistic and eager to accuse any and everyone in sight. And then there’s young Tommy, who sure knows an awful lot about alien invasions… Everyone’s secrets and personal lives become suspect, and as night falls and the power outage continues, the crowd becomes more and more restless and frustrated. It soon becomes increasingly clear that nothing is what it seems, and the nightmare has only just begun.

Does this kind of scene sound familiar? The paranoia, the suspicion, the fear and mob mentality? It should – we’ve all seen plenty of instances of similar incidents in action in the real world. McCarthyism was a classic example. Now, that situation didn’t unfold nearly as rapidly as the events of this episode did. It built up over a period of time. One might watch this episode and wonder just how likely it is that things would play out as fast as they do here, or how believable it is that adults would take the fantastical stories of a child so seriously.

To that, I will say, just look at how fast people can latch on to any conspiracy theory, no matter how outlandish. Look at how quickly rumors start and spread. Look at the way those who try and call them out can be ignored or dismissed. Look at the organizations or outlets that exist solely to spread lies and untruths. Look at the people in power who are willing to exploit and manipulate those lies and untruths for their own gain.

In short, one could plop this episode into any timeline, past, present, or (unfortunately) likely, future, and it would be just as relevant as it was when it originally aired. Case in point, real world events inspired another take on this story with the second TV revival of the series, which aired in 2002. That version was set in a post-9/11 world, with terrorism, naturally, being the main threat to the neighborhood. The remake was good, if perhaps a little on the nose, and the overall message didn’t really change much, but perhaps that speaks more to its power than anything else. Incidentally, for those who’d like to compare and contrast the two episodes, the 2002 version, under a similar title, is available to watch on YouTube.

But that is what well-written, intelligent fiction does. It reflects our society at its best or, in this case, at its worst, and touches on themes and issues of importance that are worth thinking about, learning from, and discussing. This episode in particular has even been shown in schools, its message is that significant. I first saw it in my ninth grade English class, of all places – it was one of the first episodes I’d actually seen, and I was hooked. I’ve always loved stories with a message, so it’s no surprise I latched on to this show as a result.

Given the show’s longevity and enduring popularity, I’m clearly not alone in feeling that way, either. The fact this show was able to succeed with such a strong political and social bent is proof that there was, and continues to be, an audience for this kind of programming in general. Many other shows, both in the sci-fi realm and in other genres, have since followed suit in the years and decades to come, touching on similar topics, and they would have varying degrees of success and popularity. But they all have this show to thank for paving the way, and allowing different voices and opinions to be heard.

Of course, as discussed earlier, the writing and the commentary weren’t the only elements that made this episode so great. The actors sell the drama and the horror of the situation brilliantly, taking what could’ve come off in lesser hands as a silly “aliens invading!” premise and giving the storyline its necessary gravitas. What’s more, they all look and behave like real people that viewers may recognize as their own neighbors, or family members, or friends. Jack Weston, who plays Charlie, perfectly captures his character’s jumpy, nervous, twitchy demeanor – you really get the sense that he’s about to snap at any moment. Barry Atwater, who plays Les, is a prime example of the kind of ordinary-looking suburban neighbor who may or may not be all that he seems.

And then there’s Claude Akins as Steve. He’s got the handsome, steady presence and the deep, commanding voice that was standard for heroic characters of that era. He even gets a big, dramatic speech halfway through the episode. He’s the guy that you would instantly feel safe around, the guy who, the moment he speaks, will make you believe, “Oh, he’s here. Well, everything’s going to be okay, then.” Which is, I think, a large part of what makes the events of this episode all the more horrifying. Because if someone like him has a hard time controlling the madness...who can?

I’d be remiss if I didn’t give a shout out to the crew as well. The episode’s director, Ronald Winston, was a relative newcomer, and he proved himself quite adept with this episode. The direction, the cinematography, the music, they all do a fantastic job of utilizing the setting and the time of day in such a way that ratchets up the terror and makes everything feel increasingly claustrophobic. Notice how, at the start, the neighborhood looks so inviting and open and spacious, and the day is bright and cheery.

But as night falls and the situation deteriorates, the shadows, along with the limited focus on a select group of characters and homes, heighten the feelings of fear and uncertainty. This episode takes the simple, innocent suburbia seen in its contemporaries like Leave it to Beaver and does a great job of turning it on its head, finding the darkness lurking underneath. There’s also some well-placed closeups on characters’ faces, as a means of illustrating the intense scrutiny they’re facing. It all makes the viewers feel like they’re trapped within this nightmare right alongside the crowd. This episode is a great argument for why some things are better in black and white – I don’t know that the tension and horror would come across nearly as well if this were filmed in color.

As noted, there have been many attempts to revive this series over the years. There was a 1980s version that lasted three seasons, a 1983 movie that is remembered more for a horrific tragedy that happened during its filming than anything else, the 2002 version (the least successful of the three TV revivals, lasting just one season), and the current one led by Jordan Peele, which now has two seasons under its belt. True to form, they’ve all put their own political and social stamp on their versions as well, making them appropriately relevant for their respective time periods and providing their own moving and powerful stories along the way. There’s a case to be made for each revival, in my view – even the movie has its good points. I’ll admit to being rather biased, though, as I’m just a fan of this universe and franchise in general.

But at the end of the day, there’s a reason the original series remains the classic standard. If anyone is ever curious to jump into this world, this version should be the natural and obvious starting point, both to see how it all began, and also to see just how ahead of his time Serling was, as well as how relevant his original messages remain all these years later. To that point, I can’t think of any better way to end this review than with Serling’s own words that close out the episode:

“The tools of conquest do not necessarily come with bombs and explosions and fallout. There are weapons that are simply thoughts, attitudes, be found only in the minds of men. For the record, prejudices can kill, and suspicion can destroy, and a thoughtless, frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout all of its own – for the children and the children yet unborn. And the pity of it is that these things cannot be confined to the Twilight Zone.”

What did you think of this episode? Did the ending surprise you, or did you guess it early on? What are your thoughts on the episode’s message? How do you prefer shows to address these kinds of topics, if at all? How do you think you’d fare in this kind of situation? For those familiar with this series, what are some of your favorite episodes? Share your thoughts in the comments!

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