I, for one, liked the “It’s a Good Life” sequel. I saw the original when it was first broadcast on prime time, and it scared the hell out of me. Years later I read the original short story by Jerome Bixby, and liked it even better. Joe Dante “adapted” it as a segment of the 1982 Twilight Zone movie, but they slapped an anomalous happy ending on it, which didn’t convince. One thing I like about last night’s version was its avoidance of the usual and expected “tie all ends up happy ending” – that smacked of the pith of the original Twilight Zone.
I don’t ordinarily watch the new Twilight Zone, but Pepper Mill had just finished watching Enterprise and it was still on, and I got hooked by the opening that obviously recalled the original “It’s a Good Life”, including a shot of Billy Mumy from the original. “That’s Billy Mumy”, I told Pepper, expecting this show to be a lame remake. Then the camera came up to a present-day Billy Mumy reprising his role, and I realized, as when I saw the openming credits for “Star Wars”, that this might be something good. They had gone to the trouble of getting the original star (stars, once I saw Chloris Leachman was in it) and even getting Mumy’s daughter to play his character’s daughter, and realized that they were going to have a stab at a real sequel. I was hooked.
I have to admire the way they did it. The emphasis, as in Serling’s day, was on the writing and acting, and not on effects or even (despite what everone always thinks) on a “twist” ending. They deliberately kept the effects low-key and reserved, even though, in this CGI age, they could easily have gone a lot wilder. (If you want to see wilder, even without CGI, have a look at Joe Dante’s take on it in the TZ movie) They limited themselves to jazzing up the disappearances a bit, and a few effects like the firesuit that were non-CGI.
The story was simple and tantalizing with its possibilities. Mumy’s character’s daughter is coming of age and showing the same sorts of powers, only she can make things appear as well as disappear. Will she use it for or against her father? How will the remaining townsfolk react? Where do we go from here?
A lot of what made it good were the small touches that made it clear they had thought things out – there’s no electricity, so entertainment is piano-playing and bowling. At night, light conmes from kerosene lanterns.
The original TZ showed that you could do good sf and fantasy on a budget. You didn’t need elaborate mechanical robots – robots on the old TZ were often people, who “froze” when they were off. They re-used a lot of stock footage and old props from “Forbidden Planet”. Yet they told a lot of good short sf/fantasy from the pulps that would otherwise never have made it to the screen, and they avoided formula. Bixby’s short story was one of those 1950s pulp stories that achieved added life because Serling decided to dramatize it. What he lost in the internal dialogue he made up for in visual impact. (Bixby, who wrote “It! The Terror from Beyond Space”, from which “Alien” was ripped off, a couple of other undeservedly forgotten 1950s sf films, and developed “Fantastic Voyage” from a Vernesque treatment to the version filmed, deserves to be better remembered.)
Some of the touches I liked in the original were the way Mumy’s character made “TV” shows of fighting dinosaurs. In Bixby’s story the “TV” shows were vague and unreal, but for TV the used stock footage from “Lost Continent”. It was a good choice – as a kid the same age, I would’ve watched fighting dinosaurs like that if I had the chance. A good example of using your low budget to your advantage. I’m sure last night’s episode had a much bigger budget, but they wisely showed restraint. No TV at all.
At the end of it, reflecting on how everything got sent “to the cornfield”, Pepper Mill snapped her fingers.
“Of course!” she said, “That’s where all those ball players in the corn were coming from!”