Archive for November, 2009

The Birth of Irony

November 3, 2009

Back in the old days, when TV broadcasting was three networks and a local station showing old movies, the buzz around the elementary school lunch table was pretty homogenized (“Did you see The Beverly Hillbillies last night?” I never did because we always had to go to church.).  But there was one show everybody ooh’ed and ah’ed about, from fourth grade all the way through high school, and that was The Twilight Zone. Lucy, Rawhide and Route 66 are all part of our lost childhood, but TZ was something else–edgy before we even knew the edge was there. Envelope-pushing, before there was anything to push. But most of all, for children of the fifties gasping in shock at the dime-store spaceman being whacked by a broom, it was our introduction to irony.

Everybody my age has their most-memorable episode. Mine was “Eye of the Beholder,” which knocked the bobby socks off my set. It was ground-breaking: an entire drama shot, for the first half, without faces. What you saw was a) layers of gauze being unwrapped, as light very gradually increases, or b) hospital staff going about their business, picking up charts, pausing to chat. All the camera angles were odd: from the floor, from the ceiling, at doorway’s edge, as though we viewers were sneaking around corners to avoid being seen. What first-time pre-teen viewers didn’t realize was that it was the actors who weren’t supposed to be seen.

The story (for those who don’t have “Eye” in their Early Dramatic Experiences file) was about facial reconstruction. The character wrapped in gauze was born hideous, has suffered a life of rejection and is now staking all her hopes on a new plastic-surgery procedure. Inter-cut with the unwrapping layers are scenes of ordinary people going about the kind of ordinary life she wants so desperately. There’s nothing ominous in what they say or do, but a sense of dread gathers in those corners where the viewer lurks.

Finally, the gauze is almost gone, the light increasing to fever-brightness. Suddenly, the room is exposed, the moment seizes. Then a stab of violence: scissors hurled to the floor and the doctor’s voice, previously so soothing, now angrily shouting, “No change. No change!” A scream, and the patient hurls herself against the door. We see her from the back, knowing she’s about to turn around. Pure terror–we know she’s going to turn around, and we can’t look away! She turns–and her face is flawless.

Then the doctor turns, curtly ordering a hypodermic–and his face is hideous. CLAAAANG!

I mean, like WOW! All this time were expecting . . . well, exactly this. Once the point is not-to-subtly made, we realize that it was the only possible way to lead this story out of all those layers of gauze. To a kid it was shocking and yet (I hope I’m not reading too much into myself at that age) deeply satisfying. As if there is something in human consciousness that just knows when there’s more to a story than we’re being told. There’s one more twist in store: during the long letdown after that staggering climax, we learn that the doctors and nurses, at first so scary, are really sympathetic. They’ve prepared for the contingency that the reconstruction won’t work, and when Carol (Is her name Carol?) comes out of her sedative-haze they gently explain that there’s a place where she’ll be accepted as she is. It’s kind of an Ugly Colony, and a representative is waiting in the wings to take her there. He enters; after recoiling in horror, she agrees to go with him.

“I don’t know why not,” said a friend when we were talking it over later. “He was really cute.”  To which I thought, Don’t you GET it?!

“Getting it” was an artistic milestone for me, age ten.  TZ dumped the idea of irony right on our laps. Watch out, kids: Things are not what they seem. The farm woman we assume is one of us turns out to be one of them when she beats the crap out of a U. S. space ship. The young woman trapped in a department store after hours by sinister mannequins discovers that she’s a mannequin herself. A man finds a stopwatch that will actually stop time, and uses it to play his friends for dupes. But when he accidentally breaks the watch, time stops forever, leaving him Mr. Lonely, frantically searching the frozen streets for one animated human.

Some of those episodes that had such an effect on me probably don’t wear too well.  Even in memory, Rod Serling’s voiceovers have the ring of pretentiousness.  But I remember how struck we were, the excited chatter around the lunchroom table the next day.  Maybe it aged us a little before our time; television made us “knowing” before we really knew anything.  But TZ was an introduction to the land of pure story, where how it’s told matters as much as what it is.