I've reviewed the new Twilight Zone, so it's only fair I review an episode of the original. The comparisons are interesting. And maybe I'll review the 80s TZ, since it's just starting to air on one of my local retro-channels, MeTV.
Why "The Obsolete Man"? I've always found it an interesting episode, and I'm not the only one judging from other reviews on the 'net. Why is it so interesting? Four reasons: the performances, the dialogue, the direction, and Rod Serling's sincerity
But what is "The Obsolete Man"? This 1961 episode, the season 2 finale, has Burgess Meredith as Romney Wordsworth, a librarian. He lives in a fascist State in an unknown location, and has been allowed to live because he has skills as a carpenter. The State has determined after a year's investigation that Romney is a librarian, and is deemed "obsolete" since the State doesn't like books, and people being reminded of history, and all that good stuff.
The first part of the episode is Romney's trial, such as it is. Which is him being hauled into a surrealistic courtroom where the State doesn't seem to have paid its electrical bill. The Chancellor (HITG Fritz Weaver) reads off the charge of obsolescence and basically browbeats Romney, telling him he's obsolete and the State considers books and thus librarians obsolete. There are a bunch of blandly-dressed jurors watching as well as a Subaltern (Josip Elic), none of which have anything to do with the trial. None of them except the Subaltern even have any dialogue.
The State is very obliging, in that they give the convicted their choice of execution. Rather than choose death among a dozen naked sex partners, Romney makes two unheard-of requests: only he and his executioner will know the means of his execution, and it will be televised live. The former is within the rules, whatever they are, and the Chancellor agrees to the second to impress the populace with the televised execution of someone defying the State.
The next part is set in Romney's apartment. He summons the Chancellor to visit him, locks the door, and then informs him he's chosen to be executed by bomb at the stroke of midnight. The Chancellor will die with Romney on live TV, and Romney says the State won't interfere because it would be admitting to weakness if they rescued the Chancellor from his death. The librarian then starts reading a Bible out loud until midnight, while the Chancellor sits, smokes, and sweats a lot. Eventually he cracks, and Romney unlocks the door and lets him out just before the bomb goes off.
Returning to the courtroom, the Chancellor discovers the Subaltern has taken his position and declares the Chancellor obsolete because he's a coward who failed to demonstrate the strength of the State. There's no one-year investigation and execution by preferred manner for the Chancellor. He tries to run and the jurors start moaning, cut him off, then tear him apart. Or at least that's what implied: it's 1961, so the episode ends with the Chancellor being dragged to the floor by the howling mob.
Serling shows up for the outro, stating the State is obsolete and implying it will eventually meet the same fate.
The chancellor- the late chancellor- was only partly correct. He was obsolete, but so is the state, the entity he worshiped. Any state, any entity, any ideology that fails to recognize the worth, the dignity, the rights of man- that state is obsolete. A case to be filed under "M" for Mankind in The Twilight Zone.
The first strength of the episode is the performances: Meredith and Weaver give it their all. They pretty much carry the entire show. Both aren't particularly well-rounded or believable: Romney is a virtuous man who never gives in to fear or panic. He's helped by a convenient set of rules about execution. The Chancellor is bombastic, then cowardly, then pitiful. Weaver does best at the latter: his pleas to serve the State are particularly moving, as much as he's the bad guy and isn't particularly moving. If the episode ran longer or made them anything more than mouthpieces for Serling's philosophy, they'd be ludicrous.
The second strength is the dialogue. The episode cuts right to the chase: Romney is tried, Romney's fate is a given, Romney turns the rules against his oppressors, Romney dies but achieves his goal, the Chancellor is hung on his own petard. Romney later echoes a lot of the earlier dialogue the Chancellor directed at him. The librarian refers to "you people" and the Chancellor asks for "clarification of the term". Later, the Chancellor says "they" won't let him stay in Romney's apartment and Romney asks for "clarification of the term".
The third strength is the directing by Elliot Silverstein. The courtroom set is a Dr. Caligari-like impressionistic nightmare, with a darkened room and a few carefully placed spotlights, and barely visible featureless walls. In contrast, Romney's apartment is cluttered and messy and lived-in.
There's also the ending, which has the jurors, or observers, or whatever the heck they are slowly growl in increasing volume, then rush the Chancellor and tear him apart. But there are also lots of little touches, like the Subaltern's sing-song voice as he passes sentence on the Chancellor.
I've noted the flaws in the episode, and other reviewers have noted them as well. Serling is as preachy as he ever gets. He's sending a message, but it's so basic ("Fascism is bad") and the State is such a vague yet stupid nemesis, it's hard to view them as at all realistic. There's no doubt Romney will "win", since he's so smart and saintly.
And the symbolism is as thick as it is shallow. Romney Wordsworth is a librarian, and he's a carpenter. No Christ symbology there! I do find it interesting Romney reads from the Bible: it's a Christian/religious touch you wouldn't find much of in 2019 TV. Granted, the episode isn't so much about Christian faith as the strength of the individual and faith in general. But Serling frames it in Christian terms. When the Chancellor begs Romney to release him in "the name of God", you get the impression he's invoking God rather than just using the term.
And while Romney never wavers in his faith, the Chancellor's faith in the State first crumbles, but then is curiously restored when he presents his faith in the State as the reason it should spare him at the end. Given how strong said faith is in the end, it's surprisingly how quickly it crumbled in the face of death but yet sprang back up again.
Although the 30-minute nature of the show rushes things along, it's also one of the strengths of the original TZ compared to the 2019 version. The moralizing goes on via Serling's intro and outro, while the episode itself serves more just to tell us a story. "How the mighty are brought low" and all that. The newer 2019 version uses its double air-time to have the characters spell out the societal issue of the week: racism, guns, men suffer from toxic masculinity. Jordan Peele's monologues don't lay out the issues like Serling's did: they serve moistly as ironic commentaries.
Part of why "The Obsolete Man" works is because of its sincerity. Like Serling, or hate him, he put himself out there. He may have worn his sentiments on his sleeve, but at least it's his sleeve. The newer TZ feels like Peele calling a bunch of creative people together and giving them their marching orders. If you don't like the original TZ because of its occasional social commentary, you can enjoy it as the study of one man: Rod Serling. Say what you will about the triteness of "The Obsolete Man": it feels like Serling is telling us what he really feels. His feeling isn't particularly original, and he acts as if the audience hasn't realized "fascism = bad", but what he does, he does with feeling. And that makes all the difference. Along with the acting and the directing.
But that's just my opinion, I could be wrong. What do you think?
Written by Gislef on May 28, 2019