29 May 2009

Twilight Zone: Walking Distance

Welcome back to continuing coverage of The Twilight Zone’s first season in celebration of its fiftieth anniversary.
Episode #5: Walking Distance
Directed by Robert Stevens. Written by Rod Serling. Starring Gig Young, Frank Overton, Ron Howard.

“Martin Sloan, age thirty-six. Occupation: Vice President, ad agency, in charge of media. This is not just a Sunday drive for Martin Sloan. He perhaps doesn’t know it at the time, but it’s an exodus. Somewhere up the road, he’s looking for sanity. And somewhere up the road, he’ll find something else.”

With its fifth aired episode, The Twilight Zone produced the first inarguable classic of its library, and one of the most emotionally moving moments in the show’s storied history—and the history of television. “Walking Distance” is twenty-four minutes of televised magic.

The story has a similar initial premise to Episode #1, “Where Is Everybody?” Man enters a town and discovers that something very odd has started to occur. But for Martin Sloan, a ruffled businessman whose short attitude toward the gas station attendant shows he doesn’t really know how to enjoy life any more, the trip to the small town of Homewood is a return to his roots, and not a trip to an empty netherworld. He grew up in this small town, but has not visited in twenty years. But once he enters the town—on foot while his car gets repaired, and after looking at himself in a mirror—he discovers that nothing about Homewood had changed from his childhood… right down to himself and his family.

Today we tend to remember The Twilight Zone for its clever twists, surreal premises, and aura of weird suspense. But many of the great episodes are deeply moving and sentimental without scares or trick-endings. “Walking Distance” is one of the best of that kind, never falling into the maudlin that often marred the lesser episodes that aimed too directly at the heart. The story feels akin to many of Ray Bradbury’s stories, particularly the ones collected in Dandelion Wine, in the way it explores the wonders and regrets of vanished childhood. The episode doesn’t conclude with any real “twist”—except maybe a glancing reference to a knee-injury—but Zone episodes don’t always require an O’Henry slant in every episode. “Walking Distance” leaves the viewer with a sense of both sorrow and hope: the wonder years are gone, but perhaps in our adult lives we might find time to recapture parts of them. The discussion between adult Martin Sloan and his past-father (Frank Overton) is a stirring exchange about how adults might find a way back to those merry-go-rounds of decades thought lost. The merry-go-round, as Ray Bradbury demonstrated in Something Wicked This Way Comes, is a potent metaphor for lost innocence. (And they’re sort of scary, too. Sudden Impact shows how they can turn into deadly weapons.)

The score is an original work from Bernard Herrmann, the composer most closely associated with the show, and widely considered the best movie composer in the history of the medium. Herrmann’s work here is a gut-twisting accompaniment to what’s on screen, and has deservedly seen many CD releases and re-recordings.

Catch the very young Ron Howard as the little boy with whom Gig Young discusses playing jacks on the suburban street.

Joe Dante, in his segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie, makes reference to this episode when character Helen Foley says she’s from the town of Homewood. All the towns mentioned in the movie’s diner scene are from the show, such “Willoughby,” from the episode “A Stop at Willoughby” from late in the first season (which might be viewed as a companion piece to this episode). Oh, the name “Helen Foley” comes from another first season episode, “Nightmare as a Child.” The Dante segment is loaded with these kind of references.