The Twilight Zone

My latest Netflix binge is The Twilight Zone, which I think is the best TV show ever. Here I’m talking about the original; I haven’t seen enough of the revivals to form an opinion on them. Rod Serling says in the introduction, “You are about to enter another dimension: a dimension not only of sight and sound, but of mind.” He isn’t kidding; almost every episode has something to make you think.

A frequent theme is second chances. If you could go back to your own past, could you recover something you’ve lost or avoid the mistakes you made? In some stories the characters end up no better than before, but in others they learn something. Other episodes are about the consequences of getting what you wish for.

Twilight Zone imageThe episodes tell us something about the times. People are smoking everywhere. A genie grants a couple’s wish for a million dollars, but the IRS promptly takes over $900,000 of it. Some episodes reflect the belief that the primitive computers of circa 1960 were capable of superhuman knowledge or soon would be. “From Agnes, with Love” is intentionally humorous in its portrayal of a programmer’s relationship with a computer, but it’s become unintentionally funnier over the decades.

Some of my favorite episodes:

“The Invaders” pits a woman, played by Agnes Moorehead, against tiny aliens who have landed on her roof. Never mind that they look as if the prop department bought them at a toy store. The tension doesn’t let up, and the courage which she shows is impressive. There is no dialogue until near the end, when … If you’ve seen it, you know, and if you haven’t, I won’t spoil it for you.

“The Quality of Mercy” is set on a Pacific island near the end of World War II, and it makes a bold anti-war statement.

“The Last Night of a Jockey” is an impressive one-man, one-room play starring Mickey Rooney, and an example of the “be careful what you wish for” episodes.

A small number of episodes are clunkers. I’ll be happy never to see certain other episodes again, such as “It’s a Good Life” and “Queen of the Nile,” not because they’re badly done in any way, but because I just don’t like nightmares.

For some reason, Netflix has seasons 1, 2, 3, and 5, but not 4.

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Grimm reality

Grimm is the only TV series I watch every episode of, and that largely for social reasons. It has its good points but also some really disturbing ones, and like some other shows I’ve sampled, really excessive amounts of violence. Generally I look at fantasy shows through a fan filter, not worrying much about how implausible they are. But it’s also a cop show, and it’s harder to separate that from reality when the cops are doing things that couldn’t be justified in real life.

David Giuntoli as Nick Burkhardt (IMDB)For those who don’t know it, here’s a quick explanation of the premise. There are beings who resemble creatures from folk tales when in their true form, but who can pass for human. They’re called Wesen, which is German for “beings.” Most are harmless but some do very nasty things. A few people, called “Grimms,” can see them for what they are and have a special ability to fight them. Nick Burkhardt, a detective for the Portland, Oregon police, is a Grimm. There are huge numbers of Wesen in Portland and, as far as we can tell, everywhere else. Traditionally, Grimms and Wesen have been deadly enemies, but Nick is trying to change this. In the police department, just four people know about this situation; one of them is Nick’s boss, who is a half-Wesen. A group in Europe called the Royal Families wants to maintain old traditions and really hates Nick.

For a while the show was making some positive points about the relationship between the police and a minority group. Most Wesen really distrust Grimms, with good historical reasons. Sometimes Nick is able to break through the distrust. But in the last few episodes of the fourth season the conflict with the Royals gets more intense, and Nick has a man abducted and then kills him in a duel. The man he kills really deserves it, naturally, and Nick has a strong personal reason for what he does. Still, it’s first-degree murder under the law.

Let’s look at this through the reality filter. An unknown subspecies of humans is living among us, including enough bad ones that almost every week one of them commits a murder in Portland. Nick and his circle have taken it on themselves to keep this a secret, even though it’s costing lives. If they were just private citizens, this would be their choice; the Wesen have kept their existence secret for centuries, and revealing their existence would be bad for them. When the police cover up the existence of creatures who commit crimes, though, it’s a very different matter. They try to keep Wesen cases from going to trial, or they conceal important parts of the story from the court. By the end of the fourth season, Nick and his associates have engaged in a big secret raid and committed extra-judicial killings. There’s no justification for police operating this way.

Maybe the fifth season will offer some reflection on what’s happened and a change in course. I’m afraid, though, that the show’s producers just think that showing cops killing people and getting away with it boosts ratings. Maybe they think that the people who watch Grimm are the ones who think the Ferguson and Baltimore cops can do no wrong. If so, I think they’ve seriously misjudged the audience.

I’m thinking of working this premise up into an article for sale. Please comment on any points you think I could make better.

On firing people for their ideas

Phil Robertson is a jerk. Putting him on “hiatus,” whether that means outright firing or a suspension till things cool off, isn’t a violation of his Constitutional rights. Unlike Sarah Palin, I don’t admire him at all. But our principles are tested by how we respond to people we don’t like. Should employers fire people for public remarks them make outside work?

A Washington Post article provides some useful background for those who, like me, had never watched Duck Dynasty or heard of Phil Robertson. His remarks about gays have gotten the most publicity, but I personally take the most offense at his attack on the entire non-Christian world:

All you have to do is look at any society where there is no Jesus. I’ll give you four: Nazis, no Jesus. Look at their record. Uh, Shintos? They started this thing in Pearl Harbor. Any Jesus among them? None. Communists? None. Islamists? Zero. That’s eighty years of ideologies that have popped up where no Jesus was allowed among those four groups. Just look at the records as far as murder goes among those four groups.

“Nazis, no Jesus” is completely false. Hitler was a Catholic and was never excommunicated. The large majority of the Christian churches in Germany, with the conspicuous and brave exception of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, supported the Nazis. Nazi antisemitism had its roots in Christian condemnation of the Jews for “rejecting” Jesus, a condemnation which is consistent with Robertson’s view.

If those remarks are characteristic of Robertson, he’s not a very appealing person. But he could still be a good actor, a friendly person, perhaps even someone who gets along with people whose religion he despises. I don’t know, and I’d want answers to these questions if I were the one making a firing decision. This isn’t a legal issue of free speech, but an issue of tolerance and the spirit of free speech.

If employers commonly fired employees for things they said outside work, this country would be a very different place. Even with complete freedom of speech under law, people would be afraid to say anything controversial in public. Sometimes they are, but usually we can express our views without serious risk of losing our jobs as long as our words don’t directly impact our employers.

Perhaps TV actors are a different case, though. Their public image is a big part of the value they offer. If Robertson’s remarks made Duck Dynasty‘s ratings drop, A&E might have to get rid of him, just as a business decision. In this case, though, it’s possible that A&E has hurt itself worse by suspending Robertson and antagonizing conservatives. A more important problem is that those decisions lead to suppressing unpopular ideas, not necessarily bad ones. It’s been said that Hollywood people were afraid to criticize Obama’s proposal to bomb Syria because they’d be smeared as “anti-black.” If that could cost them work, their silence is understandable.

Robertson said some stupid things, and A&E had the right to suspend or fire him, but it would have been better simply to answer his irrational words with rational ones. You can’t chant that as a slogan, though.

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