Sunday, September 4, 2011
Off Kilter TV: Where Horror Rears Its Ugly Head on Family Television
When we watch family television, we have certain expectations about our favorite programs past and present: In our comedies, like I Love Lucy, we expect Lucy to get into and out of trouble and make us laugh in the process; in our supernatural shows, like X-Files, we expect other-worldly creatures, science fiction dilemmas, and unexplained phenomena. What we don’t expect is Lucy taking on monsters or Mulder and Scully stealing John Wayne’s cement footprints from the Grauman’s Chinese Theater. But sometimes a show will surprise our expectations. These unexpected TV shows are what I call Off Kilter TV. We find them on all types of TV shows, from comedy to drama to supernatural, from the Golden Age of TV to today. Every other month or so, I will present to you readers some of my favorite OKTV shows. I welcome comments and suggestions about Off Kilter shows you like as well.
In today’s column, I give you the hit western TV show "Bonanza" and an episode called "Twilight Town". The first sign that this episode will be different from our usual western fare is that the story was written by Cy Chermak, who would later go on to produce "Kolchak: The Night Stalker" and write for "Star Trek: The Next Generation".
The story begins with Little Joe headed home with a large sum of money only to be bushwhacked by a highwayman who makes off with Joe’s horse and money. With a head injury Joe stumbles into the town of Martinville, a ghost town inhabited by tumbleweeds. There he collapses.
When he wakes, he is surrounded by townsfolk who are all staring at him. Next we see Joe being nursed by a young girl Louise Corman (with a nod to Roger Corman, perhaps) and her father. Joe still can’t believe these townsfolk are real and grabs Louise by the wrist. He is surprised to hold a solid wrist and releases it. Meanwhile, Mr. Corman talks to the town leaders and informs them that Joe has a gun. The others are skeptical, that a young man with a gun may not be enough.
It seems that the town leaders, in fact, the entire townsfolk, are seeking a person to replace the Sheriff, who we learn from his widow was gunned down by outlaws who will return to the town once more that very day. But not only do the residents of Martinville seek a Sheriff, they need someone who can stand up to the outlaws or they will keep returning to the town time and time again to wreak havoc.
Joe is nursed back to health and then forced to become the Sheriff. There are no horses anywhere in the town. The absence of livestock is blamed on the outlaws. Without a means to leave town, except on foot, Joe reluctantly accepts the law enforcer’s badge and confronts the outlaws, who warn that they will leave for now but when they return they will kill everyone in the town.
With the help of the men folk, Joe builds a barricade and organizes the men with weapons to fend off the outlaws. The ex-sheriff’s widow warns Joe that this isn’t the first time the townsfolk have tried to stand up to the outlaws, but when the outlaws appeared, the residents disappeared in fear, leaving the sheriff alone to face the dozen or so gunfighters and be gunned down. She also warns Joe that he isn’t the first since the death of her husband to be picked by the townsfolk to fight off the outlaws and that the townsfolk always abandon the person they pick when the outlaws arrive.
At first, the townsfolk do try to retreat, but Joe chastises them and leads them in an attack on the outlaws hiding behind some boulders. Both sides suffer losses. Joe confronts the leader of the outlaws, kills him, but is grazed by a bullet to the head and falls unconscious. His father, Ben Cartwright, and his two brothers, Adam and Hoss, revive him. They turn the dead outlaw leader over and it is the highwayman who bushwhacked Joe at the beginning of the episode. Martinville and the townsfolk have disappeared. The tumbleweeds have returned to the empty street of the town. Joe pleads with his family to believe him that he was not alone. Ben tells him that when a man knows something in his heart, he doesn’t have to convince anyone that it’s true. They ride home, but Joe takes a look back at the ghost town and sees Louise standing there emotionless and still for a second before vanishing.
Here’s why this episode is supernatural with horrific overtones in the big picture. This is basic metonymy 101, which means that by looking at a single puzzle piece, one can picture the entire puzzle. One day in Martinville for the TV viewer is the one piece to see the whole puzzle, that a gang of outlaws came to Martinville many, many years ago. They terrorized the town. The Sheriff gathered the men folk and planned to stand up to the gang. But they ran off in fear at the last second. When the outlaws arrived, the lawman faced them alone and was killed. To punish the town people for their futile attempt at defiance, the gang killed every man, then each man’s family, killing wives then children, in that order; before killing Louise, the gang leader raped her. Before the Sheriff’s wife was killed, she put a curse on the townsfolk to relive their moment of cowardice and its bloody consequences over and over again in a kind of Groundhog’s Day purgatory until a true leader came and risked his own life to turn these cowards to men. As Martinville became a ghost town, the townsfolk became ghosts, time shadows of that one fateful day. Men who passed by the ghost town who were capable of leading the town against the outlaws were able to see the ghosts as flesh and blood. Not one of these men survived the bullets of the phantom outlaws. Before Joe arrived, the ghosts of the residents of Martinville became flesh and blood again and again and relived this horrific day thousands and thousands of times: The rape, the murders of women and children and the deaths of the cowardly men (and also the livestock of the town). It was Joe who risked his life for them and ended their time warp in purgatory.
For Bonanza, this supernatural aspect to the episode Twilight Town is no doubt a wink to Rod Serling and The Twilight Zone. Cy Chermak doesn’t need to show us the gruesome details of the massacre. They are woven in the dialogue, the unfinished sentences, and the pregnant pauses. Even though we never see kids or horses in Martinville, there are several references by both outlaw and townsfolk referring to the killing of the children and livestock. We never see the killings, but we unweave the description of the cycle of murder, death, rebirth, and so forth as we relive the last day of their curse. Behind this story of heroism lies a chilling tale of supernatural revenge.
Off Kilter TV will see you readers soon with a look at "Gilligan’s Island". Don’t forget to leave the TV on before you go to sleep.