Christmas in The Twilight Zone: Revisiting Night of the Meek

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After the camera pans down from the familiar outer space background of The Twilight Zone’s opening graphics into the set of a department store’s “North Pole” Christmas display, what startles every Zone aficionado is the weird “look” of the photography—because it’s not the black and white filmed look we’ve come to associate with The Twilight Zone, it’s shot on videotape, and therefore has video’s more immediate, yet somewhat cheaper and tawdrier appearance. It looks as dated as The Twilight Zone’s filmed episodes look timeless. (Serling himself hated the videotaped look, writing to a Young & Rubicam ad exec who had championed “Meek” to CBS that the episode was “an abomination, and looks for all the world like a rough dress rehearsal that is a couple days from coming around.”)

“Meek” was one of six second-season episodes (out of 156 total) videotaped in a cost-cutting experiment that produced shows of somewhat negligible quality, and looks more like a live television production, hearkening back to Serling’s ‘50s heyday of 90-minute, live dramas for anthology showcases like Playhouse 90.

In fact, both the lead actor and director of “Meek” had a history with Serling, live television and The Twilight Zone. Art Carney, famous as Ed Norton on Jackie Gleason’s ‘50s sitcom classic The Honeymooners, stars as down-on-his-luck department store-Santa Henry Corwin (the surname is an homage to Serling’s radio mentor, writer/producer Norman Corwin, one of the first American broadcaster/entertainers to tackle serious social issues in the medium); the year before “Meek,” Carney stretched his dramatic acting chops by playing Serling’s doppelganger in the writer’s semi- autobiographical Playhouse 90 teleplay “The Velvet Alley.” Director Jack Smight came from live TV, and directed three of the six videotaped Twilight Zone episodes, as well as one of the series’ earliest filmed episodes (the robot-themed “The Lonely”).

In “Meek,” Serling lays out the plot and theme of the episode right up front, as heavy-handedly as he was often criticized for, when Bad Santa Corwin looks up from his shot of booze and looks, not at the bartender, but straight at the camera and asks us, the viewers, ”Why isn’t there a real Santa Claus?” So “Meek” is Serling’s television take on the perennial favorite Christmas movie Miracle on 34th Street, a 1947 dramedy in which the “real” Santa Claus edutains the film’s folks, and by proxy the rest of us, on “the true meaning of Christmas” (much as other Twilight Zone episodes were smaller-screen versions of famous films, like the first season’s “The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine,” starring Ida Lupino as an aging screen actress nostalgic for her silent-screen past, was Serling’s knockoff of Gloria Swanson’s similar sad screen goddess in the 1950 noir classic Sunset Boulevard).

Miracle’s message is Frank Capra- esque (without any involvement by Capra); Serling’s Capraesque “Meek,” a morality play for TV, inverts Miracle’s conceit of Santa becoming “real” into a “real” person becoming Santa, as Carney’s Corwin does mid-episode, giving him the chance for the redemption that’s at the heart of Christianity itself. (The connection between Capra and Serling is not a tenuous one, as “Serling Sermons” like “Meek” were chided by critics, then and now, as much as “Capracorn” was. And the half-hour fantasy sequence in the final act of It’s a Wonderful Life, in which Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey witnesses his life had he not been born, isn’t so much a throwback to Dickens’ A Christmas Carol as it is a proto-Twilight Zone episode.) A key image in “Meek” is when Serling and Smight conflate Claus with Christ by framing Corwin’s seedy Santa, gleefully distributing his newfound Christmas booty to his fellow sots in the church mission, in front of a sign on the wall that reads “Love Thy Neighbor.”

Corwin decries the commercialism of Christmas in Serling’s trademark poetic, stylized and philosophical dialogue. Pop culture author Gary Gerani, in the audio commentary to “Meek” on the Twilight Zone DVD, calls Carney’s speech about what Christmas really should be about, and what it’s been turned into, “a more dramatic and heartfelt version of what Edmund Gwenn had done in Miracle,” citing lines like “I live in a dirty rooming house on a street filled with hungry kids and shabby people. Where the only thing that comes down the chimney on Christmas Eve is more poverty.” In another of the episode’s most poignant scenes, Corwin, weeping, cradles a boy and girl in the snow as they ask him for their Christmas presents; the boy wants “a job for my Daddy.”

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