Episode 73 of The Twilight Zone, broadcast on November 3, 1961 (eighth show of the third season).
A well known Zone episode, and one that opts for flat-out weird chills - there's no ironic twist or last-minute reversal of fortune, as the closing monologue acknowledges. It merely presents a situation, offering neither explanation or resolution. This alone - before factoring in the subject matter - makes it a fairly unique episode. But when the story is dropped into place, we're fully and undeniably in the Zone.
The episode kicks off with one of the most memorable Rod Serling introductions. As the camera presents a small Ohio town named Peaksville, Serling explains that a monster dwells in the village - a monster that has caused the rest of the world to 'disappear'. The townsfolk are introduced, along with their litany of sorrows. They are horribly punished - seemingly robbed of their minds - for singing aloud, and the monster (who can read minds) forces them to think happy thoughts and smile all day. And then Serling drops the bomb; the monster is a six-year-old boy named Anthony Fremont (Bill Mumy). And the episode begins.
We first meet Anthony in the company of a nervous adult, Bill Soames. Anthony has created a three-headed gopher, which he then kills. Soames blindly praises both the creation and destruction - "a real fine thing". We meet more nervous adults, including Anthony's parents, and learn that tonight is "television night", with a surprise party for one Dan Hollis. We also learn that Anthony has a habit of "doing things" to people and animals. The greatest danger is being wished into the cornfield, from where nothing and no-one returns.
At any rate, it's television night. However, Anthony has long since banished electricity from existence, and creates all televised entertainment himself. He treats the adults to a mindless dinosaur battle, which they receive enthusiastically. Then the birthday boy, Dan Hollis, starts to get a little rowdy, drinking hard and denouncing Anthony as a "dirty little monster" and a murderer, and eventually pleading with the other adults to kill Anthony while the boy is preparing to punish him. But transfixed with dread, no-one dare act, and Hollis is wished into a Jack in the Box (with his original head retained). Anthony's father, while praising the transformation, urges his son to wish his grotesque creation into the cornfield, which he does. Anthony then threatens Mrs. Hollis, and decides to make it snow. This, his father realises, will kill off their crops, but he is forced into agreeing that the snow is "good" and that "tomorrow, tomorrow's gonna be a real good day". And with a short closing monologue, the episode ends.
And that's all there is too it. But what can only be experienced by watching the episode itself is the palpable, suffocating, sweat-drenched fear of the townsfolk, who cannot predict what will happen in the next few seconds, and are doomed to spend their lives desperately praising everything that is said or occcurs, no matter how terrifying or blasphemous. Some form of closure would take the edge off, but none is offered - the future stretches ahead for Peaksville with no suggestion of deliverance or respite, making this an especially bleak and unnerving episode. The absence of a resolution is mirrored by the absence of a rationale; this is just how it is for the people of Peaksville. Why it is makes no difference. (Dan Hollis at one point places the blame on Anthony's parents, but for no other crime than "having him".)
From a contemporary perspective, the episode (and, of course, the story on which it is based - see below) - can also be seen as a trenchant commentary on the culture of political correctness and the threat of thought police. Given the original publication date of 1953, the influence of McCarthyism may be a more profitable point for discussion, but to this day there is no shortage of cultures whose citizens live like the people of Peaksville, and their story will, unfortunately, continue to resonate for many years to come.
It's a Good Life was remade by Joe Dante for Twilight Zone: The Movie, with a greater emphasis on outlandish special effects (such as catapulting a character into a cartoon) and an attempt towards a resolution (Anthony is befriended by a schoolteacher who promises to help him, and he wishes his tormented family to "where they wanted to go"). Again, there is no attempt to explain Anthony's powers - we learn that his "real parents" "sent him away", but nothing more.
The episode was also the subject of a sharp parody in The Simpsons as part of Treehouse of Horror II, with Bart Simpson as the Anthony character. The most notable gag is the overplayed Serling-style introduction: "And did I mention to you that the monster is a ten-year-old boy? Quite a twist, huh? Bet you didn't see that one coming!"
On February 19, 2003, UPN broadcast "It's Still a Good Life", a sequel to the original story, as part of the current Twilight Zone run. The roles of Anthony and his mother were reprised by the original actors. Anthony is now an adult, with a daughter (played by Mumy's real life daughter) who shares - and eclipses - his strange powers. Anthony's mother attempts to turn his daughter against him, but instead the daughter restores the world that her father had deleted. Thanks to Gamaliel for pointing this addition out.
"It's a Good Life" was written by Rod Serling and based on a short story of the same name by Jerome Bixby, written in 1953. The episode is available on volume 9 of the Twilight Zone DVD collection (ASIN: B00004L8IN).
- - detailed episode information at The Fifth Dimension
- - the script for the episode
- - Jerome Bixby's original short story