Going way, way back for this week’s bad episode of a good TV show, all the way to December 6th 1961, with the 77th episode of Rod Serling’s classic anthology series, The Twilight Zone. This was a series known for big ideas, indelible images, and haunting overtures for the hubris of humanity. We all remember Burgess Meredith dropping his glasses, that woman’s face not being hideous and piglike, and William Shatner seeing “someone on the wing…some…THING!” but we also need to remember that there were a total of 156 episodes in total and they couldn’t possibly all be good. In fact, some of them were very likely NOT good. Boring even. That’s where we find our episode today. The 77th episode overall, Season 3 episode 12, “The Jungle.”
The third season of The Twilight Zone was bound to be a little disappointing at times purely because of the sheer volume of content generated. 37 episodes were made during that season, the most of any season (Seasons 1 and 5 each had 36 episodes), and premises were surely not always the most fertile. In fact, the writers of the show even turned to adapting their own short stories in order to fill the quota, and not all of those worked particularly well in a half-hour televisual format. Charles Beaumont was one of the best, most prolific, and most influential writers from the series, up there with Richard Matheson and Serling himself. But, even though the ideas behind “The Jungle,” based on his own short story, are deep-ish, the execution is basically just boring, an exercise in loud sound effects and an actor freaking out.
The original short story for this appeared in If magazine in 1954 and it probably read a lot more interesting than we see. It involves Alan Richards (John Dehner), as Serling’s narration says “a modern man of a modern age,” whose company is building a dam in Africa. No specific country, mind you; just “Africa,” the scariest place in the world. He and his wife have just returned from there, and she’s kept several charms a local shaman has given her. Alan thinks this is ridiculous and chucks them all in the fireplace, because superstition is silly. But, his wife pleads with him not to build the dam to keep a lion’s tooth with him to protect from lion attack. How quaint! As he leaves his flat, he sees a dead goat carcass in the hallway but doesn’t think too much of it. UHHHHHH maybe think something of it.
At work later, he tells the other board members that the local African tribes were displeased with the company building the dam, even though they’d be better off in the long run, they dislike being moved now and have threatened curses on those who move them. While the board laughs about savage superstitions, Alan points out that they each of them have their own superstitions, be it religion or luck or what-have-you. Apparently, Alan is the only one who believes in nothing, hahahahaha. Later, he and a colleague are at a bar and they have a good laugh about the lion’s tooth.
And then after this is when things get weird. Or, more sound effecty. Alan walks outside and tries to start his car, but it won’t start. He tries to go back into the bar, but it’s suddenly closed and locked and everybody’s gone. He notices his lion’s tooth still on the bar top. He goes to make a phone call at a payphone but all he hears are jungle noises. He takes a cab, but the cab driver is dead all of the sudden. He pays a homeless man to walk with him through the park, but he keeps hearing tribal drums and the sounds of the jungle and soon the homeless man has disappeared also. Then, it’s literally just 5 minutes of Alan feebly walking around the Universal backlot and freaking out at the sound effects. Finally, he gets home and enters his apartment, and when he opens his bedroom, he sees a lion on the bed, and his wife dead lying against it. The lion jumps at him and that’s the end.
Well, it was an episode, I guess. The first part of the episode is full of American imperialism, like they know better than those dumb savages about everything, and building a dam is for their own good. Also, how adorable it is that there’s shamanism? But that’s the setup of the main character for the inevitable fall. But, the problem really is that the dramatic irony isn’t properly set up. It isn’t superstition, or not believing in it, that kills him, it’s black magic. He does talk about that a little bit, but aside from a few visual cues, like the weird African warrior in the shop window or the lion itself, there isn’t much to show what the black magic is actually doing. Maybe he’s just going crazy. Did the shaman just wish a lion to New York? That doesn’t really track with anything. And, really, this must have just been an episode where they didn’t have much of a budget because so much of it really is just John Dehner meandering around a backlot and loud sound effects happening. Partially racist and partially boring, not a great combo.
It probably also didn’t help that “The Jungle” comes immediately before the Richard Matheson-penned “Once Upon a Time” in which Buster Keaton plays janitor in the 1870s who puts on a time travel helmet and winds up in 1962. This is one of the best and most well-remembered episodes of The Twilight Zone ever, and it’s a huge discrepancy between the two weeks. Beaumont wrote some of the best Twilight Zones, but this one wasn’t one of them. Still, it’s not just a half-hour and even a bad episode of The Twilight Zone can be fun to watch. Or fun to have watched, anyway.