Stacking the deck: Twilight Zone’s “Miniature”

So I wrote a couple of weeks back about the way writers stack the deck to make their point: that life is fair/isn’t fair, that God is good/shitty, that violence is/isn’t the answer, that the legal system can/can’t be trusted. Watching the Twilight Zone episode Miniature, it occurred to me we stack the deck in our stories on a personal level as well.

The story is part of the show’s fourth season, when it jumped to hour-long episode and most fell flat on its face (I think the ratio of good to bad is at best, 1/3). But it had gems and Charles Beaumont’s Miniature is one of them. Robert Duvall plays Charlie, an introverted guy who just doesn’t fit with the world. His boss fires him because he doesn’t like to hang with his coworkers and that’s bad for morale. His mother obsessively takes care of him. His sister (the most likable of the supporting cast) tries to fix him up with a girl but Charlie’s not at all comfortable with her. And everyone assumes he’s the problem. Being in the Twilight Zone, of course, he has an escape hatch: a beautiful, elaborate dolls’ house at the local museum. Gazing into it, he fantasizes the young woman of the house is alive, and as lonely as he is … if only he could be with her, she’d be a woman he could connect with. If only … Of course everyone tells him it’s a delusion but guess what? It isn’t (yes, you probably guessed that). And two lonely people end up finding each other.

It didn’t move me as much as it did first go-round, probably because, like Harlan Ellison’s Jeffty Is Five, I got past the point where I was inclined to withdraw from the world into fantasy. It’s still well executed, with a great performance by Duvall. But it got me thinking about how stories stack the deck in regard to characters’ lives, as well as the big picture political/economic stuff.

Serling did a lot of stories about people desperate to escape into fantasy. Into their past, or their youth or some other world. But unlike a lot of writers who wallow in that (Jack Finney was particularly fond of rejecting the present for what he imagined was the wonderful 19th century), Serling knew it could be a trap. In Trouble With Templeton, the protagonist learns to stop living in the past and get on with his life. Jack Klugman in Passage for Trumpet is bitter and miserable about life, but learns “it can be as rich and sweet as the music he plays — if only he will listen.”

Stacking the deck is how Serling (and writers on the show such as Beaumont and Richard Matheson) show us which is the right outcome. Is the problem that the protagonist needs to embrace life instead of hiding from it? Or that life really sucks, as for the frustrated nursing-home residents in Kick the Can? Is love a possibility if you reach out, or have they lost the big chance already? Does the hero need to change, or is it other people? The answer is whatever the story tells us or shows us.

Of course sometimes I just don’t buy what it’s showing. Ida Lupino in Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine seemed to me like someone who needed to embrace the world, but she gets a retreat into fantasy instead. That’s the risk of stacking the deck: if you’re not plausible about it, it won’t work. And it’s hard to stack the deck if the audience really wants it stacked the other way. I can’t get into stories where the happy ending is the protagonist becoming a happy recluse because for me that’s a sad ending (the whole withdrawing thing).

But that’s the risk we take with writing.

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