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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Good things happen to a terrible person on a fun, timely Twilight Zone

The Twilight Zone
The Twilight Zone
Photo: CBS Interactive
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In these uncertain times (as the TV ads say), it’s not unusual for popular entertainments to acquire a relevance that might not have been entirely intended when they were conceived. Such is the case—sort of—with “A Small Town.” I’m sure some of what this Twilight Zone episode is about was always part of the plan for its credited co-writers Steven Barnes and Tananarive Due: a married couple of genre fiction authors and academics, both keenly aware of the richer subtexts of weird fantasy stories. But their plot still has some unexpectedly added resonance in this strange summer of 2020.

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It’s hardly a partisan political statement to say to that in an election year—and especially in one as existentially fraught as this one, marked with concerns about the future of democracy and indeed our very lives—everyone who’s already picked their slate of candidates can’t help but wonder whether the news of any given day helps or hurts them. Is it good or bad when the unemployment rate goes down? What do the latest Supreme Court rulings mean for November? Are protests in the streets tipping the race more to the Democrats or Republicans?

“A Small Town” is a story about the discovery of a magical scale model of a dying small town named Littleton. (Ha-ha.) Whoever manipulates the buildings and vehicles and scenery on the model actually affects what happens in the town itself—effectively allowing this person to play God, and to make the residents’ lives better. That’s a nifty premise. But the real twist comes about halfway through the episode, when the man who controls the model realizes that everything he’s doing to spruce up Littleton is inadvertently helping its lazy, bullying mayor become a local hero. So… should he stop helping others, lest he also help the someone who doesn’t deserve it?

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The man with the model is Jason Grant (Damon Wayans Jr.), the husband of the town’s former mayor, Trina, who died a year ago. When Jason discovers this mini-Littleton—and discovers what it can do—he at first starts small with his civic improvements. He paints the local diner, saving the overworked proprietor Ana (Natalie Martinez) and her artsy teenage son Emilio (Andrew Alvarez) some hours they can’t really spare. He fills a pothole. He removes a pesky tree. He installs a lighted sign to coax travelers on the interstate to stop and spend money in Littleton: “The Most Magical Small Town In America.”

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The locals take notice. Tourist trade picks up, and people who were thinking about leaving town decide to stay. They all start calling their secret benefactor “the helper.” And they’re pretty sure they know who it is: Mayor John Conley.

Mayor Conley (played with optimum smarm by David Krumholtz) is a classic “Mr. Burns”/“Mr. Potter” villain type. He owns the town’s bank; and he holds the note on a lot of the properties. He was never elected to his office; he was just in the line of succession when Mayor Grant died. And he’s never shown any interest in using any of the money in the Littleton treasury to make cosmetic or infrastructure fixes.

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In fact, when Jason paints the diner, Conley—the landlord—flips out and threatens to raise the rent. He also snarls regularly at Emilio, who draws grotesque caricatures of the mayor in his sketchpad. When Jason tries to step between the two of them, Conley has no idea who he is. He doesn’t recognize the man who was the previous mayor’s husband. Mayor Conley is the worst.

Illustration for article titled Good things happen to a terrible person on a fun, timely iTwilight Zone/i
Photo: CBS
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Nevertheless, he’s getting credit for what Jason’s doing; and he seems to be coasting to a victory in the upcoming election. This drives our hero nuts.

So Jason starts playing little pranks. He drops a pebble onto his model, which crushes the mayor’s car in real life. He puts his pet tarantula onto the tiny streets, which means Conley gets chased by a giant spider. And finally—perhaps with the best of intentions, perhaps not—Jason soups up his own lighted sign, which overloads the power grid and plunges the county into darkness. The Littletonians quickly turn on their dear leader, Mayor Conley, who suddenly doesn’t have the mojo he seemed to be working just a few days earlier.

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“A Small Town” flops a bit at the end. Because he’s a good person, Jason tries to fix the power outage by revealing the existence of the model to Conley… who then promptly tries to seize it. In their tussle, they wreck the thing, which ravages the town. But during that same fight, Jason also drops his wedding ring—which in its now mega-sized form should provide more than enough gold to pay for repairs.

Illustration for article titled Good things happen to a terrible person on a fun, timely iTwilight Zone/i
Photo: CBS
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That’s a fine enough finish, but it’s a little underwhelming given how clever the first two-thirds of this episode is. Still, the bulk of the action here—and especially the scenes where the puckish Wayans gets to torment Krumholtz’s character—remains pretty entertaining. And the larger questions the story raises are worth pondering.

As Littleton’s resident reverend Pastor Nichelle (Paula Newsome) observes, when it comes to a broken world coming back together, we shouldn’t “get hung up on the who.” If good news for everybody means that our adversaries get to reap some rewards too, well… Maybe we should just focus on the positive.

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Stray observations

  • We have an unexpected easter egg quote from the press material for this episode: “An expert on commerce and con jobs, a brash, bright, and larceny-loaded wheeler and dealer who, when the good Lord passed out a conscience, must have gone for a beer and missed out.” That’s from “The Whole Truth,” a season two Twilight Zone about a haunted car, a shady salesman, and a lying politician. (Well, we got one out of three of those!)
  • This is the one of the few episodes this season that’s not directed by a rising indie film auteur. Alonso Alvarez-Barreda has—thus far in his career—worked mostly in TV, on an eclectic batch of shows that include the new Party Of Five, 9-1-1, The Chi and Snowfall.
  • Next (and last): “Try, Try.”
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Lives in Arkansas, writes about movies, TV, music, comics, and more. Bylines in The A.V. Club, The Week, The Verge, The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, and Rolling Stone.

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