Even though Rod Serling is revered as a master writer in TV’s alleged golden age, and certainly was the creative force behind The Twilight Zone, some of the other contributors really could write circles around him. Maybe it was just the volume of scripts he was committed to cranking out. In just the first few seconds here I was amazed at how real these characters were, and at the little pieces of throwaway business. The papers on the desk, searching for a cigarette, a broken chair, a “circulation” pun, and use of the word gloomcookie. Just great at establishing a world and two likable characters.
Owner Douglas Winter is struggling to make ends meet at The Dansburg Courier. He is interrupted by his supportive girlfriend Jackie. They are interrupted by Andy the linotype man. Unfortunately, Andy has not been paid in 8 weeks and the greedy bastard is quitting to take a paying gig. Winter reaches in his desk and pulls out a bottle of scotch to calm him down. This is in the era when a reporter kept scotch and cigarettes in their desk, not pictures of the president with little hearts all over them.
Andy knows the paper is unlikely to survive now that the big, bad Gazette has moved into town. Even worse, Andy is going to work for them. Jackie really chews him out, but Winter understands. After they leave, Winter compares that day’s Courier to the Gazette. Both have as their main story the mayor’s daughter winning a beauty contest. Only The Gazette suggests there might have been fraud involved. Frankly I would subscribe to The Gazette over The Courier too. The Gazette is also tarted up with more pictures and larger headlines like USA Today. Meanwhile The Courier’s front page looks as interesting and as doomed as a phonebook.
Winter drives out to a country bridge, scotch still in hand. As he prepares to throw himself off the bridge, he is approached by Mr. Smith (TZ 4-timer and Rocky 3-timer Burgess Meredith). He requests a ride back to town. As Smith lights his awesomely twisted cigar with his flaming finger, we get the idea he might not be just another angel on the bridge.
Smith finally succeeds in getting Winter to put down the bottle by joining him at a bar. Winter has run up a tab of Normian proportions, but Smith happily picks up the tab. As the waitress walks away he awesomely comments, “She moves fast for a big one.” Smith claims to be a newspaperman and offers to work for free as a linotype operator and reporter.
Winter and Smith go back to The Courier where Jackie has apparently returned to do some important midnight filing. Smith not only plays the linotype machine like a piano, he has a nose for news and $5,000 in his pocket to keep the paper afloat.
Smith has a knack for having stories reported, written and typeset immediately after they happen or even sooner — a feat similar to current reporters who also use pre-written stories, although theirs are handed to them by politicians, lobbyists, activists, and corporate PR departments.
His scoops bring attention to The Courier. Smith even starts hawking papers on the street in his spare time. Circulation triples! The Gazette even offers to buy The Courier. Eyebrows are raised when Smith reports a fire at The Gazette even as the firetrucks are heading to the scene.
Finally, halfway through the episode Smith reveals what was obvious all along — that he is the devil. Writer Charles Beaumont was wise not saving this until the end since the audience was already hip. He is also very deft in how the devil maneuvers Winter into signing away his soul. In just a few sentences, Beaumont deflects two tropes which are too common in The Twilight Zone: The blatant last-second twist, and people not reacting as a real person would. It is also pleasant to hear conversations rather than speeches.
Smith goes on reporting tragic story after story, always minutes after they occur. He has rigged the linotype machine so that now any story it prints will come true in the future. He uses this to coerce Winter into giving his soul up earlier than planned. Winter outsmarts him with his own device, however, resulting in a happy ending for him and the newspaper; at least until the internet is invented.
Once again, Season 4 exceeds expectations. Maybe that is because Charles Beaumont wrote 4 of the 9 episodes I’ve watched so far. He has tended toward happy endings even if not by conventional standards of happiness. The main characters, all men so far, are able to escape from an isolated life or to get a second chance. Whether this escapism was a conscious choice related to Beaumont’s own troubled life, who knows.
-  No idea if this is the first use of the word. All the Google entries I’m willing to scan at 3 am refer to a more recent comic book.
- Of course, The TZ theme is iconic. But to get the full effect, wake up and listen to it through a good pair of speakers at 3 am. Black & Decker wishes they could make a drill that good.