Portrait of a TV fan. Name: Joe Britt. Occupation: cab driver. Tonight, Mr. Britt is going to watch ‘a really big show,’ something special for the cabbie who’s seen everything. Joe Britt doesn’t know it, but his flag is down and his meter’s running and he’s in high gear—on his way to the Twilight Zone.
Thus begins a particularly dark and troublesome episode of The Twilight Zone, dubbed one of the 50 best episodes by Vulture (their number 50 to be exact) and one of the very worst by both Buzzfeed (number 138 out of 156) and Paste Magazine (number 145). And it is true: the episode is a polarizing one. It is violent and disturbing and not particularly clever (which is important for a show dedicated to its ability to speak to the human condition on such a cerebral level). But it is a testament to a legendary show that even when it isn’t clicking on all cylinders, it is still bringing about thoughtful discussion.
There are a lot of ideas floating around “What’s in the Box.” The aforementioned Vulture seems to think the core idea is that “In the Twilight Zone, we can’t avoid our true selves.” The episode itself seems to have thoughts on television culture and how it can warp the mind—how someone who spends all their time in a different reality will fail to tell the difference from one universe to another. While the episode does have elements of that, quite literally, I personally felt that the episode’s writer’s (Martin Goldsmith) core theme overall was the concept of shame, something he also covered more covertly in his Twilight Zone episode “The Encounter,” which involved two former enemies from World War II forced to interact together during peacetime.
In “What’s in the Box,” our main character, Joe Britt (William Demarest) is, though he is trying like hell to fight it, full of shame. Joe is a burned-out cab driver in New York City and, despite his objections to the contrary to his fierce, suspecting wife Phyllis (Joan Blondell), he is having an affair with another woman. But Joe is doing his best to keep his marriage as intact as possible by pretending there isn’t a problem, berating Phyllis like she is acting overdramatically, and wishing he could just watch wrestling with his six-pack and be done with it all.
There is one problem: the TV is on the fritz and the repairman is taking way too long to fix it. Joe thinks he’s taking too long on purpose just to take him to the cleaners on the bill. When he confronts the repairman (Sterling Holloway) about this conspiracy to rip him off, the repairman does something unexpected. He says that the work is done and the repair is on him, sorry for the trouble. With that, and a wink at the camera, he leaves.
Joe, confounded with his luck, sits down to watch TV and notices he not only gets to watch his beloved wrestling but a brand new channel too: Channel 10! But when he turns to this seemingly premium channel he realizes it broadcasts quite the interesting television show: a scene from inside a taxi cab earlier in the day with Joe talking to his mistress.
After he faints and is awakened by Phyllis, he is convinced the channel is broadcasting moments of his life—and his future—including a scene in which he murders Phyllis in cold blood. Phyllis, of course, sees nothing but static on Channel 10 and assumes Joe is going insane. Still concerned for her husband of 27 years, she consults a doctor who pays a house visit and advises that psychologically Joe might be suffering from a delusion of reality: unsure of the difference between the real world and the television world.
So disturbed by his vision of Phyllis’ death, Joe decides to confess his infidelity and professes his love for Phyllis, admitting how wrong he was for cheating on her. What he isn’t expecting is for Phyllis to not forgive him. In a fit of rage, she threatens to leave and forces Joe to watch Channel 10 again, daring him to see what his future holds. When Joe sees himself being put to death for murder, he begs for the television to be turned off. When Phyllis won’t oblige, he attacks her, and the murder scene he witnessed on Channel 10 goes exactly as it did when he watched it before. As he’s taken away by the police later, the TV repairman is there once again, asking Joe if he would recommend his services. Cue Rod Serling:
The next time your TV set is on the blink, when you’re in the need of a first-rate repairman, may we suggest our own specialist? Factory-trained, prompt, honest, twenty-four hour service. You won’t find him in the phone book, but his office is conveniently located—in the Twilight Zone.
Merriam-Webster defines “shame” as “a painful emotion caused by consciousness of guilt, shortcoming, or impropriety.” Joe Britt is as shining an example of shame as we’ll ever see. And an obvious one. Like I mentioned before, this episode isn’t the sharpest tool in The Twilight Zone’s vast toolbox. Depending on how you connect with the material, you’ll either find the proceedings excessively silly, immensely overdramatic, or a mixture of the two. That doesn’t necessarily take away from its message. A heavy-handed message is still a message, after all.
We, as human beings, tend to process our shame in different ways. Many overcompensate with certain activities and indulgences: overeating or excessive exercise. Avoidance of the issue at hand is the key. What can we do to avoid that which plagues us? What gives us shame and how can we escape its grasp? In “What’s in the Box,” it appears the world of television is an example of escape. All Joe wants to do is watch wrestling…anything to get away from his wife’s accusing words and his own obvious misdeeds.
This isn’t far off from today’s binge culture. No, I’m not saying that if you binge Ozark a few days this week you are harboring a secret from society. But if you binge Ozark every single day for three weeks then I might be suspicious. What are you hiding? What’s in the box inside your head? Whether The Twilight Zone could have handled this subject matter in a bit of a subtler way is up for debate. Clearly, based on the ways this episode is ranked by different outlets, it varies in how it lands. I personally wouldn’t put in the top 50, nor would I land it in the bottom 10. But I would give The Twilight Zone the benefit of the doubt that even in its lesser moments, it still has something informative to say about the human condition.