Sunday, October 26, 2014

Was the Twilight Zone's 'Eye of the Beholder' episode just about lousy doctors?

"I'm sorry, Miss Tyler, but we did all we could... which was absolutely nothing."

It's an episode with which all fans of classic television in general and classic science-fiction in particular should be familiar. Written by Rod Serling himself, "The Eye of the Beholder" first aired as part of CBS' The Twilight Zone on November 11, 1960 at the very tail end of the Eisenhower era. It's a classic morality tale with an intriguing switcheroo at the center of the plot. In some unnamed and unspecified future society, men and women considered attractive by our modern day standards are extremely rare and deemed hideous outcasts, while people with pig-like snouts, drooping upper lips, and jutting foreheads are held up as the norm.  To make things even worse, all of these people live in a totalitarian society where conformity is the law and deviation is a crime. Using a shadowy, film-noir-esque hospital as its unsettling backdrop, the plot of "Eye of the Beholder" focuses on one unfortunate woman, Janet Tyler (portrayed at various stages in the program by both Maxine Stuart and The Beverly Hillbillies' Donna Douglas), who has undergone countless unsuccessful surgeries to look more like the twisted, monstrous people around her. If her latest procedure does not prove successful, she will have to live in an isolated community with others of her kind, making her a social leper. The mood of "Eye of the Beholder" is extremely tense, as Janet impatiently waits for doctors to remove the bandages from her face. The lighting, set design, cinematography, music (by Bernard Herrmann), and makeup all combine to give this episode the feel of a nightmare, which helps to explain why it made such a strong impression on viewers. Decades after its initial airing, the sketch was given an elaborate parody on Saturday Night Live, with Pamela Anderson in the Janet Tyler role. Along with being remade for an early 2000s Twilight Zone revival, "Eye of the Beholder" has been referenced on such TV series as The Simpsons, Family Guy, and Futurama. There are even "Eye of the Beholder" action figures from Sideshow Collectibles.

But is it possible that "The Eye of the Beholder" is not about hypocritical beauty standards or the dangers of conformity but rather about doctors who just don't know what the hell they're doing? This is a tricky issue, because one of the most sympathetic characters in the episode is Dr. Bernardi, portrayed by William D. Gordon. Though he tries to be impersonal, the kindly doctor cannot help but sympathize with Miss Tyler and even casts doubt upon the wisdom of an all-powerful ruler known simply as "the Leader," even though he knows it is treasonous to do so. Even with his pig nose, Dr. Bernardi seems like a nice guy. But I put it to you, dear readers, that he might not be much of a doctor... at least as far as the whole "medicine and surgery" thing is concerned. In one scene, he tries to explain to Janet about the medical community's past failures in her case:
"Up to now, you haven't responded to the shots, the medications, any of the proven techniques. Frankly, you've stumped us, Miss Tyler. Nothing we've done so far has made any difference at all. However, we're very hopeful for what this last treatment may have accomplished. There's no telling, of course, until we get the bandages off."
Actor William D. Gordon recites this eerily dry speech like an elementary school principal patiently explaining to his students why the field trip to the amusement park has been cancelled in favor of an all-day algebra marathon. So what is the latest "treatment" upon which the good doctor has pinned his -- and Janet's -- hopes? Some vaguely-described "injections," presumably different from the previous "shots" which also failed to work. The Twilight Zone tends to be a bummer, so I don't think many viewers were really holding out hope for Janet to turn into a nice, well-adjusted pig lady at the end of the episode. Besides, the prejudiced society she inhabits seems pretty rotten, so we wouldn't want her to conform to it anyway. But, still, Bernardi's a medical professional, and it's his job to make Ellie Mae Clampett look as much like Arnold Ziffel as possible. So how did he do? Well, let's take a look at the results.

Quite a discrepancy, wouldn't you say?

That, sir, is some lousy doctoring. Did Dr. Bernardi even do anything? Was he the least bit concerned when Janet's eyebags and forehead folds failed to develop? Didn't he notice, even through the bandages, that his patient's nostrils hadn't grown to the size of golf balls? Or that her upper lip hadn't melted down to her chin? Before Janet Tyler packs her bags and takes the shortbus to Camp Loserville with fellow freak Walter Smith (Edson Stroll), she might want to make a call to her lawyer. I think she has an open and shut case of medical malpractice here.


  1. Maybe in this alternate pig dimension, the definition of surgery involves a lot of staring in order to wish new results upon the patient?

    1. That's exactly what he does. He looks at her, talks to her a little, and just hopes for the best. Hell, I could be a doctor in that dimension.

    2. I'm reminded of the Talking Heads song "Seen and Not Seen," in which David Byrne describes the art of changing one's appearance by merely thinking about it. What always struck me about it was that the "ideal" facial features he lists ("A more hooked nose...wider, thinner lips...beady eyes...a larger forehead") never sounded all that appealing to me.

    3. I've puzzled over the lyrics of that T-Heads song myself. Maybe the "narrator" of that song lives in an alternate reality with its own beauty standards.