Have you heard the one about the omnipotent six-year-old? Even if you've never seen the episode, by now you probably know the gist — maybe from The Simpsons’ Treehouse of Horror takeoff, or a late-night description from an older brother. There was also the movie version, or the ‘80s sequel. Like the best Twilight Zone episodes, 1961's "It's a Good Life" has traveled far.
It goes like this: In a small town in Ohio, Anthony Fremont is born with godlike powers. He can read thoughts and manipulate the world with his mind. Almost immediately, he wishes away everything outside of the town. Anyone the boy doesn't like, he kills — usually in a method so horrible that the camera can't bear to show us. Then he wishes them into a grave in the cornfield. If you want to stay alive, you'd better stay on his good side, which is tricky when you're dealing with a mind-reader. The title comes from the mantra of the town, which the citizens repeat to keep themselves from thinking the wrong thoughts: "It's good he did that. It's real good." Of course, it's not good at all. It's bad. It's real bad.
Maybe it's about television, with the child as writer-director. Maybe it's about God?
This is bleak territory, even for a show that trafficked in tales of existential loneliness and nuclear war. "It's a Good Life" goes further, showing us a world where we've lost ownership of even our own thoughts. And it's a world that looks a lot like the small-town Americana shows that filled up the broadcast schedules of the early ‘60s. There's the precocious child, the kindly old aunt, the local clerk who acts like part of the family. It looks so wholesome. It's the dystopia of "I Have No Mouth But I Must Scream," performed on the set of The Andy Griffith Show.
Maybe it's about Communism? A lot of the early Twilight Zones are, and little Anthony is certainly doing some thought-policing. Or maybe Anthony is Joe McCarthy (another favorite Serling target), imprisoning his family with ‘50s conformity. Maybe it's about the strange panic of child-rearing, tailoring your life to this creature you can't fully understand. Maybe it's about television, with the child as writer-director. Maybe it's about God? We could play this game all night. Neither the show nor the original story tries to hang too much meaning on it. Anthony is just a new power dropped into the world, like so many others before him.
By now, sci-fi fans have plenty of totalitarian dystopias to choose from, but it feels different when the godlike monster is a child. Unlike Harlan Ellison's AM Supercomputer or Orwell's Big Brother, getting rid of Anthony should be relatively easy. As one character says to the boy, they could just "sneak up behind you and lay something heavy across your skull and end this once and for all." But such a thing is unthinkable; the citizens cannot let themselves even consider it. So they play along, self-enforcing, penned in by the limits of their own imaginations. Who wants to think about the world's problems anyway, about global warming or nuclear war? Easier just to pretend everything's good. Real good.