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Why a Ray Bradbury Twilight Zone episode is the perfect thing to stream this weekend

Why a Ray Bradbury Twilight Zone episode is the perfect thing to stream this weekend


With Fahrenheit 451 on HBO, it’s a good time to turn to Netflix for more Bradbury — and his thoughts on why people need robots.

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There are so many streaming options available these days and so many conflicting recommendations that it’s hard to see through all the crap you could be watching. Each Friday, The Verge’s Cut the Crap column simplifies the choice by sorting through the overwhelming multitude of movies and TV shows on subscription services and recommending a single perfect thing to watch this weekend.

What to watch

“I Sing the Body Electric,” a 1962 episode of The Twilight Zone, from late in the show’s third season.

Written by Ray Bradbury, the episode stars Josephine Hutchinson as “Grandma,” a robotic playmate, guardian, and teacher, who is purchased by a widower (Bewitched’s David White) to take care of his three demanding children. Veronica Cartwright plays the most stubborn of the kids, Anne, who refuses to be impressed by Grandma’s gizmos and gimmicks, because she’s certain everyone and everything she loves will eventually abandon her. Bradbury later adapted this script into a 1969 short story (originally published as “The Beautiful One is Here”), which later inspired the 1982 TV special The Electric Grandmother.

Why watch now?

Because Bradbury’s 1953 novel Fahrenheit 451 has been adapted by writer-director Ramin Bahrani into a movie that debuts on HBO on Saturday, May 19th at 8PM ET. (It plays again Sunday night at 7:15, right before Westworld.)

Bradbury’s second novel (or arguably his first, since 1950’s The Martian Chronicles is more a collection of interlinked short stories), Fahrenheit 451 was inspired by a real-life incident in which a policeman found it suspicious that Bradbury was out walking instead of driving a car like everybody else. Already frustrated and concerned by the decline of reading, the rise of television, and the censorious efforts of anti-communist politicians, Bradbury turned his anger over the encounter with the cop into a dystopian short story called “The Pedestrian,” then into the novella “The Fireman,” and finally into Fahrenheit 451 — a cautionary tale about a future where government goons burn books and punish citizens who read.

The novel has been adapted multiple times, including by the French New Wave director François Truffaut in 1966, for his only English-language film. The new version stars Black Panther’s Michael B. Jordan as one of the book-burners, whose uncertainty about his job puts him at odds with his boss (Shape of Water villain Michael Shannon), an anti-reading zealot. Bahrani — whose recent work includes the fiery social-issue dramas At Any Price and 99 Homes — aims to connect Bradbury’s dark vision of the future with our own era, where people in power dismiss inconvenient information as seditious or “fake.”

“I Sing the Body Electric” has a significantly different outlook on technology and modernity from Fahrenheit 451. The story has more in common with Bradbury’s 1957 novel Dandelion Wine, which combines reminiscences of growing up in a middle American small town with elements of whimsical fantasy. Though the episode shows some of the wild things robo-Grandma can do — like conjuring toys and games seemingly out of thin air — the overall focus is on how humans build our own needs and desires into our machines.

Who it’s for

Anyone interested in the early career of one of science fiction’s most important writers.

Bradbury’s take on TV in Fahrenheit 451 is contemptuous and despairing, but that didn’t stop him from writing the occasional teleplay himself. Throughout the 1950s and into the 1960s, he contributed sporadically to anthology series like Fireside Theatre and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Writer and Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling was a great admirer of Bradbury’s, and Dandelion Wine’s influence is evident in the show’s early episodes “Walking Distance” and “A Stop at Willoughby,” which treat childhood and wholesome Americana as fantastical idylls. Though Bradbury submitted a few scripts to The Twilight Zone at Serling’s behest, “I Sing the Body Electric” was the only one ever produced.

In an interview shortly before he died, Serling explained, “Ray Bradbury is a very difficult guy to dramatize, because that which reads so beautifully on the printed page doesn’t fit in the mouth. It fits in the head.” Nevertheless, “I Sing the Body Electric” works wonderfully, perhaps because it tells the story plainly, and lets its meaning softly resonate. Aside from a poignant final speech from Grandma about the robot factory’s “room of voices” — where retired machines talk to each other, and share what they’ve learned from humans — no heavy-handed point is emphasized.

Even the science fiction elements in “I Sing the Body Electric” are treated matter-of-factly. The creepy showroom of robot body parts, and Grandma’s special powers… There’s no big build-up or stunned reaction to any of the episode’s “wow” moments. Instead, this episode is mostly about Anne, and how the extraordinary grief and upheaval in her life demands a supernatural remedy.

Where to see it

Netflix, which currently has four of the five Twilight Zone seasons available to stream. Hulu subscribers should also consider watching the Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode “Design for Loving,” another Bradbury-penned half-hour, from four years earlier, also about how robots may satisfy the human need for companionship.