Saturday, March 27, 2021

Twilight Zone: Come Wander with Me

In 1957, Gary Crosby released a very nice album of big band jazz vocals arranged and conducted by the great Bud Shank. Judging from how rarely you see it turn up in record stores, it probably didn’t sell very well. However, Crosby had several hits during his career, but they were mostly duets with his famous father, Bing. That would be the same Bing Crosby whose abusive treatment was the exposed in his son’s infamous tell-all memoir. In retrospect, the late Crosby son is considered a rather tragically sad figure, which makes his appearance in The Twilight Zone even more poignant. As ill-fate dictates, the song-hunting rockabilly singer he plays does not find the hit he is looking for in “Come Wander with Me,” airing tomorrow morning on Syfy.

You can smell Floyd “The Rock-A-Billy Kid” Burney’s desperation. His career might have held promise once, but he is seriously scuffling now. Hoping to emulate the success of others, Burney is scouring Appalachia in search of unrecorded (and uncopyrighted) folk songs that have a hooky, archetypal appeal. Of course, the proprietor of mist-shrouded general store is not very welcoming. The tombstone with his name inscribed on it is even more ominous, but Burney never sees it.

He is more interested in the waifish Mary Rachel, who is singing “Come Wander with Me,” a wistful ballad that sounds just like what the doctor ordered for Burney. He does not recognize her, but she thinks they are lovers—and their affair is doomed to end violently, because it always has before.

Arguably, “Wander” earns significant bragging rights an early forerunner of the time-loop genre, but writer Anthony Wilson does not emphasize its implied cyclical nature. Instead, director Richard Donner (famous for
Superman and Lethal Weapon) invests the proceeding with an unearthly vibe, evocative of purgatory or an even less desirable post-death destination. This is maybe the most twilight-like atmosphere ever seen in The Twilight Zone. It is all very eerie and even more melancholy. Perhaps the fact this was the final episode produced of the original series (but the third to last broadcast as part of the final season) somehow further heightened the elegiac feeling.

Jeff Alexander & Anthony Wilson’s titular original song is an absolutely perfect mood-setter, with a melody that is truly memorable. It is also quite clever how the lyrics constantly evolve to foreshadow events of the narrative. Honestly, this tune deserved to be a hit, especially the way Bonnie Beecher sings it as Mary Rachel (she beat out Liza Minelli for the role). Alas, today she is mostly known as Mrs. Wavy Gravy, but she is strangely and arrestingly na├»ve and ethereal as the Appalachian siren.

Yet, it is Crosby’s would-be Rockabilly idol that truly haunts this episode, like a lingering refrain. The anxious ambition and eager self-delusion are just so profoundly human, even without reading the singer-actor’s unfortunate biography into his performance. Regardless, Gary Crosby could claim a good record with Shank and one of the best episodes of
The Twilight Zone. Even if that isn’t the most extensive cultural legacy ever, it’s still pretty considerable. Very highly recommended, “Come Wander with Me” airs tomorrow morning (3/28) on Syfy (and it streams on Netflix & Hulu).