Friday, November 15, 2019

Why I Love The Twilight Zone

I really don't watch much television, even in the age of streaming. As a child, my parents' TVs (plural) were on during almost every waking hour. I was exposed to a lot of TV as a kid and maybe I'm just plain burned out. I can't identify many actors by name and if you tell me about "that guy that was in that show (or movie) X," I will give you a blank stare, in all likelihood. The last series I watched beginning to end was Stranger Things 3. Before that was Stranger Things 2. Before that was Stranger Things. Before that . . . let's see . . . um, Sherlock? The one with Benedict Cumberbatch in it (see I do know some actor's names). And before that? I'm at a total loss. Twin Peaks? Thundarr the Barbarian? I have no idea. I'm no fun on movie/TV trivia night. No fun at all. I'd much rather be reading a book or playing in a tabletop roleplaying game or writing or hiking. My blog content speaks for itself, in this regard.

Some people find it difficult to pinpoint their favorite TV show. That may be because, unlike me, most humans watch a lot of television. With so many choices, how does one choose? For me, the choice is easy: the single greatest series to ever appear on television, the absolute pinnacle of consistently-amazing television shows, one after another, is The Twilight Zone. Rod Serling's original The Twilight Zone, to be precise. 

Last night, I attended the Fathom Events presentation for the 60th Anniversary of The Twilight Zone. It was a simple affair on the big screen, six classic episodes, followed by a short documentary about Rod Serling. "Walking Distance," "Time Enough at Last," "The Invaders," "The Monsters are Due on Maple Street," "Eye of the Beholder," and "To Serve Man" presented one after the other. Included were Serling's previews that were given the week before each episode aired. Because of syndication, when one watches the episodes rerun on TV, the previews for the upcoming week are either drowned out by announcements regarding the next show or they are cut out altogether. These short little segments lasted perhaps a minute, but they were a great testament to Serling's charisma and ability to inflame anticipation in the viewer. 

And Rod Serling had charisma aplenty. I'd score him an 18 if he was a Dungeons and Dragons character, no doubt about it. The documentary made this undoubtedly apparent. Everyone who knew him loved him, most especially his daughter, some of whose comments are captured in an article that correlates strongly with the documentary. It was touching, hearing friends and family, students and co-workers, and the incredibly high praise heaped on Serling as a human being. Yes, he was a great writer, but he was also an incredible human being, one who did not tolerate intolerance, one who tried to keep his family out of the spotlight as a protection to them, and one who worked for good in the world. He marched with Martin Luther King and he and his wife had a close relationship with Coretta Scott King, with whom he had attended college. He was the kind of guy that aspiring great guys aspire to be.

Now why, you might ask, would a self-admitted television non-watcher have such a man-crush on Rod Serling and his work? On the surface, it's obvious - I love weird fiction. But there's plenty of other weird television shows out there, even some from the same era. There's Black Mirror, The Outer Limits, Tales from the Crypt, Space:1999 (think it's not weird and doesn't belong amongst this company? Go watch the first season), and many others, both old and contemporary. 

Maybe it's the cinematography? Watching The Twilight Zone is a master class in cinematic composition. From the obtuse angles of the carousel shots in "Walking Distance" to the carefully-veiled movements of the doctors and nurses in "Eye of the Beholder" to the panning back and resulting isolation of a now-blind Henry Bemis standing in the midst of a ruined post-apocalyptic landscape in "Time Enough at Last," Serling shows a deft hand in conceptualizing, realizing, and editing shots that is largely absent from today's television. When I was a teenager, I had a subscription to Twilight Zone Magazine, and in the back of each issue was a screenplay of one of the episodes as written by Serling, complete with stage directions and camera instructions. These were taken, not from his hand, but through a dictophone where he recorded what he wanted for each episode. That record was then transcribed into the typed page, as it appeared in the back of Twilight Zone Magazine. Yes, the man was a genius. But there are other genius film-makers and television show producers out there who make clever use of the medium. David Lynch comes to mind first, and, of course, Kubrick.

What really sets it all apart for me is this: the weirdness of the fiction and the cunning cinematography (not to mention some excellent acting) were upheld by a fervent emotional undergirding that came from Serling's heart and mind. Watching the documentary, it was clear that Rod Serling was absolutely passionate and dedicated to what he was doing: telling stories that served as critiques of the darker elements of human nature and the foibles and failings of society at large. One cannot watch more than a few episodes of The Twilight Zone without realizing that there is a moral and ethical element that is largely absent from most entertainment today. Serling felt that some things were right: rediscovering one's innocence, tolerance and forgiveness, and the embrace of things outside of the frantic race to appease the almighty dollar and popular trends in society; and that some things were wrong: the embrace of violence in war, societal conformity for the sake of conformity, and racism. The list could go on and on. Though the moral fables are not always blunt and up-front (though sometimes they are), there was always a sense of something underneath it all, that The Twilight Zone wasn't being weird for the sake of weird, nor was it art-for-art's sake (and I do argue that the series was Art), but that Serling's personal experience and heart held it all together.

I'll use "Walking Distance" as an example. Spoilers ahead . . .

(Spoilers begin here)

In this episode, a 30-something year-old business man named Martin Sloan, eager to get away from his high-stress job in New York City, stops at a rural gas-station to get his car gassed up and tuned up. While there, he sees a wooden sign showing "Homewood 1 1/2 miles". The man recognizes that this sign points to his hometown, where he was raised. He decides to make the walk there, to see the place of his childhood. Over time, it is revealed that he has stepped back in time, back to a memorable summer of his childhood. He meets . . . himself. And his parents, who take him as a madman, at first. Cutting to the end, we see Martin Sloan meeting his father, who is finally convinced that this 36-year-old man is, indeed, the same person as his 12-year-old son. After discussing the situation, Martin is convinced by his father that he can't remain in Homewood, that the younger Martin Sloan has to live his youth as himself, to experience the joy of childhood as a child, as a unique individual. Upon parting, the father says, simply "Goodbye, Martin," to which he replies "Goodbye, Pops".

A sentimental, perhaps sappy scene, yes? Nostalgia at its strongest. Even the bandstand and carousel in the episode were modeled after Recreation Park, Binghamton, New York, where Serling was raised. Now, if one stops at that, you have an excellent story about seeking out one's childhood and knowing that you can never return there, at least not to stay.

But what takes it to the next level is this: When Serling was serving in the military near the end of World War II, his father died, age 52, of a heart-attack. The military refused to give him leave even to attend his father's funeral. Serling never had the chance to  say "goodbye" to his father and, as Rod Serling's daughter, Anne writes in her memoir, "It is a loss of such magnitude that he will never truly recover". Knowing this single fact propels "Walking Distance" from a great story, well-told, into the realm of the poignant and even the sublime. 

That poignancy is apparent in other episodes, as well. Watch "Eye of the Beholder" in the context of 1950s-60s societal conformity and, even more profoundly, in the light of the Civil Rights Movement, and you will feel much more deeply the pathos in Maxine Stuart's voice as she pleads to be accepted, to be "normal," not to be cast out and shunned. Overacting? Hardly! More a channeling of the frustration of every individual who has ever wanted acceptance and a chance to live as they please. 

I could go on, but an exhaustive examination of The Twilight Zone is way out of scope here. The point? When I say that The Twilight Zone is the best thing to ever appear on television, I mean it! It's what television can be (and has been) if we let our hearts lead. Not a mindless medium to waste away our time, but a mindful medium that causes viewers to examine their times and their places within that time.


  1. I loved it when Eleven and her companions, Watson and Ookla the Mok, attacked the Demigogron in the year 1994.

    But do go on, I would enjoy you list off Twilight Zone episodes.