Submitted For Your Approval: Why The Original Twilight Zone Resonates To This Day

Part 1: What 1950s TV Was Really Like When Rod Serling Arrived — And How The Twilight Zone Came to Exist As A Result

In the beginning, television was nothing. And then Rod Serling came.

“There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call The Twilight Zone.”

If you only know The Twilight Zone very casually, you might be surprised to know that this is the original introduction to it and that remained so until the second season. Then again, at this point in the history of popular culture, it’s hard to imagine anybody in the world having a ‘casual’ relationship with this series.

As long as I have been alive and well beyond that, some network somewhere has been airing The Twilight Zone. As long as I have lived in New York, some network has been airing marathons of it, on July 4th or New Year’s Day. (Syfy did it just this weekend.) It has been the subject of parody and homage since it first premiered. It may very well be the only show of the beginning of television that no one has anything unpleasant or negative to say about it. I’m relatively confident that a thousand years from now, if mankind still exists, The Twilight Zone will still be on some media somewhere.

Even those of us who have only the casual acquaintance with it as a series know individual stories and the actors in them, which is astounding for an anthology series that never had a single character recur. Burgess Meredith, climbing through the rubble of a library in the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust, breaking his all-too thick glasses; everyone too terrified to say anything remotely negative around Billy Mumy, should he ‘wish them into the cornfield’; William Shatner, terrified of a gremlin that is destroying the engine of the plane he’s flying on — no matter how times we see them, no matter how often they’re satirized or lampooned, they still have power after the fact.

That is why, every twenty years almost like clockwork, a reimagine of the series appears on some network: CBS in the 1980s; the UPN in the 2000s, Paramount Plus in 2020. But no matter how good the talent in the writers room — Harlan Ellison and George R.R. Martin worked on the eighties version; Jordan Peele on the version just completed — it never lasts as long or produces nearly as great an impact. It’s not that some of the episodes don’t have that kind of resonance; it’s that there’s something about that somehow chains it to the era it was part of and yet remains universal to this day. Television and science fiction have never been the same since The Twilight Zone debuted. The themes that Rod Serling and his team of writers still resonate. So why are they so hard to duplicate? To try and understand why, we have understand America and the world of television when Serling debuted on it, and what he and his fellow geniuses were trying to do.

For decades, so many elderly people remembered the 1950s with nostalgia, peaceful, simple, and calm compared to the tumult that would follow in the next two decades. Those people clearly have no real memories of the fifties at all.

Just to give you the cliff notes: The Cold War struck fear into the heart of every aspect of society. Joe McCarthy, Richard Nixon and HUAC spent most of the decade tearing apart every aspect of human life as if there were communists under every bed. The fact that they found nothing did not change the fear. Less known then the Red Scare is the Lavender Scare, which far more insidiously searched out for homosexuals within the government, considering them the far worse threat. The fear of atomic annihilation permeated the decade, bracketed by the Korean War on one end and the roots of Vietnam on the other. Intellectualism was considered a sign of weakness. The Civil Rights movement began slowly but surely, and it was bitterly fought with resistance every step of the way in the South and with what might best be termed as indifference by many of the north. The feminist movement began with similar disdain being layered on those who thought for it. Every layer of society felt it — even Cincinnati’s baseball team changed its name during the decade from the Reds to the Redlegs.

I think the reason so many people felt nostalgic about the fifties had less to do with how society actually was and the way television portrayed it. Leave it to Beaver and Father Knows Best showed a family where no one had a problem that couldn’t be solved in thirty minutes. Dragnet showed the world where the police were always the good guys and criminals were always arrested with no middle ground. I have a feeling that’s why the Western was such a popular genre; in addition to being in America’s past which is always comforting, Marshall Dillon could shoot the bad guy at the end of every episode and never face consequences. Every married couple slept in twin beds, even if they had children. There was always fighting between every married couple, but every wife was subservient to her husband’s desire in the end. (Remember the big joke on The Honeymooners was when Ralph Kramden threatened to beat his wife?) Most importantly, every woman was married to someone, there were no black people and no one was talking about anything that was actually happened in the world they inhabited.

There’s a good argument that much of the film industry is bracketed in white supremacy. This is harder to point at in the origins of television, but its far easier to blame on the amount of corporate involvement. The reason television was like this was because the corporate overlords and censors were determined to maintain this. When Lucille Ball got pregnant, she could even use that word when describing her condition in fear of scandalizing the ‘viewers’. When Elvis Presley debuted on television, cameras could not show him below the waist for the same reason. Every aspect of television was manipulated by corporations — including, as Robert Redford pointed out in the brilliant Quiz Show, the winners on some of the most popular game shows of that era. When the scandal was exposed, the only people who ever paid a price were the contestants; the producers who rigged the shows were back in TV a few years later. Television wasn’t showing up a mirror up to nature or a window into society; it was project an image that those power wanted us to see.

With one exception. The one area that really was unprecedented and that tried to show a world beyond the confines of TV at time with anthology shows such as Playhouse 90 or Studio One. Creating a world of what amounted to filmed plays, many of the creative forces of that era tried within the confines of television to open a crack into the real world. And it was into that world that Rod Serling came in 1951.

Serling had been a paratrooper in World War II and had worked in radio before and after the war. As radio lost its influence over America with the rise of television, Serling moved into the medium and became prodigious writing seventy one scripts in the space of four years. But the seventy-second script put him on the map.

Patterns, which aired on Kraft Television Theater in May of 1955, dealt with a struggle for power between the president of a corporation, the aging vice-president being pressured into resigning and the young man being brought in to replace him. The critical and popular reaction to this story was practically unprecedented: a month after being performed live, the task was repeated, something that never happened on TV before. Serling won the first of six Emmys for writing this show, and ‘overnight’ became a hot property.

Of course, it took a while for him to match the power of the next project, and he was helped by the debut of Playhouse 90, a series almost unprecedented in scope or design, to create original and brilliant drama for television. Three classic films — The Miracle Worker, Judgment at Nuremberg, and Days of Wine and Roses debuted in the earliest form on Playhouse 90. And there’s a good chance it would never have gotten that far had it not been for the second episode, which was penned by Serling.

Requiem for a Heavyweight tells the story of ‘Mountain’ McClintock (Jack Palance) on an ugly decline, his unscrupulous manager (Keenan Wynn) a sympathetic trainer (Ed Wynn, Keenan’s father) and a social worker (Kim Hunter) who takes an interest in him. Arguably the most worshipped TV live shows of the decade, it swept the 1956 Emmys, with one for Serling and numerous other awards, including the first ever Peabody given for writing.

The next years were golden for Serling, with him winning another Emmy for his adaptation of Ernest Lehman’s short story The Comedian and eventually signing a contract with MGM. By 1958, the golden trio of writers for television were Serling, Paddy Chayefsky (whose most significant work of that era Marty had already become a film classic) and Reginald Rose (whose Twelve Angry Men is still loved today.

But well before his first year at Playhouse 90 was over, Serling was looking for alternatives to it. He was determined to try and make an attempt to show Americans a view of the world outside that of traditional television, twice writing teleplays that were barely fictionalized version of the lynching of Emmett Till. Both versions — ‘Noon on Doomsday’ and ‘A Town Has Turned to Dust’ were so watered down as to be meaningless. He faired even worse with ‘The Arena’ a show for Studio One about the United States Senate where ‘none of the Senators were allowed to discuss any pressing problem’.

It was the network’s reaction to this story in which he had an epiphany. “I probably would have had a much more adult play had I made it science fiction, put it in the year 2057 and populated the Senate with robots. This would have probably been more reasonable and no-less dramatically inclusive.” Combined with the fact that live television was becoming a dying art form, it was far less of a leap for him to go from this to The Twilight Zone. He took a script he’d written in Cincinnati called ‘The Time Element’, modified it and sent it to CBS.

Back then, television was even less receptive to sci-fi then it is today: CBS bought it, but promptly shelved it. Only through the efforts of a producer named Bert Granet, working for Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse a series that when it came to pretensions to art was at the opposite end of spectrum from anything Serling had written for, bought the screenplay, more because of Serling’s name than any other reason. The episode deals with a man who is having recurring dreams about being in Pearl Harbor in the days leading up to the attack. He tells a psychiatrist that he actually believes these dreams are real and he is going back in time. He falls asleep on the couch, and his dream starts up right where it left off with the bombs beginning to fall.

The episode cuts to the office, where the psychiatrist is now alone. He knows something is amiss, but what? To steady himself, he goes to a bar and notices a picture of his patient. The man looks familiar, but he can’t be — he died at Pearl Harbor.

To say corporate could not understand what Granet saw in this script is an understatement: television at that point had no use for anything that ended with anything resembling ambiguity. Only because Desi Arnaz backed Granet did the episode air, and even then Arnaz had to appear on stage afterwards to offer something resembling an explanation to satisfy the censor.

‘The Time Element’ was not a particularly good episode of television, but it was the most popular episode of the Desilu Playhouse. This convinced CBS that it had made an error in shelving the script. It was agreed that a pilot of The Twilight Zone would be made. It aired in October 2, 1959. The rest, as they say, is history.

It’s worth saying that while the series was a huge critical success from practically its premiere to its end, it never drew the numbers of so many other hit shows in its time slot. Such was sci-fi as it is now. But no one could deny the power of the stories that Serling and his fellow writers were trying to tell, the way the performers told them, and the kinds of endings that they produced. Before The Twilight Zone, a story had a beginning, middle and end. The same was true during the show’s run, but the endings were not comforting and would leave the viewer thinking long after the credits had finished rolling. In a sense, we’re still thinking about them today.

Throughout the stories that Serling in particular wrote, he achieved the goal he set out to do: to tell the stories the viewers needed to know but disguised in such a way as to fool the censors. In the next part of this retrospective, I will detail some of the episode in which Serling more than ever achieved his goals — and some of the times he just tried to tell a good story.



After years of laboring for love in my blog on TV, I have decided to expand my horizons by blogging about my great love to a new and hopefully wider field.

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David B Morris

After years of laboring for love in my blog on TV, I have decided to expand my horizons by blogging about my great love to a new and hopefully wider field.