Art mirrors life. And, like many a Boomer, I have found my parallels in books, movies and TV. Take the last six year – please! (Bah dah BUMP!) I have felt trapped in a cross between a Stephen King thriller (both The Stand and The Dead Zone come to mind) and Game of Thrones. Overshadowing it all, there has been the disquieting feeling that I’m trapped in my own private episode of The Twilight Zone, Rod Serling’s journey into the world of the fantastic, which ran on CBS from 1959 to 1964 and then settled into permanent syndication. (You can currently watch the entire series if you subscribe to Paramount+).
Others have tried to duplicate Serling’s success, but they haven’t even come close. He worked in the anthology series format when it was a staple of both classic radio and early television. In fact, Rod Serling had come in on the ground floor of the TV industry after cutting his teeth as a radio scriptwriter. He wrote for some of the most prestigious shows, like Kraft Television Theatre, where his script for “Patterns” earned him critical acclaim in 1955. The following year, he wrote “Requiem for a Heavyweight” for Playhouse 90. As hit followed hit, Serling came to be considered one of the top screenwriters of his generation, along with the likes of Paddy Chayevsky and Reginald Rose.
The strong political themes in Serling’s work repeatedly got him in trouble with the companies that sponsored these quality shows, and he gained a reputation as an “angry young man” in his constant battle to fight censorship. Finally, he appeared to “give up” and turned to genre writing, namely tales steeped in science fiction, the supernatural and the unknown. He even wrote a pilot episode called “The Time Element” about an ordinary Joe, a bartender and unsuccessful bookie, who tells a psychiatrist about a recurring dream he has of being in at the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Of course, it has a strong twist at the end and just might have proved to be a great opening for the series.
CBS had other ideas. They weren’t crazy about the script or the road that Serling was choosing to go down, but they gave “The Time Element” to Desilu Playhouse, where it proved to be the most talked about episode of the season. At this point, the network had no choice but to give a go-ahead to The Twilight Zone. Serling wrote a new pilot episode called “The Happy Place,” a grim tale about a dystopian world that places people in concentration camps and disposes of them at the age of 60. Too grim, said the network. Okay, I’ll write another one, Serling replied.
And that takes us to the start of our journey, one which I’m thrilled to take under the guidance of my friend and teacher Elliot Lavine, who has shown me the way along many genre paths, including 50’s science fiction, Westerns and, of course, through many decades of film noir. Each week, for ten weeks, Elliot will assign us three episodes to watch and discuss. I propose to look at these episodes (and, if there’s time, to provide a bonus episode of my own.) As of this writing – before the class has started – I can only predict that we will be looking at the points Serling, along with the incredible writers he hired to craft many of these scripts, men like Ray Bradbury, Richard Matheson, and Charles Beaumont, were trying to make about the world around them. In addition, I hope we’ll have a chance to reflect on how prescient Serling continues to be. His series strikes a chord with the modern world that is – there can be no better word – uncanny!
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“Where Is Everybody?” (written by Rod Serling; original broadcast 10/2/59)
“There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension that is 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 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.”
A man in a jumpsuit (Earl Holliman) is walking down a road. He comes upon a diner and enters, looking for directions to the nearest town. The place looks like it was abandoned only moments before: hot coffee sits on the stove, pies are ready for baking. The man, Mike Ferris, calls out to see if anyone is there. Eventually, he moves on to a nearby small town. Everywhere he goes, it feels like the place was only recently full and is now – empty. However, church bells ring and evidence of humanity abounds, like the wet shaving brush in the prison or the abandoned car with the department store dummy in the passenger seat.
Mike’s sense of unease grows. He feels like he is being watched. His panic rises until he stands hysterically at a streetlight, pushing the “Walk” button and crying out for help. It turns out that this is really a panic button, and Mike is actually in an isolation booth. He is being watched – by a group of military men and scientists in the space program, checking to see the effects of long term isolation on their astronauts.
As Mike is taken away in a stretcher, he asks the doctor for an explanation:
“What was the matter with me, Doctor? Just off my rocker, huh?“
“ Just a kind of a nightmare that your mind manufactured for you. You see, we can feed the stomach with concentrates, we can supply microfilm for reading, recreation, even movies of a sort. we can pump oxygen in and waste material out. But there’s one thing we can’t simulate that’s a very basic need: man’s hunger for companionship. The barrier of loneliness – that’s one thing we haven’t licked yet.”
Serling’s introduction during the first season was the longest – and the clunkiest. In this first episode, he offers no opening narration but saves his comments about “the evils of isolation” for the end. For the rest of the season, he actually does more narrating (beginning and end, and sometimes the middle) to guide the viewer through each experience. Fun note: the producers wanted Orson Welles to be the narrator, but Serling insisted on doing it himself. Fortunately, Welles priced himself out of consideration and we got our narration the way it was always meant to be.
The pilot episode is just okay, but as Marc Zucree explains in his wonderful compendium, The Twilight Zone Companion, it was probably exactly the right sort of story to sell the series to a wary sponsor. The show would quickly go on to explore human existence and feeling in wilder, more imaginative ways, and without a doubt Serling would push the show to its limits with the censors. Here we have a simple story with a simple twist.
I agree that the twist is “meh” but concept that isolation and loneliness are anathema to mankind will be one of the most prevalent themes throughout the series. Zucree hits on this theme in his own explanation for the series’ continued popularity in his introduction:
“After World War II, triumphant soldiers came flooding back home, married their sweethearts and settled into tract homes to raise their kids. The extended family became a thing of the past – and alienation became the great dilemma of our age. The Twilight Zone was the first, and possibly only, TV series to deal on a regular basis with the theme of alienation – particularly urban alienation. Rod Serling’s ‘fear of the unknown working on you, which you cannot share with others’ became the dominant motif.”
That sense of isolation and alienation has been working on all of us for the past three years, brought about by COVID. It has driven us to depression and ramped up our fears. In addition, we have massive political upheaval throughout the world, much of it centered in our country. If you look at the Cold War era, you’ll find many parallels – and this was the time in which Serling wrote. A staunch Democrat, his first eight years of TV writing occurred during the Eisenhower administration and at the height of Communist paranoia and the dawn of the Civil Rights movement. It was another time of great political division and social unrest, where people found themselves mistrusting everyone from their leaders to their neighbors.
In “Where Is Everybody?,” Serling plays upon our discomfort at being alone, but he eventually grew to dislike what he had written, especially the fact that Mike never stops talking. If he could only be a fly on the wall at my house, where the talking never stops! – he might let go of his misgivings over what he created here.
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“ Time Enough to Last” (written by Rod Serling; original broadcast 11/20/59)
Henry Bemis (Burgess Meredith), a bank teller with thick eyeglasses, a shrewish wife and a heartless manager ((both staple characters throughout the series) who wants nothing more than the time to engage in his favorite pastime: reading. That time is granted when he sneaks down to the bank vault during lunch to read the newspaper, and a hydrogen bomb drops on the city and kills everyone.
Saved from the blast by the thick walls of the vault, Henry wanders through the empty ruins of the city and realizes that he is the sole survivor of an attack. He thinks about a future alone, with nothing to do, and contemplates suicide. But then he finds the public library, and his mood turns to elation. As he stacks up the works of Shakespeare, Byron and Shaw in monthly piles, he thinks joyfully that he has “time enough at last” to read his fill. But when he reaches down to pick up the first book, his glasses fall off and shatter on the ground.
Now nearly blind, Henry mutters “It isn’t fair . . . it isn’t fair” over and over again.
“The best-laid plans of mice and men – and Henry Bemis, the small man in the glasses who wanted nothing but time. Henry Bemis, now just a part of a smashed landscape, just a piece of the rubble, just a fragment of what man has deeded to himself. Mr. Henry Bemis . . . in the Twilight Zone.”
This one is a classic, and Burgess Meredith is the reason why. But I have to say that rewatching this one is problematic. You really can’t think too hard about it or it all falls apart. If nothing else, “Time Enough to Last” can help students figure out the difference between situational irony (of which this is an example) and dramatic irony.
Let’s take the H-bomb first. I can’t really fault Serling here because, despite all the evidence of the bomb’s effects on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, authorities spent the 50’s and early 60’s making us believe that an H-bomb attack was survivable. Every couple of months, we would run a drill at school where we were instructed to hide under our desks in preparation for The Bomb. It was stressed to us that we must cover our faces and especially our eyes in the likelihood that the bomb would cause our windows to break and flying glass could cut us.
Yeah, good grief!
So the likelihood that Mr. Bemis would survive for very long after the initial blast, what with the radiation and everything – that has to be ignored so that Serling can complete the joke. Actually, the best part of the series is where Henry wanders around after the blast and realizes that he does like people and he does enjoy having a day filled with variety. Thus, when he finds the library and is so utterly joyful, we can guess perhaps that Henry’s mind is embracing his beloved reading because to ponder the alternative would lead to madness.
The final twist is pure Twilight Zone, and I guess we should excuse the meanness because Serling has something more important to say about our fooling tampering with atomic energy. Everybody loses, right? And yet . . . the first half of the episode was spent pushing the villainy of Henry’s wife, boss and customer, all three of whom value reading not at all. The boss threatens to fire him for reading, even in his spare time, and applauds Henry’s wife for refusing to let him read. And the wife is even worse, defacing a book of poetry and setting Henry up for a fall.
Listen, I loved to read as a kid. I have always read. Now I even blog about my reading! But I also like to play cards and meet friends for coffee and dinner and hang out with my family and my animals and go to movies and the theatre. We all should be multi-faceted, and I get mean ol’ Mrs. Bemis’ frustration with her husband’s solitary nature. Even though we sympathize with the little guy throughout, his lonely obsession isn’t necessarily the right path – and there’s no reason why he shouldn’t pay for our military mistakes just like everyone else.
Still, I have to say that this time around, when Henry’s glasses broke, I felt less moved by the irony and more irritated at Serling’s cleverness. My hope is that Henry will grab the broken pieces of his specs and look for the ruins of a good optometrist!
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“The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” (written by Rod Serling; original broadcast 3/4/60)
“You know what I’m guilty of? I’m guilty of insomnia. Now what’s the penalty for that? Well, you heard what I said, I said it was insomnia. I SAID IT WAS INSOMNIA! You scared frightened rabbits, you! You’re sick people, do you know that? You’re sick people, all of you? And you don’t even know what you’re starting here because let me tell you – you’re starting something here that you should be frightened of. As God is my witness, you’re letting something begin here that‘s – that’s a nightmare!”
On a peaceful Saturday afternoon on Maple Street, USA, people are mowing the lawn and playing games and enjoying life – until something resembling a meteor streaks overhead. Soon afterwards, the power goes out all over the block. Neighbors Steve (Claude Akins) and Charlie (Jack Weston) decide to walk to the downtown area to see if the authorities can tell them what’s going on. But a boy named Tommy warns them to stay, telling them that in the science fiction stories he reads, aliens send their advance forces, looking just like normal humans, to infiltrate Earth. They start by taking away the power, and only the aliens have the ability to walk into town.
Thus begins a wave of paranoia that grows and grows, as neighbor turns on neighbor, and everything that seems “weird” about this or that citizen – an insomniac looking up at the night sky or a man playing in the basement with his homemade ham radio – all take on a new, sinister significance. When a figure emerges from the dark and walks toward what has now become a mob, Charlie shoots him, only to discover he has killed a longtime neighbor. When the power switches on in Charlie’s house, everyone turns against him – until he accuses Tommy of being the alien. Accusations fly, people grab weapons, and soon the whole neighborhood has become a war zone.
The camera then pulls back to a distant hillside as the aliens watch the carnage. They have manipulated the electricity, and from that small act, citizens have become savages. The aliens return to their spaceship, intent on visiting one Maple Street after another and letting the Earthlings destroy themselves.
“The tools of conquest do not necessarily come with bombs and explosions and fallout. There are weapons that are simply thoughts, attitudes, prejudices – to be found only in the minds of men. For the record, prejudices can kill and suspicion can destroy, and a thoughtless, frightening search for a scapegoat has a fallout all its own – for the children, and the children yet unborn. And the pity of it is that these things cannot be confined to the Twilight Zone.”
Another classic episode, and one that not only plays into the concerns Serling had about the world around him that inspired him to create the series but demonstrates how a “genre” series could still pull no socio-political punches. As I mentioned above, Serling worried about the fragility of suburbia: instead of living amongst our extended families, we were building a society of strangers, and the way we struck a balance was to attempt to all be pretty much the same as our neighbors. As long as everything goes well, that peace can be maintained. But any deviation from the norm – something not tolerated in the era of Cold War politics and the Civil Rights movement – can result in instant chaos.
Some episodes of TZ date more badly than others with modern viewing. It’s difficult to swallow how quickly these seeming adults accept the sci-fi magazine-inspired theories of a 13-year-old boy as the reason the power went out. (Clearly these people do not subscribe to PG&E or ConEd!) And because every person on Maple Street is essentially the same white, middle-class person, their reasons for turning on each other (this one stares at the sky, that one has a radio) are so meager that they all come off as morons.
Still, it is a scary half hour. And I would be lying if I didn’t tell you how many times this episode came into my mind during and since the January 6 insurrection, or when we hear how many credulous idiots have embraced Q-Anon as truth. We always knew you could fool some of the people all of the time; we just didn’t know how many it could be and how bad it could get.
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I’d like to mention two bonus episodes that we won’t be covering in class. There is a certain repetition of ironic twists and how some themes are handled. But I’m struck with how two episodes of Season One, written by two different masters, utilized a very similar template to explore different themes.
In “The Sixteen Millimeter Shrine” (10/23/59), Rod Serling tells the story of Barbara Jean Trenton, (Ida Lupino) an aging actress who, like Norma Desmond before her, spends her life in her own private screening room, watching all the glorious films that once captivated an audience of millions. Her agent Danny (Martin Balsam) tries to get Barbara to live in the present by finding her work and bringing old friends to visit. But Barbara finds nothing in the present world to give her joy.
Meanwhile, in “A World of Difference” (3/11/60), the great Richard Matheson gives us Arthur Curtis (Howard Duff), an average businessman and loving family man, whose life is shattered when, sitting in his office, he hears a voice yell “Cut” and turns to find a movie crew filming him. Curtis is told that he is, in reality, a nasty, alcoholic actor named Jerry Raigan and that Curtis is the role he’s playing. Is the businessman suffering a reality break? Or is the contrast between one idyllic “fictional” existence and a brutal “reality” driving the actor mad?
Serling’s teleplay deals with a theme we will see more than once (two of them, much better ones, are coming up next week), that of our unwillingness to face the change and loss that age and time can bring, and our inability or unwillingness to adapt and grow. Let’s call it the “You Can’t Go Home Again” Syndrome – except, of course, in The Twilight Zone, sometimes you can! Matheson, whose novel The Shrinking Man, became one of the great sci-fi films of the 50’s, deals as he often does with something more existential – the very nature of identity, of what makes us the man we are. If a man as awful as actor Jerry Raigan can play a character as loving and good as Arthur Curtis, isn’t it possible that such a fine man actually exists inside Raigan?
In the end, both Serling and Matheson take pity on their main characters and provide them with the same fate: Barbara disappears into one of her favorite old films, and Raigan is allowed to transfer his existence into whatever dimension Arthur Curtis occupied. I wonder if people noticed the similarities? I wonder if they spotted the different meanings??
Matheson would go on to write some of the most iconic episodes of Twilight Zone, and I’m pleased that we will be covering many of them in the coming weeks. We will also watch the episode that Ida Lupino directed – for me maybe the most frightening Twilight Zone of them all!
See you next week!