There is so much competition for “best television show ever” that continuing the argument is probably pointless. Also, apples-to-apples comparisons are difficult to make. Is The Simpsons better than The Sopranos, or are they so different that, apart from both being shown on TV, they have nothing meaningful in common?
“Most influential” is a little easier. And there can be no question that the top handful of contenders must include The Twilight Zone — first aired 50 years ago, on Oct. 2, 1959. It remains one of the best-loved shows of all time, and in the subsequent half-century, it has never been off the air. The show spawned numerous copycats, both in its own day and in the decades since it was cancelled. More important, it was also largely responsible for pulling science fiction, fantasy, and historical whatifery up from the ghetto of comic books and pulp novels and into the mainstream. No Twilight Zone, no Star Trek or Star Wars or Indiana Jones or even Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And The Twilight Zone was emphatically a writer-driven show, one that made stars of its scribes, who exerted considerable influence over how their stories were depicted on screen. Indeed, only recently has writing for television regained the prestige it enjoyed in those heady days.
Not that, at the time, those who worked on The Twilight Zone quite appreciated what they had. Their show was at once the last gasp of the anthology series — the most popular format of television’s first decade — and one of the last high-quality shows before TV entered a long dark, or at least puerile, age. The former was obvious at the time, and was one of the reasons why the show had to fight to find and keep sponsors throughout its five-year run. As for the latter point, however, not only was it not obvious, most people — not least The Twilight Zone’s creator — believed the opposite.
Rod Serling was television’s golden boy in its golden age, the era of live “teleplays,” acted by top talent and written by such actual or soon-to-be luminaries as Paddy Chayefsky, Reginald Rose, Gore Vidal, and Serling himself. Like the others on that list, Serling was young — he sold his first script at age 22, was writing for TV full time three years later, and hit it big at 30 — and politically minded. His teleplays always strove to be topical, to grab the viewer by the lapels and make a big point, often unsubtly. (Anyone who thinks liberalism is a recent import into the entertainment industry should study TV’s early days and the crusading career of the young Rodman Edward Serling.)
Serling wrote two critical smash hits in the Fifties: Patterns, about the inexorable way corporate greed trumps loyalty and crushes humanity, and Requiem for a Heavyweight, the story of a washed-up boxer and the unscrupulous people who try to squeeze the last possible nickels out of his broken body. These shows — not filmed but broadcast live, with production values that seem shockingly crude today — are all but forgotten now. Yet they catapulted Serling to immense fame, especially among the TV-hating intelligentsia, who looked upon his works as shining beacons amidst what future FCC chairman Newton Minow would in 1961 call “a vast wasteland.” In the late Fifties, it was not uncommon for Serling to hear himself favorably compared to Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams. Big things were expected of him.
He never managed to recapture that glory — at least not in elite opinion. Publicly, Serling blamed the interference of sponsors. For instance, he twice tried to write a play about the Emmett Till murder, only to have advertisers insist on changes that drained away all possible meaning (e.g., the locale was moved to New England, and no black characters were allowed; indeed, all references to race were scrubbed out). While Serling’s frustration was understandable, his public sanctimony frequently got him into trouble. In interviews, he would complain about sponsors and ad agencies, sometimes even by name. “It is difficult to produce a television show that is both incisive and probing when every twelve minutes one is interrupted by twelve dancing rabbits singing about toilet paper” was one of his milder zingers, but one that perfectly captured his mixture of pretension and resentment. Critics took to calling him “television’s last angry man.”
There were other problems. Serling never became comfortable with his success and so never could say no. He accepted every offer that came his way, badly overcommitting himself, and turned out a great deal of shoddy work. For a man so immensely successful — by the time he was 34 he was earning well over $100,000 a year (the equivalent of over $1 million today) and had won three consecutive Emmys — Serling was shockingly insecure.
Thus, when the hottest network in America (CBS) offered the hottest writer in America the chance to develop his own show, Serling jumped. Here was steady money, a piece of the profits, and total creative control.