To be sure, Serling did not see The Twilight Zone only as a safe “out” from the pressures of dealing with censors and sponsors. He had a lifelong love of fantasy and had written many far-out stories for his college radio station and his early gigs in commercial broadcasting. But his highbrow friends assumed he was selling out. In a biting Mike Wallace interview, the future 60 Minutes host — and Serling fan — sneered, “So you’ve given up writing anything important for TV?” Serling decided to try to make a virtue of necessity. “If by important you mean to try to delve into current issues, you’re quite right,” he replied. He went on to explain (perhaps trying to convince himself) that “I stay in television because I think it’s very possible to perform a function of providing adult, meaningful, exciting, challenging drama without dealing in controversy necessarily.”
Serling may have had an adult audience in mind, but The Twilight Zone proved to be an even bigger — and unexpected — hit with kids. Its 10 p.m. time slot was not geared to attracting a young audience, but they watched anyway, in droves, enthralled. Parents wrote letters to CBS asking that the show be aired earlier so as not to interfere with bedtime. Serling biographer Joel Engel argues that part of The Twilight Zone’s initial impact and enduring appeal was that it was “one of the first shows to be aimed at the baby boomers — or so it seemed to them — the oldest of whom were in their early teens when it premiered.”
Certainly, there was a lot for kids to like. “Fantasy is the impossible made probable. Science fiction is the improbable made possible” — that’s how Serling initially described the concept. Every week, the show would have a new setting, a new cast, and a new premise. The unifying theme would be “the unknown” — understood broadly to include space travel and time travel, ESP and immortality, dystopian futures and idyllic pasts, Santa Claus and Mr. Death.
Yet it was precisely The Twilight Zone’s disconnect from reality that gave Serling cover to comment on the issues he most cared about. His favorite topic — revisited again and again — was prejudice. Serling was absolutely marinated in the anti-racism ideology of midcentury liberalism. “The worst aspect of our time is prejudice,” he once said, a sentiment he repeated in nearly identical terms over and over again. Sometimes drawing from this well yielded inspired results, such as the classic episode “Eye of the Beholder,” set on a planet in which a beautiful plastic-surgery patient is considered ugly and all the “normals” look like pigs. But Serling returned too often, burdening the show with clunkers like “He’s Alive” (the “he” being Hitler) and “I Am the Night, Color Me Black” (a melodrama about a lynching).
When he turned his rhetorical guns against authoritarianism, he left nothing standing. One of the most powerful episodes — “The Obsolete Man” — pits a meek, Bible-quoting librarian against a book-banning, atheistic über-state, over which the librarian scores a posthumous victory. There is also a strong streak of anti-Communism in Serling’s work. (Serling was a lifelong patriot who served bravely in World War II; he came to oppose the war in Vietnam because he thought the corrupt Saigon government unworthy of American support.) One underrated episode (“The Mirror”), about a Castro-lookalike Latin American dictator, could have been inspired by Animal Farm or Leo Strauss’s On Tyranny. Another episode makes a punch line out of Nikita Khrushchev.
Not that all, or even most, of the scripts were thinly veiled social criticism. The Twilight Zone was first and foremost entertainment — “good stories, well told,” Serling promised, and largely delivered. Many of the greatest plots had no political undertone at all — and were not even scripted by the boss. Serling wrote an incredible 92 of the show’s 156 episodes, but some of the most beloved and memorable were penned by a quartet of freelance contributors: established sci-fi gurus Charles Beaumont and Richard Matheson, and newcomers George Clayton Johnson and Earl Hamner Jr. (who went on to create The Waltons).
Serling returned to these men again and again in part because of how well they understood the form. As Matheson put it, “The ideal Twilight Zone started with a really smashing idea that hit you right in the first few seconds, then you played that out, and you had a little flip at the end; that was the structure.” Indeed, the show’s hallmark came to be those sucker-punch endings: “It’s a cookbook!” “Dolls for Christmas . . . ” “U.S. Air Force Space Probe No. 1.” And on and on. They became so characteristic of the show that some wags dubbed it “O. Henry in Outer Space,” after the turn-of-the-century short-story writer’s famous twist finales.
One of the factors that set The Twilight Zone apart was that the writers were absolutely in charge. All the others involved — the producers, directors, cinematographers, set designers, and actors — were there to implement the writers’ vision. It helped that the head writer, Serling, was also the creator, executive producer, and co-owner. No one second-guessed his scripts, and he in turn never undercut his freelancers.
The result was an uncommonly well-scripted show. This is not to say flawless. The dialogue could be overripe. In particular, big-city lowlifes tended to sound a tad too floridly Runyonesque; Serling himself was the worst offender in this regard. Indeed, one of Serling’s biggest weaknesses as a writer was a consistent preference for more words rather than fewer. Yet his logorrhea often served the show very well. Take his introduction to “The Midnight Sun”:
The word Mrs. Bronson is unable to put into the hot, still, sodden air is “doomed,” because the people you’ve just seen have been handed a death sentence. One month ago, the earth suddenly changed its elliptical orbit and in doing so began to follow a path which gradually, moment by moment, day by day, took it closer to the sun. And all of man’s little devices to stir up the air are no longer luxuries; they happen to be pitiful and panicky keys to survival. The time is five minutes to 12 – midnight. There is no more darkness. The place is New York City, and this is the eve of the end, because even at midnight, it’s high noon — the hottest day in history — and you’re about to spend it . . . in the Twilight Zone.
A bit much, perhaps, but scientific improbability aside, it’s hard to imagine a more engrossing set-up.