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.
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.
What made the words of those opening and closing narrations come alive was Serling’s unmistakable staccato baritone, and he delivered them on camera from the second season onward. He was already famous, but that move rocketed him to superstardom. For a time, he was the most recognizable writer in America, endlessly imitated on talk shows, in break rooms, and on playgrounds.
If memorable writing had been all The Twilight Zone had going for it, it still would have been a very good show. Its other assets made it a great one. Every episode was shot like a short film; its look was miles beyond the cramped aesthetic of most weekly TV of the time. The anthology format — with changing casts and, to a lesser extent, crews — made the show a virtual Hollywood workshop. The actors who appeared — some for the first time in front of the camera — include Jack Klugman, Burgess Meredith, Burt Reynolds, Robert Redford, William Shatner, James Coburn, Charles Bronson, Elizabeth Montgomery, Martin Landau, Martin Balsam, Telly Savalas, Mickey Rooney, Lee Marvin, Robert Duvall, Dennis Hopper, Dana Andrews, Carol Burnett, Cliff Robertson, Buster Keaton, Peter Falk, Jeanette Nolan, Cloris Leachman, Art Carney, Agnes Moorehead, and dozens of others whose names may be less familiar today but whose faces remain instantly recognizable. Directors who got their start on the show and later made it big in feature films include Sidney Pollack and Richard Donner.
The Twilight Zone was a hit, but never a smash. It was solidly profitable, yet it had to fight to be renewed every year it was on the air. Letter-writing campaigns from devoted fans helped. But CBS management soured on the show, calculating that hit or no hit, they could make more money from a series with broader appeal that was cheaper to produce. The show was cancelled in 1964 after five seasons. It was not so much the end of an era; rather, The Twilight Zone had outlived its era. The television landscape was already changing when the show debuted, and by the time it ended the airwaves were unrecognizable. All the great, prestige anthology shows from the live-TV era — including the greatest of them all, Playhouse 90 –were gone. Alfred Hitchcock Presents hung on for one more season, as did the Twilight Zone copycat The Outer Limits. The rest of the fare consisted, in Serling’s derisive phrase, of “situation comedies, westerns, and cop shows.”
So it would remain, for the most part, throughout the following decades. Serling himself never enjoyed another success like The Twilight Zone. He tried his hand at many projects — too many — in several genres. A few made it to the airwaves or the big screen or the stage, but almost none were popular or critical hits. (One great exception was Planet of the Apes, for which Serling adapted the screenplay.) A lifelong four-pack-a-day smoker, he died of a heart attack at age 50 in 1975.
If only he had lived to see the rebirth of writer-driven television on cable. For the past dozen years or so, we have been witnessing a second golden age of television. The wasteland is vaster than ever, but its very vastness allows for niches of quality to thrive. Writers such as Tom Fontana (Oz), David Chase (The Sopranos), David Simon (The Wire), and Matthew Weiner (Mad Men) have created dramas that precisely reflect their visions, largely free from upstairs or outside interference. Theirs is a freedom that Rod Serling fought for his whole career, but enjoyed only briefly . . . in The Twilight Zone.
– Michael Anton, a former speechwriter to Pres. George W. Bush, is the author of The Suit (under the name Nicholas Antongiavanni). He is working on a book called The Blue Riband (about ocean liners).