The Twilight Zone: A Commentary (Part 1)

Steven Harper PiziksA point of information: I’ve never watched an episode of THE TWILIGHT ZONE all the way through.  The ZONE, of course, is before my time–I was born in 1967, four years after the show went off the air.  However, many of my fandom and writer contemporaries grew up watching the show on reruns.  Channel 50 out of Detroit was a favorite.  Up in middle-of-nowhere, Michigan, we had no syndication station.  I spent my childhood in blissful ignorance of Rod Serling, STAR TREK, DOCTOR WHO, and just about every other rerun show.

Anyway, I somehow limped along.  You can’t spend as much time in the SF crowd as I have without picking up ZONE stuff by osmosis, and I became slowly aware of the more popular episodes: the one with the guy who liked to read; the Talky Tina doll; the aliens who served man; Rod Serling’s over-the-top narration.  But I still never watched an entire episode.

Recently I learned THE TWILIGHT ZONE original episodes are available on Netflix for streaming.  Well!  I added them to my queue and started in.  I’ve gotten halfway through first season and now I’m highly qualified for some commentary.

This is absolutely a period piece.  It’s quite charming to watch 1959 brought to life (though I usually think to myself, “Goodness, I wonder how many of these actors are dead”) and see the furniture, hairstyles (the men ALL have exactly the same haircut–barbers must have been bored out of their minds), the cars, even the food choices.  And wow!  Everybody smokes!  It’s a little jarring looking at this from an age when smoking is a factor in an R rating.  People smoke in restaurants, in cars with their kids, in hospital beds, in alleys, and on sidewalks.  Men offer to light each other’s cigarettes and hold each other’s wrists to steady the match without a hint of homoeroticism (well, perhaps a teeny one).

 

Most of the material hasn’t aged well, though.  Rod Serling was making social commentary, and the most concerns of 1959 are quite different from those of 2016.  Yes, we worry about the government, but not in the way Serling did.  The ZONE also chews over mass destruction (nuclear war), whereas we seem preoccupied with death by zombies.  The magical stranger is another fixture–an odd individual who only one character can see or who manages to disappear before anyone else arrives on the scene.  A variation of this theme is the magical peddlar or tinker.  The ZONE has multiple episodes with the odd little man who carries around a suitcase and sells strange things or offers you oddities you probably don’t want.  I’d forgotten about the traveling peddler.  In modern days, he’s been replaced by the TV pitchman.

Another recurring theme is, “It’s us all along!”  Many episodes put humans into strange situations, and the twist at the end is that they’ve been in familiar surroundings all along and didn’t know it, or they turn out to be aliens, and we viewers have been duped into thinking they were human.

On the other hand, “The Monsters on Maple Street” could easily be a commentary on the most recent presidential election.
One interesting recurring theme is nostalgia.  A number of episodes use time travel to fling someone back to the past, or they have someone yearn for past events, and the past is always shown as a golden time.  Since this is 1959, “the past” is nearly 100 years ago for us modern folk.  (I’m waving at all the people from 2036 who are reading this.  Is 2016 nostalgic for you?  It was a sucky year for us.)

The show is so far very bleak.  No one gets a happy ending.  Protagonists come to an awful end.  Only rarely do we get a happy ending, and even those lean toward the mixed blessing variety.  As an example of the latter, a family escapes nuclear holocaust in a recently-developed space ship and we find out at the last minute that they’re planning to live on Earth (surprise! aliens in human form!), with the implicit message that they’re carrying the seeds of humanity’s eventual destruction.  Twice Serling ends a show by having a troubled character escape their problems forever by jumping into a TV or movie screen, never to return.  Mixed blessing.

I’m sure that when the show first aired, the many plot twists were exciting and brand new, but at this point I take a fair amount of amusement by seeing how fast I can call out the ending.  “They’re on Earth already!” I shout.  Or, “The robot’s going to die!”  Or, “He’ll be forced to make a sales pitch to Death!”  Two flaws in the show (so far) are that they have no comic relief in them whatever to break the relentless bleakness (maybe we’ll get some later as the show matures), and second, there are never any subplots.  (Yes, the show is only half an hour long, but FRIENDS manages to work in three stories per episode, as a counterexample.)

Some of the episodes draaaaaaaagggggggg.  Many scenes could be shortened, and the extra time used for a subplot or two.  Is this a matter of modern taste?  TV shows made in a time when life was slower have slower pacing?  Maybe.  But I find I can often pop the stream forward a few minutes and miss nothing important.

It’s always fun to watch the end credits and see if a familiar name pops up.  Was Burgess Meredeth EVER a young man?  And is that really Jack Klugman?  Holy cow–Claude Akins!  And it’s also fun to Google unfamiliar names to see what happened to the others.  This one retired from acting in the 60s and still sells real estate.  That one acted for many years in a long string of small roles but never made it big.  This other dropped out of sight and no one knows where he is.

The show is itself a form of time travel.  I’m actually glad I’m watching it for the first time as an adult.  It’s more fun to look at it through the lens of an historian and media person than as an SF fan, to tell the truth.

–Steven Harper Piziks

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The Twilight Zone: A Commentary (Part 1) — 6 Comments

  1. I feel that way about other period shows, especially the comedies. Seeing what people thought funny (or what Hollywood thought people thought funny)

  2. I remember watching an episode of TZ with my mom one night. It was the famous 8th episode, “Time Enough at Last” in which a man discovers a library in the aftermath of some undescribed catastrophe that apparently has wiped out the rest of the population, at least where he is. He’s utterly thrilled — he’s finally going to be able to have and read all the books. And then his glasses shatter . . . .

    I never forgot my mom’s puzzled reaction to this. “He never even looked to see if there was someone hurt and still living before going off to read.”

    She wasn’t a regular watcher of this program. I think she had a bad cold, or was maybe even pregnant with my coming baby sister? because on these nights she and my dad would usually have been out with their square dance club.

    • I remember that episode too! The writers apparently never considered the possibility that if his glasses were that thick, he was likely near-sighted, which wouldn’t have affected his ability to read at all…

      But yeah, not checking for survivors: that’s probably why his glasses shattered. These shows were relentlessly moralistic. Greek mythology for television.

      I guess that’s why I found them so frustrating and depressing. I’m shuddering now, even remembering them.

      • Yeah, me, too. I only saw one or two, when our babysitter was over–my dad controlled the tv, and he had no interest in SF whatsoever. I have to say, I never missed it, once I’d seen a couple eps.

  3. I am not a fan of horror, never have been, never will be. By today’s standards TZ is not horror. But at the time they were. So I only ever watched 2 or 3 episodes when my brother insisted they were the best thing on TV. I still have nightmares.

    That said, there was one Christmas episode with a surprise ending that left me with the warm fuzzies.

  4. I enjoyed it, but then I watched it mostly in my teen years. I saw the gremlin episode much earlier, and I still can’t watch it without being utterly creeped out.