What “The Twilight Zone” Reveals About Today’s Prestige TV

Television is a vast wasteland, or so I often heard while growing up. That description had been commonplace since Newton Minow of the FCC used it in his address of him at the convention of the National Association of Broadcasters on May 9, 1961. But, as with so many famous American turns of phrase, its context was soon forgotten . In his speech by him, titled “Television and the Public Interest,” Minow challenged the industry members in his audience to sit down and watch their own stations for an entire day. “Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland,” one crossed by “a procession of game shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, Western bad men, Western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons.”

“When television is bad,” Minow claimed, “nothing is worse”—but not before assuring his listeners that when television is good, nothing is better. In support, I have added a handful of then current examples: specials hosted by Fred Astaire and Bing Crosby, adaptations of Joseph Conrad’s “Victory” and Winston Churchill’s memoirs. By far the best-remembered of Minow’s exemptions from the wasteland is “The Twilight Zone,” which had debuted on CBS in 1959 and would run until 1964. It’s also the least obviously high-minded: as an anthology series, “The Twilight Zone ” tells a different story each episode, and many of the genres through which it cycles do involve a certain amount of mayhem, violence, sadism, and murder—as well as a few gangsters and Western men both good and bad. Yet “The Twilight Zone” also stands as perhaps the earliest example of what we think of today as auteur-driven prestige television.

The auteur of “The Twilight Zone” was Rod Serling, whose onscreen persona—dark suit, lowered cigarette, introductory words delivered from one side of his mouth—remains so oft-parodied as to be more recognizable than the content of the show itself. But certain “Twilight Zone” scenes have also persisted in popular culture: the lone survivor of a nuclear apocalypse who surrounds himself with books and promptly breaks his glasses; the omnipotent young boy, wide-eyed with disappointment, wishing the grown-ups around him into a distant cornfield; the furry creature perched on the wing of the jetliner, tampering with its engine. These are among the show’s signature images, but an American under fifty is most likely to have first encountered them, as I did, in the form of gags on “The Simpsons.” Such received impressions make “The Twilight Zone” seem like a cavalcade of cheap thrills.

Nevertheless, in America cheap thrills have a way of solidifying into cultural touchstones, and when creating “The Twilight Zone” Serling clearly understood the freedom that such déclassé subject matter could afford him in the years ahead. For television of the nineteen-sixties would prove quite different from television of the nineteen-fifties: already, in 1961, Minow could reference “the much bemoaned good old days of ‘Playhouse 90,’ ” an anthology drama series that had run on CBS from 1956 to 1960, and to which Serling had contributed. His scripts of him, dealing seriously with subjects from washed-up boxers to the Warsaw Ghetto, won him the very first Peabody Award for television writing. They also shored up his reputation as a prolific screenwriter with a strong social conscience, established with “Patterns,” an acclaimed boardroom melodrama broadcast on NBC’s “Kraft Television Theater” in 1955.

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Like most early dramatic television programs, both “Kraft Television Theatre” and “Playhouse 90” at first aired all their productions live. Looking back at “Patterns” in 2008, the television critic Tom Shales wrote that “some people thought live TV was the beginning of a truly new storytelling medium—one uniquely suited to intimate, unadorned, psychological dramas—but it turned out to be a beginning with a tiny middle and a rushed end.” The earnest verbosity of shows like “Patterns” ultimately had less in common with what television would become than with what radio had once been. Serling had developed his writing chops on the radio as a college student in the late nineteen-forties, after returning from the Second World War, and he later lamented the medium’s diminished dramatic viability. With the rise of television, he once said, radio “dug its own grave. It had pointed downward, had become cheap and unbelievable, and had willingly settled for second best.”

Dismayed by radio’s devolution into a garish sonic billboard, Serling feared that the fledgling medium of television might meet a similar fate—and, if his struggles with sponsor-pleasing station policies were any indication, it would. In 1956, censors at CBS rendered two of his scripts almost meaninglessly vague: one, based on the murder of Emmett Till, was stripped of all similarities to real persons and events; another, a Senate-floor drama, of all references to actual political parties and issues. “In retrospect, I probably would have had a much more adult play had I made it science fiction, put it in the year 2057, and peopled the Senate with robots,” Serling said. “This would probably have been more reasonable and no less dramatically incisive.” This realization may have inspired the modus operandi of “The Twilight Zone,” whose veil of science fiction and the supernatural allowed Serling to engage in social criticism with relative abandon.

Having spent the past year watching “The Twilight Zone” from start to finish, I can report that, on the whole, the series holds up surprisingly well. Aesthetically, it seldom exhibits the comical shoddiness associated with nineteen-fifties genre television. Often shot at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios, the series had access to a wide variety of sets and props from feature films. (Science-fiction episodes make frequent use of vehicles, robots, and one particular flying saucer from MG-M’s 1956 camp classic “Forbidden Planet.”) Each episode conjures up its own reality in an inventive and economic—if not unfailingly convincing—manner , but what holds it all together is the writing: “The scripts, of course, were invariably superior to the general run of shows around then,” the “Twilight Zone” regular John Anderson said (as quoted in Marc Scott Zicree’s “The Twilight Zone Companion”); his roles on the show included the archangel Gabriel and a commercial pilot who accidentally flies back to the time of the dinosaurs.

Even so, not all “Twilight Zone” scripts are of a uniform quality. Serling wrote or adapted a superhuman-sounding ninety-two of the show’s hundred and fifty-six episodes himself, thus imbuing “The Twilight Zone” with his own authorial personality. But, at some point, sheer fatigue seems to have unleashed his weakness for both too-direct and too-broad statements about the concerns of his time. One third-season episode, rushed into production during the Berlin Crisis of 1961, involves a suburban doctor who denies his unprepared neighbors entry into his fallout shelter on the apparent eve of nuclear war, triggering their reversion to near-savagery. (A similar scenario would later play out on “The Simpsons,” with Ned Flanders in the role of the doctor.) “No moral, no message, no prophetic tract, just a simple statement of fact,” Serling says in his closing narration . “For civilization to survive, the human race has to remain civilized.”

That sounds exactly like a moral to me, but at least it’s less high-handed than what would come later on. In the fifth and final season, another Serling script presents a small town whose people eagerly await the hanging of a convict. The condemned man shot a bigot in self-defense, but murder is murder. Oddly, the sun fails to rise on the day of the execution, and the characters later realize that only their town’s sky is blacked out, the darkness being an objective correlative for the “hate” that prevails there. Generic prejudice of this kind is one of the show’s usual targets; so are such nineteen-fifties liberal bugbears as McCarthy-style witch hunts, techno-maniac philistinism, and corporate conformity, often dramatized in rigorously brain-dead futuristic dystopias. The innocent may suffer in Serling’s dramatic universe, but the guilty enforcers get their comeuppance by the time of the ending twist.

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