So after blogging about Jordan Peele’s Twilight Zone revival, I got to thinking about the enduring popularity of Rod Serling’s original. Why is it remembered so well? Why does it keep getting revivals?Well, it’s become a brand name so it’s no surprise CBS wants to keep reviving it. That’s a much safer bet than encouraging people to catch an all-new series — as witness I tuned in to the Peele and I’ve never made any effort to catch Black Mirror (not a reflection on that show, just on the amount of stuff that’s out there to watch). And part of the reason it’s become a brand name is that when it came out there wasn’t anything like it. TV SF was treated as kids’ stuff; TV fantasy was limited to sitcoms such as Topper or Bewitched. Twilight Zone took specfic seriously, as something adults could enjoy and that could be done well. It didn’t hurt that along with Serling, we had Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont, both established and excellent writers of contemporary fantasy (among other things). Serling also cast a lot of first-rate actors including Burgess Meredith, Ross Martin, Jack Klugman, Wilfred Hyde-White and others. Running from 1959 to 1964, Serling’s work had an impact I don’t think it could possibly have today.
But not every show that made a big splash back in ye ancient times of a mere three networks has such a devoted following today. The original series holds up well.
Part of that is Serling’s interest in people and human nature, particularly his fondness for the down-and-out and the unlucky losers. The insecure cheap crook in Nervous Man in a Four Dollar Room. The anguished bookie in In Praise of Pip, getting one last night with his dead son. Art Carney delivering Christmas cheer on The Night of the Meek. But while people often have crappy lives and don’t get happy endings (case in point, Burgess Meredith’s myopic bank clerk in All The Time in the World) Serling’s not looking to to shrug and say “life isn’t fair.” He gets that unfairness is something that should be fixed. And in many stories he does, delivering a eucatastrophe, a miraculous (but plausible) happy ending.
Another factor, and I think this is a big one, is the nature of the stories. Twilight Zone had a big range: stories with no specfic element (The Silence), post-apocalypse (Two), space adventure (The Parallel) and time travel (No Time Like the Past), but the “generic” TZ story is intrusion fantasy: a contemporary setting with the supernatural or super-scientific intruding on it. And doing so, in many cases, randomly.
In a few of the episodes, there’s a clear reason for what’s happening, such as Jess-Belle where the protagonist apprentices herself to a witch, or The Trouble With Templeton in which the protagonist’s long-dead wife has arranged events for his benefit. In many more, there’s none: fate or God or Satan has decided to upend someone’s life for no reason at all. The businessman in A World of Difference suddenly finds he’s an actor and his life is the script. He doesn’t do anything to bring it about, it just happens. Ditto the woman haunted by her double in Mirror Image or the rejuvenated seniors in Kick the Can. They don’t cross any lines, tamper with anything forbidden, piss off the dark gods — they’re just shit out of luck. Sure, some of them deserve their doom or their miraculous redemption, such as Dan Duryea’s drunken gunfighter in Mr. Denton on Doomsday. Even so, there’s no reason why Fate should (literally) stop in his town and turn his life around, it just happens.
That, I think, makes it more compelling. Because if things like this can happen at random, then they can happen to us. We don’t have to be chosen ones, or profane an Egyptian tomb to be affected. Any one of us, at any time, could stumble into the impossible.
Into the Twilight Zone.
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