We’re All Still Living in the Twilight Zone
The Twilight Zone, which premiered on October 2, 1959, is more American than baseball, hot dogs, and apple pie combined. It has its lineage in Poe and pulp fiction, and it’s a forceful document of an America teetering on the brink of the Sixties, still reeling from the horrors of World War II. But it remains germane because it’s a reminder of how the efficiency and rationality of our society produces the very uneasiness it seeks to squelch.
Rod Serling—in his conservative suit and tie, with his short hair and shaved face, chain smoking like a Beat poet and speaking like a carpet salesman—is the perfect archetype of the schizophrenic modern male.
Rod Serling, a World War II combat veteran himself, created the show after making a name for himself as a thoughtful, formidable writer of socially-conscious teleplays. Frustrated with sponsor-induced censorship, he felt that the genres of horror, mystery, and science fiction would enable him to address social issues in a more oblique yet powerful manner.
He was only partly right—because, besides the comical, more lighthearted episodes (which should definitely be skipped), many of the episodes which least work are those that obviously address societal ills. Most of these were written by Serling, and they tend to be wordy, didactic, overwrought. Often what you intend to do and what you succeed in doing are two different things.
Still, Serling wrote some great episodes, particularly in the first season. The first episode, “Where Is Everybody?,” features a lone air force pilot wandering around an abandoned town. It’s full of quiet, small chills and surprises, and future screenwriters and TV writers of America would do well to study its understated suspense and drama. No flashy special effects, no gore—just a guy wandering around trying to make sense of things. Just like all of us.
“Where Is Everybody?” is more of a short film than a TV episode. Same goes for The Twilight Zone as a whole. Such theme-based rather than character-based TV is the kind of commitment-free enterprise a fellow like me can really subscribe to.
What TV audiences and streaming audiences want now is a recurring set of characters they can get to know and either love or loathe, surrogate family members whose tragedies and triumphs they can follow—usually with more passion and interest than they do those of their actual family members.
Which is just fine, I guess—but as my life enters its second half I find that I have less motivation to watch shows like Breaking Bad and House of Cards because for every excellent episode you have to sit through three or more so-so ones. A very slim return on investment. The Twilight Zone, on the other hand, serves up new faces and new problems on a weekly basis, the only common theme holding them together being the slight crack showing in the monolithic wall of modernity.
On the off chance that you’re not really familiar with the show, it presents evil, sentient ventriloquist’s dummies, ominous, otherworldly hitchhikers, astronauts stranded on other planets, business types catapulted back to their carefree childhoods, extra terrestrials who you thought were Earthlings and Earthlings who you thought were extra-terrestrials, and numerous variations on Armageddon.
The existential jitters of the Cold War and its dour handmaiden nuclear annihilation, social tumult and dissatisfaction with the status quo of the Fifties, the gnawing angst we feel when surrounded by so many machines and well-devised systems—all of these helped make The Twilight Zone what it was and is.
The key to understanding the charm of show—and understanding life in general, for that matter—comes to us from Marshall McLuhan, who wrote about “hot” and “cool” media. Hot media are more distinct and stark and leave little to the imagination, while cool media are more tactile and leave your mind more gaps to fill in.
TV, now a hot medium, was once a cool one, and The Twilight Zone is every bit the cool show. It begs to be watched not on a huge HD screen but a small, fuzzy black and white one. There’s something inherently creepy and hypnotic about wavering, snowy monochromatic images—and it was in this format that I first encountered The Twilight Zone. We lived out in the country, and the reception was often so bad that you had to stand by the set and make adjustments to the antenna as you watched—a very interactive, visceral way to watch TV.
Another thing that McLuhan talked about also touches on The Twilight Zone: that modern man, whose society and systems are heavily based on the mass standardization and mass production brought about by the phonetic alphabet, is schizophrenic by his very nature. He bases his life around logical, repeatable procedures, yet the irrational, organic part of him rebels against it.
Rod Serling—in his conservative suit and tie, with his short hair and shaved face, chain smoking like a Beat poet and speaking like a carpet salesman—is the perfect archetype of the schizophrenic modern male. The tension between the way he presents himself—as a conventional yet sophisticated guy who would easily be at home in any given board room or regional sales conference—and the dreamlike, Dionysian stuff he’s presenting evokes the tension that all of us feel inside. He is us and we are he.
Whether you admit it or not, you’re living in the Twilight Zone. Might as well make yourself at home.