Friday, October 02, 2009


Submitted for your approval

By Ivan G. Shreve, Jr.
I watched a lot of television in the summer of 1981, and most of that came courtesy of WGN in Chicago — which due to its “superstation” status was offered by our cable service in my hometown of Ravenswood, WVa. Most people remember that summer as the year of the Major League Baseball strike (the fifth one since 1972) and while I haven’t forgotten it either, at the time it didn’t matter much to me. My team, the Atlanta Braves, were perennial cellar-dwellers but I also enjoyed watching Chicago Cubs games (the great thing about the Cubs was if they won, it was great...and if they didn’t…well, it’s not like it came as a surprise) and the strike meant WGN would have to fill up the usual time allotted for games with alternative programming. That summer introduced me to the delights of The Honeymooners, the landmark situation comedy starring Jackie Gleason, Audrey Meadows and Art Carney — a series that was culled from the popular sketches featured on Gleason’s Saturday night comedy-variety program.

But there was another series rerun at that same time that really made me sit up and take notice. A series that allowed me to travel through another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind. A journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination. That’s the signpost up ahead…next stop, The Twilight Zone!

Fifty years ago on this date in television history, CBS-TV introduced a brand-new television series that was shaping up to be a big question mark on its fall schedule. The series’ creator, Rod Serling, was a well-known and well-established TV playwright who had garnered both Emmy Awards and critical kudos for many of his televised plays. Patterns, The Rack, The Comedian, Requiem for a Heavyweight — these and many more were insightful pieces that examined and probed the human condition, and even years after their original appearances on the cathode ray tube, continue to pack a powerful dramatic punch today.

But Serling constantly ran up against walls of interference from the producers working on the programs on which his plays were presented. A dramatic anthology program forced him to change a line about the Nazis exterminating Jews with gas because the sponsor of said program…was a gas company. In A Town Has Turned to Dust, Serling was forced to water down the play’s content when his patrons objected to the subject matter — a thinly disguised dramatization of the Emmett Till trial. His political drama The Arena experienced similar problems — he would not be allowed to write about tariff (because this favored Republicans) or labor (Democrats). “To say a single thing germane to the current political scene was absolutely prohibited,” he later lamented.

Serling began to toy with the idea of doing a series that would be a blending of the science-fiction, fantasy, suspense and horror genres he so loved as a kid — with a special nod to one of his radio heroes, Norman Corwin, and to NBC’s landmark science-fiction radio drama X-Minus One. By putting his ideas “in other worlds,” he felt he would be able to deflect criticism from the people holding the purse strings by presenting his social commentary in the form of allegories or parables. His opportunity to test-drive this concept came when Bert Granet, the producer of Westinghouse’s Desilu Playhouse, found an old script of Rod’s in the CBS vaults entitled “The Time Element.” Granet insisted on doing Serling’s script on Playhouse, arguing that the author’s name would add a little prestige to a program whose biggest draw was an irregular run of hour-long I Love Lucy comedy specials starring Lucille Ball and husband Desi Arnaz. “Element” featured William Bendix as a man who inexplicably found himself going back in time to Honolulu in 1941, prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Bendix is telling all this to a psychoanalyst played by Martin Balsam, who assures his patient that time travel is impossible…but in the production’s twist ending isn’t quite as confident about his theories as he once was when Bendix inexplicably vanishes into thin air.

Audiences and critics were delighted by “Element,” and buoyed by both a glowing New York Times review by Jack Gould and nearly 6,000 letters of viewer support; Granet had enough leverage to convince the network that Serling’s science-fiction/fantasy series idea had some merit. A second pilot for Zone, “Where is Everybody?” was produced (this production became the series’ inaugural episode), starring Earl Holliman as a man who finds himself completely alone in a seemingly deserted town. Despite the confidence placed in Serling, network executives still found getting sponsors on board a hard sell — and the creator himself was subjected to a great deal of skepticism before the show’s debut. In a now famous interview with future 60 Minutes regular Mike Wallace, Rod was submitted to a grilling from the tenacious pit-bull reporter, who felt that prestigious playwright Serling had obviously fallen out of his tree. Commented Wallace: "...[Y]ou're going to be, obviously, working so hard on The Twilight Zone that, in essence, for the time being and for the foreseeable future, you've given up on writing anything important for television, right?"

Ah, but as Aesop himself would say: “He who laughs last, laughs best.” Serling’s hard work paid off huge dividends (he even became a television icon by appearing as the series’ host) and though The Twilight Zone was never a monster hit, it drew a cult audience from the moment of its debut; an army of viewers who were only too happy to push the series into the national dialogue. U.S. intelligence analysts began to reference the “twilight zone” during the Cold War to define the “grey area” in diplomacy where the U.S. had no policy regarding certain countries. Serling thought he had made the term up, but a few years after the series’ run he learned that the term was used extensively by the U.S. Air Force to describe the imaginary border between “night” and “day” on a planetary body. Serling, who wrote the bulk of the original series’ 156 episodes, was allowed to let his imagination run loose and focus on taboo topics of the day like nuclear war, mass hysteria and McCarthyism — all coated with a fine fantasy/sci-fi sheen. Case in point: “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” in which a suburban neighborhood comes apart at the seams when “strange things” like mysterious noises, lights and temporary loss of electricity begin to occur among its inhabitants. This classic half-hour beautifully illustrates the famous words of Pogo cartoonist Walt Kelly: “We have met the enemy, and they is us.”

The prestige of The Twilight Zone was such that it attracted a slew of highly respected writers to pen the scripts Serling could not; they included the likes of Richard Mattheson, Charles Beaumont, George Clayton Johnson, Jerry Sohl, Earl Hamner, Jr., Reginald Rose, Harlan Ellison and Serling’s boyhood hero, Ray Bradbury. Even today, the quality of Serling and company’s episodes attest to the high-water mark set by the series: “Time Enough at Last,” “A Stop at Willoughby,” “The Howling Man,” “The Eye of the Beholder,” “The Invaders,” “The Obsolete Man,” “A Game of Pool,” “To Serve Man,” “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” and so many more. My personal favorite — and in many ways the quintessential Zone episode — is “Walking Distance,” a bittersweet drama about a jaded, tired business executive (Gig Young) who finds himself back in the hometown of his youth. He achingly yearns to stay in a time of summer carnivals and soda shops, but his father implores him to return back to the present, advising him “there’s only one summer to every customer.” The mere mention of this poignant dramatic piece brings tears to my eyes…and if I happen to catch it on a repeat…Niagara Falls.

The success of the original Twilight Zone spurred on two attempts to capturing lightning twice — one that lasted two seasons on its original network (CBS) beginning in 1985 (it was also inspired by the success of a 1983 feature film based on the original), and a second revival on UPN in 2002-2003 (the 1985 version also had a short run in syndication). Neither of these could capture the specialness of the original show, earning enmity from both audiences and critics, but the Twilight Zone phenomenon continues on in the form of a successful radio series, books, musical tributes, comics, video games…and even a theme-park attraction entitled The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror. Rod Serling’s unassuming little series allowed many individuals to cash in on its fame — but it also taught me that there is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity; it is the middle ground between light and shadow between science and superstition and it lies between the pit of man's fears and the summit of his knowledge. And for that, I am truly grateful.

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. blogs at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear…and is not at all ashamed to admit that when he first caught sight of the “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” gremlin he did a stupendous back flip (from his seated position in front of the TV, of course). However, the judges were not impressed.

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Well done. This is purely a side note. I never watched 3rd Rock From the Sun until its brief appearance on TV Land, but it had a truly funny moment. William Shatner, playing the aliens' leader, arrived on earth via airplane and told John Lithgow that while on the plane, he saw some strange green thing on the wing of the plane and everyone thought he was crazy to which Lithgow replayed that the same thing had happened to him. For those who don't get the joke, Shatner starred in the orignal Zone episode of "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" and Lithgow played the same part in the recreation of the story in the 1983 movie version.
What is so amazing is that 50 years later these shows hold up so well. Oh they are in black and white, which is really kind of cool. And occasionally you'll see the old cars or a dial telephone that gives away the time. Most of the time, they could have been shot yesterday.
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