Hailed as grand master of all dimensions, Rod Serling will eternally be known as the American writer who created the classic black–and–white anthology television series The Twilight Zone
. In the form of modern parables, morality plays, and short film–noir–like pictures set deep in shadow and substance, Rod Serling’s creation opened our eyes and expanded our minds beyond the boundaries of our own imaginations to dimensions of limitless possibilities.
Most of Hollywood considered The Twilight Zone a groundbreaking television show. Running on CBS from 1959 to 1964, it surely exceeded the medium’s standards of excellence and then some. Rod Serling not only wrote 92 of the 156 episodes, he was also the executive producer and host, both on– and off–camera. His narration style is forever synonymous with the series. Simply put, Rod Serling is The Twilight Zone.
It’s easy to recognize that the success of the series began with a vision from Serling, for he knew well the craft of writing and producing quality dramatic television. As Twilight Zone producer Buck Houghton has stated, “The operative word is that basically nobody understood what made The Twilight Zone work except Rod.” Although, looking at the full spectrum of what made the show work so well, aside from Serling’s involvement, history must also credit the balance of Houghton’s talented mind for production, and the artistic vision of cinematographer George T. Clemens.
Along with this primary trio of Serling, Houghton, and Clemens, it was at Hollywood’s mighty MGM Studios that teams of filmmakers, directors, artists, and craftspeople took advantage of an incredible back lot of sets and properties used for hundreds of great films of the past. Christening a level of literature rarely seen in the new medium of television, these filmmakers created a timeless piece of modern art — a filmed series that went beyond what the network and sponsors expected or even understood, and, although it earned only moderate ratings during its original airing, has played worldwide in syndication ever since. The series continues to entertain and illuminate generations of viewing audiences with its captivating stories.
With MGM Studios’ endless palette of expertise, and a superb award–winning writing team consisting primarily of Serling, Charles Beaumont, and Richard Matheson, The Twilight Zone proved to be filmmaking for television. Even though most of those who had worked in film looked down on the medium of television, some of these same filmmakers eventually brought their craft into this show, acknowledging The Twilight Zone as something more than the average television series.
Through the series, Rod Serling philosophized about the human condition much as he had done in his earlier Golden Age work. This time, however, he avoided network and sponsor interference by masking the social and political subject matter under a sci–fi guise of Martians, Venusians, and robots, oh my. The network executives, who thought they were purchasing a simple fantasy scifi series, misunderstood the deeper insights The Twilight Zone had to offer.
In The Twilight Zone’s themes that entertain and uplift the audience’s imagination, we can observe the strong social understanding that was Serling’s trademark. Audiences felt The Twilight Zone’s magic right away, guiding them into a realm of fantasy and science fiction unlike anything seen on television before. The Twilight Zone offered viewers poignancy and suspense, in a surreal style of storytelling that traveled between reality and unreality. These wonderful stories presented ordinary people in ordinary situations, then suddenly shocked that reality with a classic twist ending, shifting the perspective of realism into a surrealistic framework. Since the series was an anthology, and able to go beyond the linear cast of an average drama, western, or situation comedy of the time, the types of characters and situations the writers could create were unlimited.
Among these wondrous flights into the unknown, audiences meet some of the most memorable, lifelike characters to have emerged from television’s dimension. We come to know these classic characters inside and out within the first few minutes of an episode. The well–written dialogue flowed naturally, offering an actor the opportunity to inhabit the spirit of a character and make it his own. And if an actor was having trouble with any of the lines, Serling was known to go offstage for a few minutes, then reappear with rewrites on the spot. Actors took comfort knowing that Serling was in their corner, creating camaraderie and a positive workspace, helping their creative process of bringing life to the characters.
The Twilight Zone’s most beloved Serling episode, “Time Enough at Last,” features Burgess Meredith as Henry Bemis. Bemis, a bookworm bank teller who wears thick glasses and longs to be left alone to read, becomes the sole survivor of a nuclear war one day while reading in the bank vault. Alone and afraid, he walks the city of rubble, not sure what to do with his time, when suddenly he comes across the remains of a public library. Dusty books are scattered everywhere, signaling a perfect chance for Bemis to at last pursue a lifetime of uninterrupted reading. But the surprise twist at the end punishes Bemis for his antisocial behavior, and his greatest desire is forever thwarted.