4 Things I Learned (About Rod Serling) from Watching The Twilight Zone

Perhaps the greatest miracle of the instant streaming revolution is removing the shackles of time. That is, television is no longer experienced in weekly doses. It is no longer divided into long, redundant commercial breaks. We can now watch television shows from beginning to end in rapid succession. And while some may find this new normal harmful, most of us are enjoying our ability to see huge, year-long character arcs happen before our eyes without the necessity of a “previously on” at the beginning of each episode. We can now see the subtle things. We can see the hard work the writers have put into the craft.

And that’s exactly why I feel this is the golden age of television. Serialized dramas are less of a risk in a time where actual television broadcasts are essentially previews for later DVD/Online binging.

The old format of episodic television is dying because syndication isn’t where the money is anymore. The money is in binging, not in flipping. But in a time not too long ago, episodic television was the way to go, and no other series in the medium’s history did episodic television as good as The Twilight Zone, Rod Serling’s game-changing, often brilliant science-fiction series.

However, even though this show is almost aggressively episodic, binge-watching it on Netflix has taught me some amazing things that I probably wouldn’t have caught on a weekly, and sometimes monthly, basis.

Here are five things I’ve learned from one of the most consistently excellent television shows ever made.

4) Rod Serling (I.E. Postwar America) Was Terrified of Isolation

Starting with the pilot episode (pictured), The Twilight Zone featured approximately one hundred episodes (out of a total one hundred and fifty-six) centered around an isolated individual unable to cope with the world around them. For example, in the first episode of the series “Where is everybody?“, a test pilot wakes up to find a world totally devoid of people. He wanders an empty town in search of somebody, anybody, who can talk to him.

After an entire day’s worth of futile searching, the man has a complete mental breakdown, only to wake up in a sound-proof pod surrounded by his friends, who have spent the last thirty hours testing his ability to withstand complete isolation.

And thus begins a television series compulsively obsessed with the terror of being alone. In 1959, the threat of complete nuclear annihilation was very real, and Serling obviously played on these fears in order to pull in viewers, but there was also something much more immediate at work.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Almost every male lead in this series is in his mid-thirties. In other words, almost every male lead of this show was in the second world war, and, by extension, almost every adult male viewer was in the war. Including Rod Serling, who fought in the Pacific Front and bore witness to devastating violence. He was also notoriously absent-minded, often getting lost in the woods for hours, and sometimes days, at a time.

Nineteen-fifties America was a time of reconstruction. Not physically, but mentally. The men who had fought in the war were subject to unbelievable violence. When they returned, they were marginalized. Not by society, but by the very simplicity of American life. It wasn’t the trenches that scared them. It was neighborhoods. It was grocery stores. It was the nightmare that their past deeds would follow them to their families. They were alone in a sea of people who wouldn’t, couldn’t understand their circumstances.

Serling undoubtedly felt isolated in a reconstructed America, and his way of fighting through the pain was writing over one hundred episodes himself centering around a person who, for one reason or another, is completely, unmistakably alone in a suburban (or post-apocalyptic) setting.

If everything was so much better in the fifties, why were people so hung up on the horrors of the homefront?

3) Rod Serling Was an Undercover Social Liberal

Maybe not entirely undercover was Rod Serling’s plan to change the minds of the masses, but he certainly got away with a massive amount of social commentary through his chosen genre. As is the case with all great science fiction, the concepts are only substitutes for pre-existing problems. For Serling, The Twilight Zone’s format offered the writer a chance to address his most radical (at the time) and controversial concerns without ever explicitly mentioning them.

For example, in the episode “Eye of the Beholder,” a woman spends most of the episode wearing bandages on her head in a hospital, desperately hoping that her eleventh plastic surgery procedure has finally cured her of her “hideous, monstrous” physical appearance.

However, when the bandages come off, revealing a beautiful woman, the camera pans to reveal horrifying creatures looking away in disgust from the woman’s face. In the world of this episode, it is her face that is ugly, and theirs that are beautiful. It’s a not so subtle reminder that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and that what we look like on the outside matters very little.

It’s a direct reaction to racism that may seem a little too ham-fisted by today’s standards, but when this episode was broadcast, most Southern public schools were still segregated, Rosa Parks was still sitting at the back of the bus, and Martin Luther King Jr. was just another preacher looking for like-minded followers.

For a television show to air something so radically liberal during this time is a testament not only to Serling’s abilities as a writer, but of Science Fiction’s ability to wrap itself around and cloak an issue.

2) Rod Serling Knew How to Scare Us

In the best episodes of the show, the monster was never a monster. It was other people. The high concept was always a platform from which the terror leapt, but the true terror always came from humanity. One of the great TZ episodes is “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” where the only monsters are the residents of Maple Street, who are caught in a complicated web of miscommunication and paranoia that threatens to result in the murder of innocent people.

What’s terrifying about the episode is that it feels completely real. Serling knew that fear doesn’t come from monsters or aliens, but from our families. Our friends. Our neighbors. In post-war America, where nothing unpleasant was spoken of for fear that America might not be perfect, Serling knew that only shallow digging would reveal the gold necessary to scare us.

After all, what’s more familiar (yet alien) than our own reflections?

Speaking which, a similarly terrifying episode is “Mirror Image,” where a woman is caught in a time loop that forces her to relive the same moment again and again, into infinity. And again, the terror doesn’t come from the concept, which itself is unsettling, but from the other people who can’t perceive the loop. The woman is quickly alienated and attacked by those who don’t understand her, and the woman loses her mind because of this.

The terror comes from paranoia, poor communication, and a tendency to jump to conclusions. You know. Like war.

1) Rod Serling Was Absurdly, Consistently Brilliant (And He’s Still Marginalized)

Of the one hundred and fifty-six episodes of the show, Rod Serling wrote over two-thirds of them. Let that one sink in a little bit.

And before you say, “Well, there was a formula,” let me remind you that each episode took place in a brand new setting, with brand new characters, and often occupied totally new properties of a completely different universe. Serling had to create the rules of an all new universe in each episode, and give us a new life lesson. And more often than not, his episodes were the most brilliant, fascinating, terrifying, and thought-provoking of them all.

Based on the worlds he created, and the hundreds of amazing stories he told, you’d think that Rod Serling would be more respected among twentieth century writers, but the elitist “best of” lists only like to talk about the great modernists of literature. Genre writing itself is usually scoffed at unless you’re Philip K. Dick and dead, but on top of that, television writing (especially in the late fifties) was considered the lowest form of art imaginable. So it’s no surprise that a science fiction television show’s showrunner hasn’t gotten the real respect that he deserves, but what’s the excuse now?

In a world where Joss Whedon has more credibility than Werner Herzog these days, can’t we all agree that Rod Serling was some sort of magical creative genius responsible for some of the best and most consistent writing of his generation?

You Might Also Like