I've loved The Twilight Zone since I was a little boy, watching the repeats on syndicated television. For the uninitiated, The Twilight Zone was created by host/head writer Rod Serling in 1959 and presented bite-sized human dramas in which justice was often served up in surprise endings. Supernatural forces would set things right and/or occasionally just mess with people. Murderous three-armed aliens learned of defeat at the hands of three-eyed Venusian soda jerks, hungover married couples woke up in giant alien dollhouses and evil ventriloquist dummies switched places with their masters.
And sometimes, this happened.
Recently, I started watching all the episodes again on Netflix, where all but 18 episodes of the 156-episode series are available for streaming. (Season 4 was a half season where the episodes were stretched to an hour.) I'd never had them laid out before me like that before, and I'd never watched them as an adult, but viewing them in quick succession taught me some things I'd missed as a child.
#4. Rod Serling Was a Writing Animal
I knew Rod Serling was the host and creator of the show. I also knew that he wrote some episodes. But the show had other writers, too. After all, Richard Matheson and Ray Bradbury had written episodes. So yeah, I knew he wrote and oversaw, but in my head that was like being Vince Gilligan of Breaking Bad or David Simon of The Wire: He oversaw the writing and penned six or eight shows a season -- which, in itself, is no small feat.
But the truth is, Serling wrote an overwhelming number of shows. Specifically, 94 out of 156 episodes in five years. Let me say that again. He wrote 94 episodes in five years. That is insane. His contemporary, Gene Roddenberry, wrote fewer than 10 teleplays for Star Trek's 79 episodes in three years.
Furthermore, Twilight Zone episodes aren't mere soap opera serials or radio adventures about detectives and wonder dogs; these were incredibly groundbreaking, socially relevant dramas that have withstood the test of time. Twilight Zones are so quoted, they've become cliches for describing aspects of the human condition. When it comes to fiction, insane quality and massive output is a rarity of Shakespearean proportion. I can't even wrap my head around it. I mean, yes, I'm a hero for working a full time job, cranking out a weekly Cracked column, doing a periodic video series and finalizing a novel, true, but Rod Serling was a writing machine.
What's our secret? Arm hair.
By the way, he also wrote the original Planet of the Apes. Think about that Twilight Zoney ending. No, not Charlton Heston in a loincloth, I mean the Statue of Liberty.
Damn you all to hell ... in the Twilight Zone.
#3. Steven Spielberg Has Some Sort of Sick Serling-Based Hatred
Given how much Twilight Zone I watched as a kid, how did I miss what a creative force Serling was? Well, in part I blame Steven Spielberg. I know, I can hear you now: "This Jew on Jew regarding Jew violence has to stop," but hear me out. In 1983, Steven Spielberg executive produced the Twilight Zone movie, which featured one original story penned and directed by John Landis and three cinematic remakes of old episodes. So of the 94 episodes written by Serling, do you know how many they put in the movie? One. Sorta. The movie features "It's a Good Life," which Serling wrote the teleplay for, but based on a preexisting story. And Spielberg had Matheson rewrite the script heavily. That's like recording a full album of Beatles covers consisting almost entirely of Harrison and Starr songs. I mean, just given the law of averages, you'd think more Serling would have slipped in there.
They also did "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" by Richard Matheson and "Kick the Can" by Charles Beaumont. They also added a great scene with Dan Aykroyd and Albert Brooks that I unfortunately can't find a full clip of on YouTube. Without the proper setup, it looks like kinda a crap scene. (Also Serling had nothing to do with this.)
Several years later, Steven Spielberg decided to produce a whole new movie based on a Twilight Zone episode. Real Steel was based on an episode from the fifth season called "Steel." And who wrote that? Yep, Richard Matheson. Think Spielberg is sending a message?
"Eff you, Roddy."
Of course, it should be noted that Spielberg's first film, Duel, was also written by Matheson, so what we have here is probably more Matheson love than Serling hate, but that doesn't fit as well into my premise. Still, it's pretty impressive that you can executive produce four stories based on Twilight Zone episodes and do it almost exclusively on what Serling did not write.