The Twilight Zone

A show that used science fiction as an allegory to deal with some of the most pressing social issues of its day, such as why people are total bastards.

In summary: doors, faces and words.

Where you probably saw most of the Twilight Zone plots.

Just The Facts

  1. Television series that ran from 1959 to 1964
  2. Was revived as a movie in 1983, and a new television series in 1985. And again as a miniseries in 1994. And as another tv show in 2002. And probably again by the time you finish reading this.
  3. Every twist ending that is now an insufferable cliche, the Twilight Zone did first.

Rod Serling

In 1924, the most badass television personality to ever co-star with a spinning hypnowheel was born. He served as a US Army paratrooper and demolition specialist in World War II, and was awarded the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star.

Because war is apparently, like, traumatic or something, Rod Serling suffered from nightmares and flashbacks after returning home. He'd been especially affected by one particular event--seeing his best friend crushed to death by a supply crate. That's right, a supply crate. Meaning something that was meant to sustain the lives of soldiers like this friend ended up horribly killing him, while Rod Serling watched. Do you think this man was qualified to write ironic twists?

If this man shows up in your living room, some freaky shit is about to happen.

If this man shows up in your living room, some freaky shit is about to happen.

In 1951, Rod Serling started to write for television. He did scripts for several television series, including the then-new anthology program The Hallmark Hall of Fame, as well as series that started out as radio programs, like Lux Video Theater and Suspense. Requiem for a Heavyweight, an episode he wrote for Playhouse 90 is still considered a classic of dramatic television writing. But Serling was frustrated with his editors. Political references were often taken out, the ethnicities of characters were changed and basically anything that might make a wealthy industrialist's monocle fly off into his tea was removed. He decided to work around this by starting his own television show, a science fiction program that he hoped would be less vulnerable to censorship. You'd be amazed what you can get away with when you replace minorities with robots and foreigners with space aliens. (Besides Futurama.)

That's what you get for looking in creepy mirrors.

Burgess Meredith on a good day.

The Original Series

The Twilight Zone ran for five seasons, each episode beginning with Rod Serling's introduction of the audience to another dimension that was like our own but with monsters and aliens and smoking in hospitals. Each episode focused on different people who fell victim to the supernatural, alien or unexplained, which would usually coax out some kind of social or political message or just a look at human psychology in extreme circumstances. It was progressive in several ways, with many positive female characters.

In addition to Rod Serling, it had such acclaimed writers as Richard Matheson (most famous for the novel I Am Legend) and Charles Beaumont. Willaim Shatner, Robert Redford, Burt Reynolds, Robert Duvall, Dennis Hopper, Carol Burnett, James Coburn, Charles Bronson, Lee Marvin, Peter Falk and Bill Mumy were all featured in an episode of the Twilight Zone before they became big stars, indicating that the series itself probably had magical fame-powder sprinkled on it. Either that, or all those episodes involving a deal with the devil were documentaries.

With very, very few exceptions, each episode would start the same way. The characters would be introduced, and they would walk around and interact long enough for the audience to get an idea of their situation, possibly with a voice over adding important details (i.e., is this the future?) Then, something strange would happen, introducing the major conflict of the episode. The camera pans to Rod Serling, who just happened to be sitting nearby, smoking a cigarette and monologuing. He does that.

The remarkable thing about the Twilight Zone is not how subtle and seamlessly inserted the messages are. It's how heavy-handedly the messages are shoved in our faces, and yet somehow, we don't mind. No matter how much the audience feels we're being preached at, we're still drawn in by the events of the episode.



Remember the one with the doll?

Pretty much any conversation about the Twilight Zone follows this format:

Someone: Remember that one with the Strange Object/Devil/Aliens Who Look Like Humans/Premonitions?

Someone Else: You mean, where Actor's Name is an Astronaut/Nazi/Salesman/Soldier/Little Girl who finds this Creepy Person/Small Town/Planet/Stopwatch, but it's really The Future/The Past/The Afterlife/His Comeuppance?

Someone: Yeah, and at the end you find out The Protagonist/The Doll/The Devil was Aliens/Humans/The Devil Again/Racism all along? Man, that was great.

A lot of Twilight Zone episodes have stuck in our shared cultural hive mind, finding their way into everything from parodies to homage to unashamed plagiarism. Because so many of them had memorable twist endings, many can be described as "the one where Blank turns out to be Blank."Just as often, though, an episode might twist or deliberately avoid the expected formula.