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.
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.
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.
I did the majority of my Twilight Zone watching before I even hit puberty, relying on whatever local TV would play during the afternoons or in Fourth of July marathons. And though I was deeply affected by many of the episodes that stood up to repeated viewings, I was always distressed by the fact that I'd see the same 20 or so episodes over and over. There's that one with Shatner on the plane, the one where Burgess Meredith breaks his glasses and can't realize his lifelong goal of reading during a nuclear holocaust, the one where the alien treatise for humanity, "To Serve Man," turns out to be a cookbook and about a dozen more (some referenced above) that they'd show over and over. But watching them one by one on Netflix, I'm seeing more obscure episodes that never seemed to make it into heavy rotation.
Like the one about the sad, sexy lesbians. (not an actual episode)
There's two great ones from Charles Beaumont: "The Howling Man," where a religious order has trapped the devil, and "Number 12 Looks Just Like You," an indictment of plastic surgery imagining a future society where everyone looks the same and perfect. And then there's a Serling one I absolutely never saw: "Deaths-Head Revisited" (the title is pretty much the only bad thing I have to say about Rod Serling).
This episode takes place 20 years after World War II and features a former high-ranking SS captain from Dachau returning from self-imposed exile. He misses the thrill that comes from inflicting unspeakable suffering, and he decides to visit the still-standing concentration camp. Early in the episode, one German citizen remarks that she wishes they'd tear the camp down. Upon his visit, however, he is greeted by the ghosts of those he tortured and killed. These ghosts sentence him to psychologically experience all the suffering he's inflicted. It is one of the darkest things I've ever seen on television. And it gave a starker portrayal of a camp than anything you'll find in Life Is Beautiful or Schindler's List. Only decades earlier. And on TV.
Here, the guard pulls back the sleeve of a prisoner (who has gone without food or water for five days) so he can address him by number before kicking him in the stomach. Television. 1960.
The epilogue then explains that as horrific as these death shrines are, they must remain standing as a testament to unbridled evil. So I can understand why my local television station didn't want to bum everyone out on Fourth of July weekend with episodes like this, but, there was no story Serling couldn't write, and now it's easier than ever to see them all.
Rewatching all the old episodes as an adult, I noticed something even creepier than any of The Twilight Zone plots. In addition to dealing with karmic player pianos and evil dolls and monsters on the wings of airplanes, Twilight Zone main characters are also contending with another problem: They're aging at an inhuman rate.
For example, how old would you say these men are?
If your answer is "Not a day over 36!" then you are batshit insane and/or Rod Serling. Yes, apparently all of these characters are supposed to be 36. The narration tells us explicitly that characters 1-3 are 36, whereas character 4 is brooding over a "high school incident 20 years later," so that would make him roughly about ... 36.
I never noticed how many Twilight Zone main characters were in their mid-30s when I was a kid because then 36 and 56 were practically the same to me, but holy s**t, are you kidding me? These dudes are nowhere near mid-30s. They could all play my dad. Right now. Men in their 30s are supposed to look like this:
And I don't just mean incredibly sexy, like some of your older, most beloved Cracked writers. I just mean not wrinkled and withered to hell.
At first, I was scared. Was I kidding myself? Did I really look like this? But no. After my daily regimen of flirting with myself in the mirror for 30 straight minutes, I was confident that these gentlemen did indeed look much older.
Then my next theory: These boys were actors in the rough and tumble late '50s and early '60s. These were Mad Men men. Smoking and drinking. This is what having steaks and Scotch for dinner every night does to you. But then it occurred to me that I could test that theory by looking up the ages of the actors. And here they are:
1. "Walking Distance" starring Gig Young, age 46
2. "The Four of Us Are Dying" starring Harry Townes, age 46
3. "A Stop at Willoughby" starring James Daly, age 42
4. "One More Pallbearer" starring Joseph Wiseman, age 44
So it wasn't my imagination. These dudes were far too old for these roles. So why was Rod Serling casting actors often 10 years older than the parts he wrote for them?
Well, maybe it's because Rod Serling was 35 to 40 during the five years The Twilight Zone was on the air. And although a fit, former featherweight boxer, it's fair to say no one had proofed him for beer since he was about 9.
What I'm saying is, although Rod Serling was a genius responsible for one of the most important shows ever on television, he kinda looked like hell. I mean not for a 50-year-old man, but, y'know, for 36. Too far-fetched a theory? That a man unhappy with himself would manifest a world where everyone in their mid-30s looked a decade too old? Stranger things have happened ... in The Twilight Zone.
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