Would The Twilight Zone Fly Today?

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I went on a Twilight Zone mini-binge the other day, inspired by this post at the Shadow and Substance blog. It got me to thinking: would The Twilight Zone have been a success if it had launched today?

Everything about it is counter to what’s popular in modern television. It has no recurring characters, no season-long, multi-episode story arc. It doesn’t really have a “theme”: the topics of the stories are all over the place. Despite the fact that it constantly flirts with both the supernatural and science fiction, it has almost no special effects, and what effects it does have probably looked cheesy even back then. It’s dialogue heavy — monologue heavy, even. It was more successful as a half-hour show than as an hour show.

And all these characteristics are why I love it; probably, it’s those features that make it attractive to many of the show’s fans. It’s the television show equivalent of a loosely-themed short story collection, or of dim sum or tapas. There’s always been a place for short stories and tapas; but the world at large seems to prefer novels and entrees.

The fun part of it is that Rod Serling and the other folks at TZ felt free to experiment. With no continuity worries, they could throw something on the screen to see what happened — if it worked, they could do it again, otherwise, move on. So we get the almost set-less Five Characters in Search of an Exit, the almost dialogue-less The Invaders, the episode shot half as a silent movie, Once Upon a Time (starring Buster Keaton!). TZ also managed to attract some really interesting actors, both acclaimed and soon-to-be-acclaimed. I’m sure the chance to experiment or to be the center of an episode had something to do with that.

It’s fashionable to say that the entertainment industry has become too bottom-line, less willing to take a chance. Perhaps Mr. Serling couldn’t have made this happen today. On the other hand, this is the age of YouTube and Vimeo; some web-series have garnered a large (if niche) following, and have fairly good production values, to boot. The Twilight Zone format could be perfect for a web-series.

So could Rod Serling have done it today? Luckily, we don’t have to find out.

Enjoy.


The image above is the title card from the opening segment of The Twilight Zone (from the later seasons, I think). Sourced from Wikipedia.

16 thoughts on “Would The Twilight Zone Fly Today?

  1. I saw most of the early episodes when they were first run, when I was a kid. The imagination, darkness of vision alternating with hope, and willingness to look at moral dilemmas in a frank fashion — all these captivated me. Of course, the black and white on the screen wasn’t troublesome at a time when not everything was in color, nor the special effects limitations. Movies and TV run the risk of giving you the “sizzle without the steak.” (As in grilling meat). Serling, to my mind, gave you the steak at a very high rate of success. Thanks for posting this.

    • The writing was of very high quality on the show, as a rule; and they did look at real questions of ethics and morality. I just saw “Deaths-head Revisited”, and I’m curious to see the controversial “The Encounter” with George Takei. And some of them were scary and some were just silly…. To go with your metaphor, it was definitely a show with a lot of meat to it!

  2. I used to love them as a kid. The only ones I can recall now are the episode where a group of people are trying to escape from a confinement somewhere, and they turn out to be motionless dolls in a bin, and also the episode that has something to do with spooky tumbleweed in a desert.
    I must revisit them though, I love old black and white films and sci-fi stuff.

    • The first one you mention is “Five Characters in Search of an Exit”; the tumbleweed one I feel like I’ve seen, too, but I don’t remember any details. I’ve had fun revisiting them, on and off. It was a great show.

  3. Hmm. that’s a good question and one I never thought of before. Perhaps, now (like right now) it could find a space with venues like Netflix and HBO that are doing something different (have you watched any of True Detective on HBO? I understand this is an “anthology series”). Although, TZ still differs here, doesn’t it.
    As I get older, I appreciate how superb this series was. I also didn’t realize you could watch so many episodes online in their entirety. When I was bored or needed to kill time in midtown Manhattan I would watch episodes at the Paley Center in their viewing room.

    >>They also had stellar writers scripting their episodes.

    p.s. thanks for the link to five characters in search of an exit yesterday. it was a nice break during lunch.

    • Glad you enjoyed Five Characters! I hadn’t heard of True Detective, but it looks interesting. From the description online, it looks like for them “anthology” means the story arc/characters change at the season level, not the episode level, so yes, it’s different. But the fact that networks (or whatever you call Netflix and HBO) are considering even that much is a cool thing.

      It is a treat to be able to watch TZ online so easily. I watch it in fits and spurts, but I always enjoy it.

  4. Hi Nina,
    I think TZ would find an audience today, but – as perhaps you imply – getting on the air in the first place (the domain of the bottom-line oriented decision makers) would be the tough part. The show is part of many fond memories of mine from my college days. At the time, reruns were on (I think) nightly out of WGN in Chicago, and the show had quite a loyal group of fans in the house I lived in. The show had its share of “duds” among its episodes too, but that never seemed to lower it in our esteem.

    -Jay

    • It was a show that was willing to take chances on techniques and stories that were unusual even then. I was reading somewhere that one of their episodes was the the first on television to feature an entirely black principal cast, and with a plot that wasn’t directly about race (it was about a boxer and the power of wishes). If you take chances, you’ll fail once in a while, but overall it keeps it interesting… .

  5. I loved Twilight Zone, along with Night Gallery and the Outer Limits, In the UK in the 70s we had Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected which was very hit and miss. However last week on BBC a new macabre comedy anthology called Inside No.9 started written by and staring Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton of The League of Gentlemen and Psychoville (which are both series worth checking out for their classic horror and sci fi references as well as their off the wall comedy). The common thread that all the events take place behind the doors of a No.9 and each week there are different guest casts of well known Btitish actors like Timothy West, Julia Davies and Denis Lawson. quite good so far and more influenced by those 1960s portmanteau horror films from Amicus like Tales From the Crypt or Dr Terror’s house of Horrors.

    • Night Gallery and Outer Limits were both good, though of the three I liked Twilight Zone the best. I loved Alfred Hitchcock Presents as well — it’s not quite the same as the first three, but it is similar.
      Inside No. 9 sounds like something I’ll have to check out, if/when it makes its way over here.

      • I’s almost forgotten about Hitch, he was very entertaining. also worth checking out with Steve Pemberton is Whitechapel, very dark cop show set in East London he plays an archivist at the local nick (sorry Brit slang for Police station) who comes in handy when crimes of the past are recreated. first series is about the Ripper murders and it has a nice posh cop and working class cop duo in ther lead.

  6. What a terrific, thoughtful post! I’m certainly gratified to hear that my own recent post inspired you. You make some excellent points here, principally the one about experimentation. Serling, in fact, encouraged the top directors and actors of his day to use their talents to enrich the already excellent scripts that were standard fare on TZ. The result? Well, we’re talking about them 50 years later, aren’t we?

    • Thanks for stopping by! I enjoy your blog, and I’m often inspired to look up an old TZ episode from reading your posts. I’m always struck by the quality of the stories, the direction, and the performances. And I can tell by the comments I’m getting that I’m not the only one…

  7. The Twilight Zone is one of my favorite TV series, if not my favorite. Could Rod Serling have produced it today? If the question is whether a TZ style anthology could do well today, I think so. If the writing was as strong as TZ’s often was, and if the characters were as well played, and all of that, yes. The shortened format would even do well for the ADD addled modern audience. But TZ would lack its soul. It was a product of the Cold War, written by men who had faced death in Europe and the Pacific. The show and its stories are so inextricably linked to the era that produced it that I don’t know that the two can be separated.

    • Hmmm. Now I have to clarify (for myself) my question. I think I was thinking primarily about the format — an anthology show. I agree with you that such a format could do well, shorter time run and all; I wonder if Serling would have been able to get it on network/cable TV for us to see in the first place.

      Your point about the zeitgeist of the time influencing the TZ stories — agreed. But there are of plenty of global stressors and moral ambiguities in the modern age, as well. A well done modern TZ for today would feel different, but I think it could find its soul.

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