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