josh hadley | the shadows of pop culture | dec. 2019
There is a fifth dimension, beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man's fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call The Twilight Zone. — Rod Serling
Rod Serling and his image are so ingrained into pop culture that even people who have never watched an episode of The Twilight Zone understand exactly who Rod Serling is and what he represents through pure cultural osmosis.
Rod Serling is, perhaps, the most important figure in the history of television and the telecommunications medium in general. Starting his career at the earliest stages of radio, and then in that infant medium called television, Rod Serling helped shape both industries, literally and figuratively, with his influence. Serling's storytelling, perseverance and undying allegiance to quality over quantity aren't found in this modern age. Equally important are his battles with the sponsors and with the networks and with censorship; this man fought the battles that gave us the television we have today.
Whether in radio, live television or recorded television or even into movies, Rod Serling was a trailblazer. He hated what television was at the time. He thought that most television was banal and placid and insulted the intelligence of the average American. He wanted to use television to enlighten and entertain and most of all to actively engage the viewer rather than passively placate the viewer.
With the original Twilight Zone (1959-1964) being a cultural milestone in terms of television and storytelling, it is no surprise that more than one attempt at reviving the series came about after series creator Rod Serling's death in 1975. There was the 1983 movie, the interesting but overlooked 1985 series version and the disastrously bland revival in 2002. Let's not talk about the Jordan Peele 2019 disaster.
Twilight Zone was unlike anything that had come before: social issues, current events and outrage under the guise of science fiction and horror. In the early days of television, racism, sexism, class inequality, alcoholism, drug abuse, rape, women's rights, etc. were off-limit subjects, but if cloaked, these issues could get under the radar. A black man fighting for equality in a society that wants him to live in a ghetto under Jim Crow? Off limits. An alien fighting for his rights on a planet that wants him to live in the gutter under glagnog? Somehow this made all the difference.
Unlike modern social justice warrior crap — see CW's “Batwoman" or even Peele's “Twilight Zone" — Serling was such a great writer that he could tell a story that was aboutsomething meaningful while keeping things entertaining. This is indeed a balancing act that very few can achieve successfully but Serling was one of those few. His later series “Night Gallery" in the late 1960s attempted the same, but due to producer meddling, was less successful.
Twilight Zone was so smart and original that the ripples from it are still felt to this very day. The British series “Black Mirror" is described as "The modern day Twilight Zone." In 2001, the VH1 series “Strange Frequency" was literally billed in its own press materials as "The Twilight Zone for Rock 'n' Roll." I have lost count of how many times any hosted anthology series is reviewed and the host is described as "having the Rod Serling role," and that famous "do do do do do do" music — which was not used until the second season of The Twilight Zone — has become synonymous with something out of the ordinary happening.
This being the 60th anniversary of The Twilight Zone, Fathom Events released six of the most classic episodes back to theaters on Nov. 16. It was glorious to see these black and white masterpieces on the big screen. Sure, we all know the plot twists by now, that is part of the aforementioned cultural osmosis, but seeing Agnes Moorehead battle "alien" invaders in her ramshackle home on a movie screen is something to behold. Watching the tragedy as Harry Bemis breaks his glasses after finally having “time enough at last" to read all of the books he wants is the ultimate in irony. Kanamits casually corralling humans "to serve man" is always a pleasurable exercise in duel wordplay. Knowing that beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder while Donna Douglas is the ugly beast in a world of smudge-faced totalitarians is cathartic. Knowing one can't go home again even when home is within “Walking Distance" is saddening. Knowing that we are the true monsters on Maple Street is a kick in the head.
These may be the six episodes CBS chose as the best, but as a Zone fan, I have to argue that there were better choices for some episodes, but then again, I have always had that outlier opinion. I wager these were chosen as they best represent Rod Serling at his most Rod Serlingist and therefore are the prototypical Twilight Zone episodes.
Today, now 60 years old, Twilight Zone still contains the power that it had when it first influenced a generation of viewers, expanding their minds and horizons. But query this: If Zone is still this powerful today, imagine what it was like to behold in the original run?
A fiercely confrontational and arrogant critic whose stubborn nature makes him immanently readable and equally angering, Josh Hadley is a writer for magazines such as Hustler, Fangoria, Paracinema, Shadowland, Grindhouse Purgatory and Cashers du Cinemart, as well as a radio host on Jackalope Radio. Find more from him at 1201beyond.com, a website that only the most anti-social personalities would engage.