The Twilight Zone Forever

The Twilight Zone Premieres: A Brave New World

The years of constant clashing had worn Serling down—on the eve of The Twilight Zone’s premiere in ‘59, Serling told the New York Times that he was “not a meek conformist but a tired nonconformistand, through his new vehicle The Twilight Zone, “...through parable and allusion, he could make social comment and confront issues,” his widow Carol wrote in 1990. “Speaking in the phraseology of fantasy and within the perimeters of his own show—it was the only time in his TV career that he had complete creative control—Rod could comment allegorically on universal themes. His avuncular presence calmed the viewer while suggesting that there were things in the world that needed a course correction. The TV censors left him alone, either because they didn’t understand what he was doing or believed that he was truly in outer space.”

Outer space man: closing narration graphic
from “The Obsolete Man,” 1961.

The writing was on the wall, anyway: by the end of the decade, live TV, proving too expensive to produce in New York, uprooted like the Dodgers and Giants and moved to Los Angeles, downsizing to cheaper filmed series that could be shown in perpetuity—modern television as we know it. Rather than be caught slumming in the new, déclassé format, the Chayefskys and Roses moved “up” to writing films, but Serling chose to remain in filmed TV, in The Twilight Zone, much to the feigned chagrin of middlebrow critics crying crocodile tears over the loss of live, pseudo-prestigious productions like Playhouse 90.

In a televised interview with CBS's own Mike Wallace ten days before The Twilight Zone debuted, Wallace opened with a whopper of a backhanded compliment: “Now that you’re doing The Twilight Zone,” he addressed Serling, “does that mean you won’t be writing anything important for television?”
His measured, thoughtful response to his host’s (in-?)direct insult reveals Rod Serling to be not just a thinking man’s writer, but a true visionary, a pre–pop artist and avatar of the explosion in commercial creativity—modern American popular culture as we know it—that remains the dominant artistic legacy of the Sixties:
“The exciting thing about our medium is its potential, the fact that it doesn’t have to be imitative. What it can produce in terms of novelty and ingenuity has barely been scratched. We want to prove that television, even in its half-hour form, can be both commercial and worthwhile. This is a medium that can spread out, delve deep, probe fully and reach out experimentally to whole new concepts. The horizons of what it can do and where it can go stretch out beyond vision.”

Serling’s vision, The Twilight Zone, would go beyond making Wallace and his ilk eat their words; it became not only one of the most revered and remembered television shows of all time, but a conceptual catchphrase that would enter the lexicon, a touchstone that would profoundly influence a wide spectrum of American artists, actors, writers, and filmmakers—today’s science fiction, fantasy, and horror genre creators, from Steven Spielberg to Stephen King (and all their contemporaries and descendents)—all of whom owe a debt to Serling and his dark masterpiece The Twilight Zone for lighting the imaginative sparks that ignited their greatest works.

"The Twilight Zone Forever" pages: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9

The Mike Wallace Interview, September 22, 1959.

60 Minutes: CBS promotional ad, 1959.

From Joan to Jaws: Spielberg gets first pro break directing Crawford in the 1969 pilot of Serling’s Twilight Zone knockoff, Night Gallery, in the new 90-minute “TV movie” format; leads to directing ’71 TV movie Duel, written by TZ veteran Richard Matheson, about a man—another TZ vet, Dennis Weaver—being chased by a monstrous Mack truck, whose driver we never see; leads to directing minor film in ’75...