Mapping the Twilight Zone
When I was younger, I looked forward to every New Years’ Eve and Fourth of July, because that’s when The Twilight Zone was on TV. My family would always make sure to take a break from all the holiday hubbub to catch a few hours of the classic anthology series, losing ourselves in a black and white world that was alternately weird, wacky, frightening, funny, and, often, strangely beautiful.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve admired the show for the brilliant economy of its storytelling. Creator Rod Serling had an incredible talent for creating entire well-defined worlds and constructing plots full of drama, intrigue, fully-realized characters, and those trademark twists, all within half an hour. It’s the twists that most people think of when they think about The Twilight Zone— wait, they’re ugly and she’s beautiful! the gremlin on the wing was real! oh no, he broke his glasses! It was the twists that I loved most when I was younger, too; I used to write my own short stories with twist endings inspired by The Twilight Zone. I called them TwistedTales. They were terrible.
As I got older, however, and started seeing the episodes for the second, third, eighth, ninth time, I grew to appreciate something different about The Twilight Zone. Sure, the twists are fun, but they only work so well because they provide the capstone to stories filled to the brim with social commentary and heart. The ugly doctors and the pretty patient make us examine our own notions of who decides who gets to be “beautiful.” Henry Bemis’ broken glasses lying there amidst the rubble of a decimated world make us appreciate the human connections in our lives, reminding us that relationships with actual people are important too — an important lesson for bookish little Eric to learn. The disappointed aliens watching from afar as a town tears itself apart in The Monsters are Due on Maple Street are a fun-enough “answer” to why everything is happening, but they’re also a chilling reflection of humanity’s ability to let paranoia destroy itself.
As I’ve grown older, I have also grown disillusioned with the Twilight Zone marathons on television. As DenOfGeek notes, Serling despised advertising’s influence on TV storytelling; he was notoriously bitter about the fact that he had to alter some of his scripts at the whims of his sponsors. Now, though, the experience of watching the Twilight Zone on television nowadays is an exercise in enduring ad break after ad break. DenOfGeek writes that SyFy now cuts entire scenes from episodes to make time for extra commercials, chopping up Serling’s careful pacing and dramatic flow to be sure to give space over to crass commercialism. Now that The Twilight Zone is available on Netflix, watching on SyFy seems less and less relevant to the show’s enduring power; actually, watching the bastardized episodes on SyFy seems to do the show a disservice.
In addition, I realized I was seeing some combination of the same ~20 episodes, year after year. This past marathon, SyFy let viewers vote on which installments made it to air. Predictably, viewers chose all the classics — Nightmare at 20,000 Feet; To Serve Man; The Eye of the Beholder. They’re classics for a reason, of course, and I’m always happy to watch any of them, but I began to realize that even though I consider myself a huge fan of the show, I’d only ever seen a fraction of the series’ 156 episodes.
So I bought the BluRay.
Over the next I-don’t-know-how-long, I’ll be exploring the entirety of The Twilight Zone, in chronological order. No commercials. No endless repeats of the same five episodes. The BluRay set I have contains the original sponsor billboards and the original “Rod Serling previews next week’s episode of The Twilight Zone” credits sequences, and that’s it.
And I’ll be writing about it, disc by disc, seeing if my perceptions from a lifetime of watching Twilight Zone holiday marathons hold true against the actual totality of the series itself. I’ll be primarily looking at the consistency of the show’s thematic concerns across the many genres in which individual episodes are set. This means I’ll be considering The Twilight Zone as an early example of “auteur television,” given that Serling wrote a majority of the show’s episodes and worked closely on the rest; I’m curious if I’ll be able to tell which episodes aren’t written by him. I’m also interested in the show’s revolving door of guest stars, many of whom went on to be very famous.
Finally, on a more macro level, I’m curious to know how my experience of the show will be different watching in chronological order as opposed to sitting through a marathon that jumbles up the episodes’ original air dates. Episode-to-episode continuity isn’t important to The Twilight Zone, of course, but I’m interested to see where certain classic episodes fall in the lineup. Are all of the classics from early seasons? Are any seasons terrible? Does it even make sense to judge a “season” of an anthology show like this? How does the switch to hour-long episodes for Season 4 (which isn’t on Netflix, and is rarely aired on SyFy) affect the show’s legendarily economical storytelling?
I’ll be mapping out another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind. A journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination. That’s the hyperlink up ahead — your next stop, Season 1, Disc 1 of… the Twilight Zone!