Friday, January 7, 2011

TV Review: The Twilight Zone (1959-1964)

There is something about the true classics that make them stand apart from all that came before and from all the copies that follow. The Twilight Zone is a classic. Indeed, despite decades of copies, nothing compares to the original. Ultra-creative stories, gripping plots, intense characters and perfect writing all combine to make the various episodes of The Twilight Zone not only unforgettable, but iconic and timeless.

Created by, narrated by, and mostly-written by Rod Serling, The Twilight Zone is part-drama, part-science fiction, part-fantasy, and part-anything else that came to Serling’s mind. Each episode stands alone, with each episode taking place in a different setting, from outer space to the old West to contemporary (1950s) America to the world of the future, and involving different characters.

The stories. . . well, the stories are where the The Twilight Zone becomes something special. Every episode of the The Twilight Zone involves a test of the human spirit. Some are morality plays, where characters are punished for their greed or avarice or jealousy or cowardice (or any other bad human trait). Some are tests of human limits to endure things like loneliness or the suffering of others. Some explore our fears or our sanity. Some explore the worst elements of human nature, such as our capacity to turn on each other. Some are warnings, such as the famous “wishing into the cornfield” episode, which offers an exaggerated example of what can happen when parents don’t provide boundaries for their children. Some are social commentaries.

Having all of this in a single show is itself rather unique and special. But what really separates The Twilight Zone from all its competitors, both the contemporary competitors like The Outer Limits and the subsequent copies like Amazing Stories and Ray Bradbury Theater, and the remakes of The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, are two critical differences:

First, you have the writing. Rod Serling is a genius, who should be considered among the greats with Shakespeare and Hemmingway. His dialog is brilliant. He always finds the perfect words for each line of dialog, and he has the courage to use only those words, without feeling compelled to hold the audience’s hand with unnecessary exposition or explanation and without filling his stories with meaningless distractions or unneeded filler. He also manages to keep his stories so well paced that they never lose your attention, and he does such a tremendous job of foreshadowing that you can never tell exactly where a story is headed even though the endings always seem inevitable when they finally arrive. A great measure of the quality of writing is to ask what could have been done to improve a story or a line of dialog, i.e. what would you take out or add to make the story/writing better. Only truly great works, like Serling’s Twilight Zone leave you with nothing that could be changed.

Secondly, and even more importantly, unlike all of the competitors, The Twilight Zone recognizes the good as well as the bad in human nature. For all of the bad things that happen in The Twilight Zone, it is surprisingly un-cynical; nothing is inevitable in The Twilight Zone and it's the rare character who isn’t given a fair chance. Indeed, when characters fail, they do so because they could not overcome their worst instincts. It is this fair examination of the human condition that leaves you wondering at the end of each episode how you would have responded, and it makes you think about our capacity for good and evil, altruism and greed, love and hate, and how easily we can be carried away by these things or how strong of character we can really be. By comparison, something like The Outer Limits (especially the remake) is pure cynicism, where no matter what the characters do, the worst possible result will happen, which leaves you only with the thought “gee, that sucks,” at the end of each episode.

Moreover, The Twilight Zone leaves plenty of room for good things to happen to good people, for cowards to overcome their fears, and for the good but odd to demonstrate that goodness trumps conformity. For example, who doesn’t smile when Mr. Bevis (Orson Bean) forgoes the successful “conformist” life to be who he really is, or when Wanda Dunn realizes that death (Robert Redford) is not something to be feared. These are the kinds of stories that make The Twilight Zone both a fascinating drama but also an uplifting show, and keep the episodes from blurring together as an unrelenting series of failures and disasters.

I think there are three lessons in The Twilight Zone for would-be modern storytellers. First, lose the cynicism. So many movies and books today are modeled on what the writers think are The Twilight Zone-like ideas, but these stories are so awash in cynicism that they’ve lost both the heart that drives The Twilight Zone and what makes it so interesting to us, and they’ve lost the range of stories the The Twilight Zone could tell.

The second lesson is something I find truly frustrating in modern storytelling (and I date this back largely to Star Trek TNG): a misunderstanding of what defines character. Modern storytellers think that character can be created by providing a detailed list of likes and dislikes and hobbies. But that’s not true. Character cannot be created by telling us that a character plays an instrument or drinks Klingon coffee; character can only be developed through the actions of the characters. Consider the pool game between Jonathan Winters and Jack Klugman. Although modern storytellers see the fact of Klugman playing pool as a significant indicator of his character, the reality is that this fact is irrelevant. Indeed, it does not matter to Klugman's character if his game is pool or poker or even basketball, what matters is his obsession with being the best -- that is what defines his character. The Twilight Zone understands this and that’s why its characters are fascinating to us: because they have flaws and strengths, just as we do, and they act according to those, just as we do. Thus, we learn who they are by seeing how they behave, we associate with them as we share their traits, and we invest in them because they become a proxy for our lives. Simply knowing someone’s hobbies just can’t provide a similar connection.

Finally, while The Twilight Zone relies in most episodes on some form of twist, it isn’t the twist that keeps us watching, it is how the characters react to the twist. In other words, if your story relies on the twist to keep people interested -- as so many modern movies do, then you’re doing it wrong. What really matters to a story is the characters, not the moment of shock or surprise.

It’s too bad more modern storytellers don’t get these points, because realizing these things could improve a lot of films.

All in all, The Twilight Zone is one of the few classics of the modern age that you really need to see. Its episodes are iconic and are some of the most copied and repeated stories of the modern world. It permeates our culture, and it set the standard against which all modern cinema should be judged.


45 comments:

Tennessee Jed said...

A nice tribute to Serling, and more importantly, a good analysis of some of the factors that made the show special. Rod Serling was a genius. Growing up, he lived in my hometown of Binghamton, N.Y. and knew my father. Sadly, part of his famous voice could be credited to cigarettes and we lost him far too early to lung cancer. I think he may have contributed to the efforts to kick cigarette ads of television.

As far as the shows, I love them. My grandfather was a voracious reader of short stories and that is how I cut my teeth in the 50's; great stories from the likes of Block, DuMaurier, etc. And, the screenwriting was great. They had to concentrate on acting in those days. As I mentioned in the fantastic "Thriller" series which I recently watched, one of the fun things to do is watch how many young actors (Shatner was in both) cut their teeth doing masterful jobs on both series.

It starts with the story and comes to fruition through direction and acting!

StanH said...

Remarkable series, always with a cool twist. Rod Serling an American original.

T_Rav said...

Great analysis of what may have been the best show in TV history. I think the job Serling did with "The Twilight Zone" is even more interesting because from what I've heard, he was a committed liberal who couldn't stand his next-door neighbor in California, Ronald Reagan. Clearly he was one man who could separate his politics from his creative talent.

Favorite episodes, anyone? I've got a lot, but the one I always make a point of seeing during a marathon is "Death's-Head Revisited," where a former SS captain revisits the Dachau concentration camp to relive the "good ol' days," and is driven mad by the ghosts of the inmates. It's one of the best depictions of Nazi evil and spiritual deformity.

Tennessee Jed said...

Serling was originally very pro-military, but served in the Pacific during Leyte Gulf campaign. Some people can deal with war at that level and others cannot. I can understand how such an experience might screw with your head. He became active anti-war during Vietnam and suppported MCarthy in '68. The nice thing is, back in those days, people could disagree without being such flamers about it.

Favorite episode? I certainly remember the Monsters are Due on Maple Street with Jack Weston. Wasn't the famous cookbook show a Twilight Zone? (50 ways to serve mane or something?

T_Rav said...

Yep, "To Serve Man" was the name of the episode. Also a very good one. "It's a COOKBOOK!!!"

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, Neat! Did you ever get to meet him?

I was watching the Twilight Zone marathon last weekend and it does always amaze me how many famous actors passed through that show. I wonder how many would do the same thing today or if the world of television and films is too segregated now? Almost every episode has now-famous actors in it.

Regarding short stories, I think those are a lost art. I don't mean that people aren't writing them, but they are nowhere near as famous as novels today, and many authors are stretching their short stories into full novels because that seems to be what sells.

AndrewPrice said...

Stan, Serling is very American. His way of seeing the world was very American. In fact, I would say that what he's produced here is one of those moments that helps define American culture (like rock and roll and country music), as you won't find anything comparable in the rest of the world.

AndrewPrice said...

T_Rav, Thanks! We'll see is Scott agrees with me -- especially about my dig at STNG! :-)

On the liberal v. conservative bit, I find myself somewhat puzzled when you compare what liberals were in the 1950s with what conservatives and/or liberals are today. Everything Serling stood for when he wrote the Twilight Zone is now something that is fundamentally a conservative value and anathema to modern liberals.

Indeed, whenever I watch the episodes, I find myself thinking, "liberals aren't going to like that today!" because his liberalism was (1) color-blind, (2) opposed to conformity of thought and being, (3) opposed to government strong-arming, (4) strongly moral, and (5) strongly for individual rights. None of those things are consistent with modern liberalism. In fact, if I knew nothing about his espoused liberalism, I would define him today as a religious libertarian.

In terms of favorite episodes? Wow, there are just too many to choose from -- which is another sign of greatness. But if I had to pick one that I really love to watch all the time, it would be the one with the pool game between Winters and Klugman ("A Game of Pool") or the one where the monks (John Carradine) has caught the devil ("The Howling Man").

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, I guess the question is whether he is anti-war or anti-military? There is a difference. I believe it is very possible to be anti-war and not at all be a jerk. In fact, it's a way of thinking that goes back to the dawn of time, and which theoretically all rational people are.... indeed, who in their right mind "wants" a war? Especially in the era of the 1940s-1960s where the military doctrine of all nations was to kill enemy civilian populations. So it's hard for me to fault him for that, though I don't share his belief that war is bad -- some wars are necessary and just.

But being anti-military is different, and that's what modern Hollywood has become. They don't see soldiers as people who have volunteered (or been drafted) to protect their countries, they see them as blood-thirst monsters who revel in killing. And they have this bizarre idea that military officers want to destroy the world.

I never got the sense at all that Serling was anti-military, I got that he was anti-war and anti-wiping out humanity.


As an interesting aside, this was the era of MAD -- mutually assured destruction, a doctrine that the left hated. You could find any peace rally crawling with signs and chants about even the doctrine of MAD being "immoral" and itself a "war crime." Yet, today, liberals trumpet MAD as the only sane and decent policy and they object to anything that might disrupt it -- like Star Wars. How's that for ironic. Liberals = inconsistency.

LawHawkRFD said...

Andrew: The beauty of Sterling's show was that he combined sci-fi with analysis of the human condition, made a point, and did it all in a half-hour format (at least until the final season). His "ironic" stories were my favorites. The Dachau and Cookbook episodes above were certainly among them, along with the story of a passenger on a tramp steamer during WWII who was actually the transmuted captain of the U-Boat that was about to sink the ship. Also loved the episode in which a small neighborhood is visited by small mysteries and frights and begins to turn on itself as suspicions grew of who was the "outsider" causing the problems. Of course, it was invading space aliens who set up the turmoil, and they concluded that earth would be easy to conquer by simply creating internal chaos.

Tennessee Jed said...

Andrew - Serling was a few years younger than my dad, but both were editors of the school newspaper which may be how he knew him. I may have given you a wrong impression. Serling and my father both grew up in Binghamton. While I was born there, my dad was an advertising man. He had opportunities on Madison Avenue, but the best one was with an old blue blood main line agency in Philly which is where I grew up since age of three. I was born after WWII and I think Serling was out of Binghamton by then in any case. Anyway, I just remember him telling us that he knew the "Twilight Zone" guy when it first came on television.

If there is a way you can view some of the episodes from the Boris Karloff show "Thriller" (short of shelling out $100 for the entire series on DVD as I did) I urge you to do so. From what you have said about Twilight Zone, I think you would greatly most of the "Thriller" episodes. I would give the edge to "Zone" but not by much. The short stories on "Thriller" probably are a little more akin to Alfred Hitchcock Presents" than Twiligt Zone. To me, those were the pinnacle of early television apart from the westerns such as Cheyenne and Maverick. All these shows I mention share your point. Emphais on good stories and good acting.

ScottDS said...

I hate to be "that guy" but I've only seen one complete episode of The Twilight Zone. [dodges object thrown by Andrew] You can probably figure out which one. :-) As a result, I have nothing to say about the show or Rod Serling; only that many of the filmmakers that inspire(d) me were, in turn, inspired by him. And, yes, I will get to it one day!

Have you ever seen Twilight Zone: The Movie? The segments by Joe Dante and George Miller aren't bad (John Landis' prologue is fun, too) and Jerry Goldsmith's score is great... but the film will live in infamy thanks to the the helicopter accident which killed Vic Morrow and two illegally-hired child extras during the making of Landis' segment. This incident has sparked my interest ever since I read a Steven Spielberg biography which mentioned it (I still wonder how he managed to get off the hook; he was a producer on the film, after all).

Both film and TV show inspired a great inside joke on 3rd Rock From the Sun. Guest star William Shatner shows up and says, "I would've gotten here sooner but there was something on the wing of the plane." John Lithgow replies: "The same thing happened to me!"

Tennessee Jed said...

another thought regarding the question you posed about whether actors today would do the same thing. I say yes. Remember, guys like Shatner, Angie Dickinson, etc. were pretty much unknown. When we watch those episodes today, we instantly recognize them. I liken it to seeing someone like Shatner in his first episode as Kirk and saying to yourself "I've seen him SOMEWHERE, I just can't remember where. Today, luckily, we have IMDB. I see just as much switching back and forth now as ever. However, tv tends to be more on the way up and then the way back down. And lots of actors seem to get their start doing commercials.

CrispyRice said...

Great series! I love this show. And I think you make a good point about the human nature aspect.

In fact, probably my favorite ep is "The Monsters are due on Maple Street." That really goes into human nature and how easy we are to turn on each other.

My other fave is probably poor Burgess Meredith and his library books.

But there are so many that jump to mind.

AndrewPrice said...

Lawhawk, I would say those are all good episodes, but that would be redundant -- it's easier to name the ones that aren't good. In terms of ironic, I think most of the punishments were ironic punishments (or some might say "fitting"), which is kind of the point.

The key is that few of these were cynical.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, I did indeed misunderstand. Too bad, it would have been neat to meet Serling.

I will try to find Thriller. It sounds interesting and I'm always on the look out for good stuff. I've even perused foreign films etc. to see what I could find that was good and interesting.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, That's a good point. It could well be that these actors where nobodies when they appeared on the show. In any event, its interesting to me how many of these people went on to become famous or semi-famous. I compare that with shows like the reincarnation of The Outer Limits, which has a couple people in it who went on to have careers on the SciFi channel, but almost no one made it out to have a big career afterwards. So either it was just a very different time or The Twilight Zone people were just very good at finding talented actors?

Another guy who interests me in that regard is Roger Corman. Everyone who's anyone seems to have gotten their start in a Corman film. It's like he's running a farm team for Hollywood!

AndrewPrice said...

Scott... Scott.... Grrr. I feel like I need to assign you homework.

You really should see The Twilight Zone, especially if you want to have anything to do with filmmaking. These are the Citizen Kane of Science Fiction.

Yeah, the movie will always be infamous because of the helicopter crash. I still remember some of the interviews later where they were considering sending Landis to prison. What a tragedy.

In terms of the movie though, I thought it was rather poor. Its plots are kind of lifeless and the acting wasn't very crisp, and the direction seemed very mid-1980s stale. It felt a lot like the series remake from around that time -- don't waste your time with those.

So you're not even going to fight about the Star Trek bit huh? I am saddened. :-(

AndrewPrice said...

Crispy, Both are great episodes. I particular like Maple Street -- very well acted. Claude Akins in particular does a great job -- he's in several memorable ones.

The Burgess Meredith episode is one of the most memorable and is, ironically, one of the few cynical episodes they did. Meredith is not a bad guy, nor is he really doing anything wrong, yet he gets punished at the end nevertheless. I'm not entirely sure why. Maybe Serling was making a point that anyone who wants to live apart from humanity deserves to be isolated completely -- including from our books and stories, but I'm not sure. It just seems a little cynical to break his glasses now that he's found happiness when he never really hurt anyone or (as far as I can see) committed any sins?

ScottDS said...

Yeah, that's about the reaction I was expecting. But just for the record, I really don't know what I want to have anything to do with at the moment. :-)

As for TNG, I can't entirely disagree with you. But given the nature of episodic television, we'll never know if Roddenberry had other plans for the characters, or what certain writers might've wanted to do, etc.

I think it's safe to say that the writers weren't working from some "list of traits" but at the same time, from interviews I've read, not every writer could write for every character. For example, on the audio commentary for Star Trek Generations, both Ron Moore and Brannon Braga said that no one knew what to do with Troi or even the extent of her empathic powers. Moore jokes that they had no choice but to turn her into some kind of glorified cruise ship social director.

And lest we forget, Serling wrote most of these episodes himself whereas Trek has employed dozens of writers over the years of varying quality. Of course, most Trek fans'll just blame producer Rick Berman. :-)

CrispyRice said...

Andrew, if I remember the Burgess Meredith ep correctly, he really is a misanthrope. He doesn't treat people well, nor does he show any kindness, nor does he make any attempts to enjoy his hobbies within the confines of living in society. I take the ep as more of a "life isn't perfect and 100% the way you want, but you should appreciate what you do have." In the end, he has all the time and books, but without another human (someone to fix his glasses) it's all useless.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, Next time, just lie to me. I don't think my blood pressure could take it if you said, "Star Wars? I've never seen it." Ahhhhhh ..... pop! ;-)

In terms of STNG, I think there is a definite sense that they didn't have a grasp of who the characters were except in kind of a vague way.

But even beyond that, I think they went about it wrong. For example, they had such problems with consistency that it was impossible to create characters in the normal way -- through their actions. Indeed, seemingly every week, they would be spouting off contradictory "principles" and then they would act in ways that didn't conform to either position they had staked out. And as if they had amnesia, the next week they would flip it around and espouse the other view.

Moreover, they all acted alike. Seriously, it was like "high school cliche in space." I don't recall any real moment of disagreement or divergence in their characters -- you could have swapped out any other character in any scene without changing the dialog.

So instead, I think they substituted trivia to distinguish them. Thus, rather than understanding Riker by witnessing him act in cowardly, arrogant, altrusitic, hateful, pious, swashbucklerian, or any other way, we get a bland shell of a character about whom we're told "he's an excellent officer" and then we get a list of trivia: daddy problems, from Alaska, plays the trombone.

And I think I am correct in believing that they thought this was an adequate substitute for character because they even tried to shoehorn the trivia into episodes. Thus, the resolution of Riker's father issues becomes an episode, and the fact he can't hit a high note on a trombone becomes a plot point. With Troi, we know she likes ice cream sundays, so we get an episode where an alien tries to turn her into a glutton. Jordi is bad with women, so we have two episodes where he "falls in love" (read: stalks women) and that becomes plot points.

The problem is that none of these things really tell us anything about the characters personally. We need something to sympathize with. And knowing Riker plays an instrument is not enough for people to invest in the character. That's why they really needed to dig deeper into who these people are.

I've always felt that was the biggest weakness of STNG. If they had mastered that, STNG would have been so much more.

AndrewPrice said...

Cripsy, That's possible. I'm not sure he's exactly nasty to people so much as he's a loner -- his boss and wife are nasty to him, that's for sure. I'm thinking the point is definitely as you say, "being a loner is bad," but it's always struck me that the episode is a bit too harsh toward him? BUT, you could be right, and maybe it's not as cynical as I first assumed? So maybe the show is even less cynical than I believed... which would make it almost entirely cynicism free. Hmmm.

I'm going to have to consider the other cynical episodes and see what I can make of those.

Good comment!

ScottDS said...

I don't recall any real moment of disagreement or divergence in their characters -- you could have swapped out any other character in any scene without changing the dialog.

This was Roddenberry's doing. I know I've mentioned this before but, to the best of my knowledge, his initial idea was that there would be no conflict between the crew and that humanity had progressed to the point where things like jealousy and greed would be no more. Rick Berman and Co. might've tried a little too hard to keep to this mantra.

I give the producers of DS9 credit for at least trying to branch out (incidentally, Berman didn't have tons of day-to-day involvement with it).

You should check out that .pdf file I sent you on the writing of Star Trek: Insurrection. The late writer Michael Piller goes into some detail on this stuff.

CrispyRice said...

Well, it may just be more of a "be careful what you wish for" episode. Kind of the like the genie in a bottle eps, too.

You know, we were watching old X-Files eps and we realized that they basically only have about 4 or 5 archetypes of episodes. Everything fits into those themes. (Ie monster of the week that lives in the forest, sewer, trees...; some creature that lives off human livers, fat, fear...; government experiments gone awry; the "big soap opera story" eps; etc., there weren't many types.) I'd bet you could find a similar categorization with Twilight Zone as well.

DUQ said...

Loved the show. I always liked the space-themed shows best. Like when they landed on what they thought was Mars, but it would turn out to be Earth after they all killed each other. Those shows were great!

rlaWTX said...

I watched the TZ marathon off and on over the weekend. It seemed that I kept seeing the ones I had already seen a dozen times. Bad timing on my part; but I did catch several new ones too. Serving Man ("it's a cookbook") has been a part of our family lexicon (along with "it's peeeeople!") all my life - because my dad was a TZ fan - but hadn't ever seen the whole episode til now. "Talking Tina" has also been in the family lexicon too - but that was because my mom liked it! If it was on, I missed it this time - one creepy doll!

I saw the aliens on Maple Street for the first time. And the wishing into a field one - I was rooting for that last guy! I didn't get to see the end of the B Meridith book one - too bad he didn't get to read happily ever after.

The one with the people stuck in a tubular room who turn out to be dolls struck me as --- memorable. And of course pig-faces.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I did check it out, it was very interesting. I also checked out the RedLetterMedia review and nearly laughed myself to death at his take on it.

Regarding DS9. I didn't like it at first because it seems like a poor-man's rip off of Babylon 5. But it grew on me -- especially Sisko. And I totally agree that the show had a very different feel and they got much deeper into the characters than the other spin offs. In fact, in many ways, it was the best of the spin offs.

AndrewPrice said...

Crispy, It's possible, but I don't think The Twilight Zone was that limited. The reason I say that is that it had several bases from which to work. For example, some episode were based on exploiting human faults or sins. Others were based on challenging human fears. Others were based on social issues of the time. Others were simply fun. Others were theoretical/philosophical science fiction questions like "what makes us human" and "what is reality." Some were based on "what would happen if..."

And within each of these ideas, you had a further 5-6 different bases from which you could operate.

Thus, while I'm sure there are formulas and that these episodes could be categorized, I suspect that the number of categories is much, much larger than the X-Files, which had a very narrow premise if you think about it.

AndrewPrice said...

DUQ, That's a great episode! And I too love the space episodes. Almost any one of those could have been made into a full length movie today.

AndrewPrice said...

rlaWTX, Many of these episodes have entered our family lexicon as well. "It's a cook book!" comes up quite often! LOL!

I think it's good evidence of how iconic some of these episodes really are that their quotes have made it into people's daily lives.

CrispyRice said...

One more thing about the Monsters on Maple Street -- I remember watching it in English class in 7th grade specifically because it used the word "idiosyncrasy" and that was one of our vocabulary words that week. It obviously worked enough that I know the word well to this day, LOL!

rlaWTX, those marathons suck me in and I get nothing done those days, sheesh! I think Netflix was streaming them a couple months ago, as well.

AndrewPrice said...

Crispy, You have to watch out for those marathons, they can pull you in all weekend if you aren't careful, especially because each episode is only 30 minutes long, so it's easy to say "just until the end of this episode."

We never watch the Twilight Zone in school, but it might have been a good idea! LOL!

T_Rav said...

Andrew, that's certainly a good point. If Serling was on the Left, it was very much the Old Left. Had he lived long enough to see the full consequences of the new liberalism, I suspect he would have recoiled from it in horror.

On the Burgess Meredith episode, that one always bothered me a bit, not because I disliked the message or tone, but because I'm a rather introverted bookworm myself, so it struck rather close to home. (On the other hand, while nearsighted, I'm not blind as a bat without my specs either, so I could have just held the books real close to my face and kept on reading.) Nonetheless, I did appreciate the story, since like you said, it exposes a character flaw we have in common: isolate yourself from the rest of humanity and you may get what you wish for, and then some.

There was another episode like that which was probably better, in which astronauts crash-land on what they think is an asteroid, and one decides to follow the law of the jungle and kills the rest to preserve resources for himself, proclaiming that morality no longer exists; then he finds out at the end that the ship actually fell back to Earth and landed in the Nevada desert, only a few miles from civilization. Very haunting, even more so than the BM episode, in my opinion.

AndrewPrice said...

T_Rav, I often wonder how many of the 1950s liberals would react to modern liberals? Would they see the contradiction with what they claimed to believe or would they just roll over and join the groupthink? I tend to think they would move to the libertarian end of the spectrum, but you never know. One thing is for sure, Jefferson and Jackson would not approve of what their party has become.

My issue with the BM episode is that it seems rather unfair. I don't take him to be a bad man by any stretch. I guess the message is "ask for isolation and you might get it," but it has always struck me as harsh -- especially compared to some of the truly nasty people that so often take center stage in the Twilight Zone.

Yeah, the one with the astronauts who think they're all alone is a great one ("I Shot An Arrow"). And let me point out again, that's not a cynical episode. It has an ironic ending, but the punishment was brought on by their own misbehavior. If they (specifically the one guy, but you can argue that others waited too long to control him) had acted like decent human beings then they would have survived. Hence, the lesson is that you can never let society fall apart without nasty consequences.

Writer X said...

Oh, I adore THE TWILIGHT ZONE! Andrew, I take it you caught the Marathon over New Year's? :-)

You are so right about the storytelling. It's pitch-perfect. I also think filming in black and white added tremendously to the story, tension, cadence, twists. I'm not sure they would have been as effective in color, regardless of the writing. There's something about the shadows, the layer of sweat on the actor's brow, even the starkness about the black and white. It all adds to great storytelling. It's like you can feel what's happening in each episode. You're not just a viewer.

I've seen every episode dozens of times. There's nothing else that comes close.

AndrewPrice said...

Writer X, Yep, I caught the marathon.

It's one of my favorites too! And you're right, nothing comes even close.

I agree entirely about the black and white photography. It really pulls you in and somehow makes the whole thing come alive -- which seems counter-intuitive, but is true. If you were going to do these in color and you wanted to get the same level of dramatic effect, you would need to do some sort of strange, stylized lighting, and that would become very gimmicky after you did it a couple times. So the black and white really does help.

Got a favorite?

Writer X said...

Anddrew, it's really hard to choose but I think my fave is when Burgess Meredith plays the brow-beaten, book-loving husband who survives the A-bomb in the bank vault, only to emerge and break his reading glasses when he finds the public library. I also love any of the episodes dealing with outerspace.

AndrewPrice said...

Writer X, Those seem to be very popular judging by people's responses above.

Anonymous said...

Great review. I love "The Twilight Zone" and I think you really nailed it.

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Anon!

Ed said...

Great review! I agree completely about how to write characters. I look at the difference between a show like Star Trek TNG and Stargate SG-1. Star Trek has the effects and the bigger budget, but they never had the writing. If one of the characters disappeared during Star Trek, it just wasn't a big deal. Ho hum, nothing will change. But when people left Stargate, it felt like the world had shattered, and the reason for that was that you cared so much about these characters personally. The reason you felt so much for the characters was because you'd gotten to know them in episode after episode as you saw what they believed and what they were made of. The Star Trek case, who I liked, never felt much more than props.

AndrewPrice said...

Ed, Thanks! Believe it or not, I actually thought about Stargate when I mentioned STNG. I think the difference is very clear. In Stargate, they couldn't rely on some of the crutches STNG had, so they had to put more effort into the characters, and they did create people that feel very real to us. I think you're right that it's hard to see the STNG characters as real people.

Scott Sheaffer said...

@Andrew: You're right. Serling, who served as a paratrooper during W.W.II, never struck me as being anti-military although he was definitely anti-war. His stories have many sympathetic portrayals of soldiers. Look at "A Quality of Mercy," and "The Purple Testament" where war is shown to be a nightmare, but the soldiers fighting it are good people doing what needs to be done. Serling hated war, but felt people needed to fight when necessary. Look at his 1968 commencement speech for Binghamton Central High School. Serling criticizes the glorification of war, but he goes on to say, "But if survival calls for the bearing of arms - bear them, you must."
http://www.rodserling.com/01281968.htm

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, Thanks for the link. I had not heard about the commencement speech, so thanks for that info too!

I think you're right about the sympathetic portrayal of soldiers. It's very rare in the Twilight Zone where you get a soldier who fits the modern bloodthirsty view of Hollywood. Most of the soldiers he shows seem instead to be struck by a profound sense of duty.

There is a lot Hollywood could learn from the Twilight Zone. I wish they would pay more attention to work like Serling's.

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