When Newton Minnow became the head of the FCC in 1961, he decried television’s “vast wasteland.” The only weekly series he applauded was The Twilight Zone, then in the midst of its five season run on CBS (1959-1964). But nothing lasts forever, and the show’s plug would ultimately be pulled for its low ratings and idiosyncrasy in a network line-up that included The Beverly Hillbillies, Petticoat Junction, and The Munsters.
Rod Serling, executive producer, host, and writer of 92 of the 156 episodes, sold back his large stake in the show in 1966, “suspecting, apparently, that the show would just gather dust in the network’s vault,” according to scholar Brian Murray. The Twilight Zone proceeded to have a spectacular life in syndication, the afterlife of television. As Murray argues, the show’s legacy reveals its enduring hold on the cultural imagination.
The series inspired two reboots and a feature film, as well as a board game, a magazine, and graphic novels. Steven Spielberg, Chris Carter, and Spike Jonze have tipped their hats to the show’s influence. The Syfy channel broadcasts the run of the series as a New Year’s Day marathon and has done so for more than two decades. The program also streams on various platforms, from Netflix to YouTube. At 192 episodes, it’s an amazing catalog of on-screen talent, including then-stars, character actors, and up-and-comers who made the big time in the late 1960s, 1970s, and beyond.
Film and media arts scholar Rick Worland notes that the show, remembered now as an icon of Cold War entertainment, actually came out of the experience of World War II. Serling himself was a combat vet who, according to his daughter’s biography, suffered from what was then still called shell shock. Worland examines the show’s “often confused treatment of contemporary socio-political themes.” It was an epitome of “Cold War liberalism,” which differed from Cold War conservatism “mainly in locating the source of the mutually agreed-upon communist threat.” For liberals, it was out there; for conservatives, it was domestic.
Both Murray and Worland highlight the episode called “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” first broadcast in 1960. This episode in particular mixes the source of the danger. Here, neighbors turn on each other in fearful paranoia about a supposed alien landing nearby. As the camera pulls back from the dark, murderous chaos of middle class Americans descending into anarchy, it develops that they are right: there are aliens out there, watching. The invaders won’t have to do a thing but spread fear and watch as humans do their monstrous thing.
“One wonders how Serling [who died at 50 in 1975] would have fared in today’s very different television environment,” muses Murray. Television is still television, dominated by advertising, but now subscription services offer an alternative to what Serling called the “basic weakness of the medium,” advertising’s disruption of narrative and its control over content.
Uneven, sometimes hokey, often didactic, yet clearly striking a nerve, The Twilight Zone is still watchable more than half a century after the series ended. Perhaps because, as the introduction to the first season put it: “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.”