Vintage television

Vintage TV: The Twilight Zone

My kids don’t like The Twilight Zone.

twilight_zone_titleDuring my 1970s kidhood, this show was one of my favorite gems of syndicated television. I loved to come across it, especially late at night, and enjoy its tales of science fiction and fantasy, of warped human nature, and of dystopia.

What I didn’t understand was that when the show originally aired, from 1959 to 1964, reason was king. People seriously and earnestly sought surety. They believed in absolutes; they deferred to authority. There was a sense that you could truly understand the world, and that there had to be a rational explanation for everything.

A frequent premise of The Twilight Zone episodes was the search for a rational explanation to events that made no rational sense. Characters were thought to have cracked, to have lost their marbles, when they spoke of experiences that they could not explain logically.

But that kind of modernist thinking had all but ended by the 1970s. I didn’t know it, of course; what small boy is aware of society changing around him? But in those days, the generation entering adulthood felt that things didn’t have to make sense, that there might not be any absolutes, and that a universal, objective means of judging things as right or true might not exist. The postmodern age had dawned.

I found these shows to be delightful because I understood both sides, although only viscerally. I grew up around adults, largely of my grandparents’ generation, who clung to those old modes of thinking – and I watched their children thumb their nose at it all. My grandparents loved The Twilight Zone as I did. But I think our experience with the show differed sharply. I imagine that sometimes it frightened them, because it challenged what they knew to be right and solid. In contrast, the shows excited me, because I wanted to believe that such alternate realities could exist.

But for my children, who have never known anyone from my grandparents’ generation, for whom the postmodern transition has always been complete, The Twilight Zone’s protagonists are buffoons trapped in a too-narrow reality. My kids can’t relate to them. They take as a given that things happen that can’t be explained. It’s reflected in the shows they enjoy watching: The Walking Dead, Supernatural, Doctor Who.They accept as given that their world is full of unfathomable mysteries. They embrace it. The Twilight Zone points to a time when the world was a puzzle that could be solved. It is too different, and it just can’t reach them.

See everything I’ve written in this occasional series about vintage television here.

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21 thoughts on “Vintage TV: The Twilight Zone

  1. Christopher Smith says:

    I remember watching this when I was a teenager and also the similar show The Outer Limits
    I enjoyed them very much.

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    • The Outer Limits wasn’t shown much in reruns where I lived, so I’m not as familiar with that one. It was one of my mom’s favorites when it was originally aired though.

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  2. bodegabayf2 says:

    Loved the show as well. Rod Serling grew up in my home town and often returned to give lectures at the creative writing classes at area schools. He used the names of area towns in quite a few of his episodes: Binghamton, Elmira, Cortland, Syracuse–all Upstate New York. Watch the credits of Twilight Zone…at the end it will say Cayuga Productions, named after the lake in Ithaca, NY where Serling spent his last years.

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    • I’ve been watching all the eps on Netflix. They don’t have Season 4 for some reason, but I’m sure I can find those online elsewhere.

      I have detected a New York State flavor to many of the episodes Serling wrote. And thanks for explaining about Cayuga Productions; I wondered about the name.

      I’ve been to Binghamton. I was 4.

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  3. bodegabayf2 says:

    One trip to Binghamton is about all you need. :-)

    Serling credits much of his success as a writer to his Binghamton Central High School teacher, Helen Foley. She received a tribute in one of the stories told in the Twilight Zone movie. There was a movement some years ago to change the name of the high school to Rod Serling High, but it never got enough traction.

    In one episode, he mentions Recreation Park, which was the little city park across the street from his boyhood home. Even though we may stray far from home in our adult life, those early memories are pretty firmly set.

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  4. One of my favorites! this is why I love Netflix, they have old favorites of mine, and Twilight Zone its one of them (I think they still have it on, since they keep rotating classic t.v. shows). I do disagree though… my boys like this show. and yup they love the Walking Dead as well as Supernatural :). I have always liked stuff like this show, my bookshelf is full of classic horror stories, science fiction, etc. they grew up on this. and of course expanded their own taste for movies etc, through their own generation likes ( or dislikes). Good show, good times :) great post.

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      • nah! they are just like any other kids. Some of the stuff I like they are not into. I think its due to the fact that I am like a little girl when it comes down to t.v. shows and movies lol! :) everything I love that I have watched, I always share with them.

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  5. An episode that I have always remembered from childhood I think shows pretty clearly the change in times. Some soldiers are taking part in some war games and end up going back in time to the Custer battlefield. They without question join the battle on Custer’s side, and this is seen as a heroic action. I don’t think that there are many people below 50 who could see that has being an unambiguous noble choice.

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      • I did see that episode when it was on the first time as a kid and remember feeling bad knowing that they were going to die. I also remember wondering why they didn’t take their tank with them. Custer was pretty much all hero then. Later in the 60’s I remember a movie called “Little Big Man”, where we were cheering when Custer got what he appeared to deserve. Looking back on it it is amazing how much things changed in the 60’s.

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  6. Steve Miller says:

    I’ve lost my copy of “The Twilight Zone Companion,” so I can’t give the complete explanation for the amazing transformation of “The Howling Man,” but it was dependent on the “limitations” of shooting in black and white. The transformation was a single tracking shot, and as “the howling man” walked down the corridor, the camera kept pace with him. As he passed each column, the actor walked through light of different colors. Of course, we, the viewers saw the effect in shades of grey as the light reflected differently on makeup of complementary colors. The effect was that his face transformed from normal man to Satan in the short walk.

    I’ve always been fascinated with that production note. There was as much thought to the visual storytelling as there was to the scriptwriting, and between Serling and Richard Mathieson, there was surely some stellar story-telling. But even the clinkers were pretty good…

    As for the unthinking acceptance of authority, well, this was the age of “Mad Men.” That acceptance was one of the forces Serling was railing against. Then, too, there was just some plain good ol’ sci-fi, like “To Serve Man.”

    Outer Limits was always, in my mind, a pale substitute for the real thing — The Twilight Zone.

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    • Steve, I think a theme of Mad Men is the transition from modernism to postmodernism. Don Draper starts out being Mr. Cool but as time wore on he became more and more anachronistic. A key moment where that highlighted itself for me was at a Rolling Stones concert — he was suited among all the hippies there and was incredibly out of place, where when the series began he was so, so in place everywhere he went.

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  7. The world in which I grew up was black and white. I am not referring to television. Too bad today’s youngsters are living in a world in which the shades of grey make the fitting together of the puzzle pieces all too difficult.

    “(We) don’t know what (we)’ve lost ’til its gone.”

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  8. I loved the Twilight Zone too, but now that you mention it, yeah, most of the characters did seem like “buffoons trapped in a too-narrow reality” to me too. I still liked the show because it was thought provoking. And narrow minded buffoons are all too realistic, so no problem believing that…

    Fascinating generational perspective you bring to this though.

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  9. Lone Primate says:

    I remember The Twilight Zone first as a Gold Key comic book series, and as a cultural reference to something I wasn’t party to. It wasn’t till the summer I was 13 that I caught up on it. That was the first summer I was routinely staying up after my folks went to bed. I’d be up till 2, 3 in the morning. A small station in Toronto used to do nothing but show black and white reruns all night, and that was my first chance to see The Twilight Zone. Night after night, all summer. It was golden. :) I guess I was born late enough that I found some of the episodes corny… and by jing, Rod Serling really loved to rub your nose in his point… but some of them will stay with me forever. The one with the astronaut who kills his teammates for their water and then finds they landed in the desert on Earth… the 1840s pioneer who climbs a sand dune into the 1960s and brings back penicillin for his dying son… the woman who fears death but doesn’t realize it’s come to her in the gentle form of a wounded policeman… the old folks who become young again playing kick the can and leave behind the one who just can’t believe… there was some really wonderful stuff. Eventually I bought the original series on DVD. I think one episode in five is a treasure, as many are complete duds, and the rest are merely watchable. But I’m really glad I have them, and I like the way you’ve put them in perspective. :)

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    • I think Serling had a greater hit rate than you do — I rather think two or three of five are a treasure, and there are few complete duds. Maybe I’m more easily charmed than you! But whatever; we agree: it’s great to have anytime access to the episodes.

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