Defining The Zone
What made The Twilight Zone work?
Seems like an easy question, right? After all, Rod Serling’s legendary brain child has been entertaining TV viewers for half a century now. Such broad appeal should be simple to define. But once you start trying to come up with an answer, you realize that the show’s formula can be a little hard to pin down.
“Basically, nobody understood what made The Twilight Zone work except Rod,” executive producer Buck Houghton said.
So let’s turn to Serling. “The Twilight Zone is about people,” he said. “About human beings involved in extraordinary circumstances, in strange problems of their own or of fate’s making.”
Few people other than Serling would have placed “people” at the center of the show’s appeal. I mean, isn’t it just a bunch of weird stories? Aliens, talking dolls, gremlins on airplane wings, that sort of thing?
Actually, no. Those bizarre elements are an important part of it, and they’re undeniably fun. But if they had been the focus, I doubt the show’s popularity would prove so enduring.
“It was about people with common problems who encountered fantasy,” Houghton added. “What would it be like if you could go back to the town where you were born and raised, and see that it’s just the way it was at the time? That’s something you can relate to very easily, and that was the key to the show’s success.”
Houghton, in fact, said that he and Serling had a strict “one miracle per show” rule. Otherwise, they felt, you’d be asking too much of an audience. That was one of the reasons that Houghton fought the network’s desire to stretch the show to an hour: How long would an audience be willing to suspend disbelief? For 25 minutes, yes. Not for 50.
And so the Zone formula developed: Stage a good opener that would intrigue the audience, have the characters react to the strange circumstances that were unfolding, then hit the audience at the end with some sort of zinger. Less realistic than Alfred Hitchcock Presents, but not the outright oddness you’d get in The Outer Limits.
George Clayton Johnson, who wrote some of the show’s most memorable episodes (“Kick the Can,” “Nothing in the Dark”), calls The Twilight Zone “wisdom fiction.” He adds: “These were realistic fantasies about seemingly average people on average streets — a timid book clerk, a frightened old woman, an ambitious pool shark, a desperate old man in a rest home — each of whose lives would be filled by some extraordinary magical factor.”
Look at the classic episode “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.” The focus isn’t on the gremlin on the wing. It’s on an ordinary man, on an ordinary trip, trying to make sense out of the anything-but-ordinary creature he spies outside of his plane window. You can’t help but wonder, “If I looked out and saw that, what would I do?”
And the show works because we would probably do much the same thing that Bob Wilson does: We’d try everything possible to convince our spouse, the stewardess and the pilot that we weren’t seeing things — even as we wrestled with doubts about our sanity.
Maybe the show’s success is even simpler than that. “The Twilight Zone was an embodiment of great storytelling,” said Earl Hamner, Jr. (writer of “The Hunt” and seven other episodes). “Back when we all sat around fires and had animal skins for clothing, there were great stories told around campfires, and those same principles are at work in The Twilight Zone. So it doesn’t surprise me at all that it has universal and lasting appeal. They’re great stories well told.”
Photos courtesy of my “Gal Friday,” artist Wendy Brydge. For a daily dose of Serling, you can follow me on Twitter, Facebook or Pinterest. You can also get email notifications of future posts by entering your address under “Follow S&S Via Email” on the upper left-hand side of this post. Hope to see you in some corner of the fifth dimension soon!