A “Tired Non-Conformist”
I recently posted a link to the interview Rod Serling did with Mike Wallace in 1959, just before the Twilight Zone debuted. It’s filled with insights, but one moment in particular, I think, stands out for any fan.
After Serling details some of his censorship fights with sponsors, he notes that because the stories on his new series dealt with “fantasy and imagination and science fiction,” he didn’t expect such fights in the future. Wallace agrees and adds:
You’re going to be obviously working so hard on The Twilight Zone that in essence, for the time being and for the foreseeable future, you’ve given up on writing anything important for television, right?
Ahem. Thanks for the thinly veiled insult, Mike. Sorry I won’t be living up to your high standards.
Yet Serling doesn’t really quarrel with Wallace’s somewhat harsh assessement. He replies:
Yeah. Well, again, this is a semantic thing—important for television. I don’t know. If by important you mean I’m not going to try to delve into current social problems dramatically, you’re quite right. I’m not.
Serling, fresh off his censorship battles, surely didn’t want to call attention to his stealth strategy: making many of the same pointed social critiques that had gotten him into trouble, but smuggling them into stories about aliens, time travel and alternate dimensions. Why tip his hand, especially when the episodes can be enjoyed as simple entertainment? (And many, after all, were just that; Serling didn’t make every story an elaborate allegory for some serious point.)
But Wallace’s remark also shows the low regard with which fantasy and science fiction were held in those days. Serling’s decision did strike many as odd. Why, in their view, would the man who had written “Patterns,” “The Comedian” and “Requiem for a Heavyweight,” to name the dramas that won him his three pre-Zone Emmy awards, trade in his adult cred to write, well, kid stuff?
We know now, of course, what he was up to. He was crafting, as he told Wallace, “very adult … high-quality, half-hour, extremely polished films.” Ones that would stand the test of time, and entertain millions of people.
“Somebody asked me the other day if this means that I’m going to be a meek conformist,” Serling told Wallace, “and my answer is no. I’m just acting the role of a tired non-conformist.”
He may have been tired, but he wasn’t about to give up. He was about to launch a television classic — on his own terms. Considering the results, the censors might deserve our thanks.
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Hope to see you in some corner of the fifth dimension soon!