The Thread of Imagination

Think of the TV shows you watch. You enjoy them, of course, or you wouldn’t tune in. But how many of them will last? Will any be finding new audiences decades from now?

Sounds laughable, for the most part. With few exceptions, the shows we select are the diversion of the moment. Enjoyable, sure. Informative, maybe. But something that will stand the test of time? Hardly. (Unless you anticipate New Year’s Eve marathons of Big Brother and Jersey Shore.)

Denton on Doomsday10

Yet The Twilight Zone has been doing just that for over 50 years now. Indeed, it became more popular in reruns than it was in its original run. The question is, how? Why does it endure while others fall by the wayside?

Regular readers of this blog have heard me ponder this before, and as a TZ fan, I suppose I’ll always be trying to get to the bottom of it. But something that Rod Serling wrote in the April 1960 issue of TV-Radio Mirror (the show was then only in its first season) gives us a big clue:

[T]he mail pull has been outstanding. We got almost six thousand pieces of mail in eighteen days. A lot of teenagers wrote, which surprised us, and a lot of doctors and lawyers and professional people, people who ordinarily wouldn’t write to a TV show.

Which proved a point. There are at least twenty million Americans who want to be entertained, but who also want to think a thought. … I’m one of TV’s severest critics. But, with all its weaknesses and imitative quality, it is still a tremendously exciting medium and it’s doing one great job of filling seven thousand hours of air time every year.

I think that’s key to TZ’s success: it entertained without pandering. It indulged our love of fantasy without insulting our intelligence. It proved that a series can reach the highest aspirations without stooping to the lowest common denominator.

Long-Live-Walter-Jameson

Few of us would voluntarily fill a lecture hall to hear an address on conformity. But we’ll gladly watch “Eye of the Beholder” and “Number 12 Looks Just Like You.” We might nod off during a sermon on Satan’s ability to fool mankind. But we’ll sit in rapt attention when “The Howling Man” and “Escape Clause” come on.

From the dangers of paranoia (“The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street“) to the pull of superstition (“Nick of Time“), from the terror of isolation (“Where is Everybody?“) to the allure of nightmares (“Shadow Play”), from the quest for immortality (“Long Live Walter Jameson“) to the desire for a second chance (“Mr. Denton on Doomsday“), the list of Twilight Zone episodes that gave us a thrill and a thought is long indeed.

“This is the stuff of fantasy,” Serling intones in one of his famous closing narrations from the series. “The thread of imagination, the ingredients … of the Twilight Zone.”

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About Paul

Fanning about the work of Rod Serling all over social media. If you enjoy pics, quotes, facts and blog posts about The Twilight Zone, Night Gallery and Serling's other projects, you've come to the right place.

Posted on 02/28/2013, in Twilight Zone and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Excellent, excellent post, Paul! There is so much mindless shock TV today that I feel bad for children who are having to grow up with their intelligence being insulted. As Serling rightly points out, television isn’t JUST about being entertained. We need to be stimulated as well, and that means pairing good writing with a message. So much of today’s TV is like empty calories. You consume them, but you get nothing out of them. And what good does that do anybody?

    Serling had such incredible finesse. The way he could weave messages of morality, redemption and justice into these wonderfully crafted tales of the not-quite-natural has never been matched. As any good teacher knows, the only way children truly learn anything is when you can deliver a lesson as it stimulates their imagination. It has to be interesting enough that they WANT to learn. And in this way, Serling was not just an accomplished writer, but also a superb teacher to us all.

    • Indeed he was, Wendy, and believe me, it’s a tribute to his writing talent that he wove message and entertainment so well together (at least 90% of the time — even Serling had his preachy moments!). A lot of TV is, yes, mindless. On the other hand, we have series who try to teach a lesson, but do it in the most ham-handed fashion possible. Not Serling. He did it so deftly that his stories continue to leave a mark on the culture over 50 years later. We gladly watch our favorite episodes a dozen times or more, and we never tire of them. What a tribute to his genius!

  2. Mike Poteet

    Wonderful post, Paul! “A thrill and a thought” – what better mission statement for good stories could there be? (And, as an occasional preacher, I take your comment about sitting through a sermon as a noble challenge to keep remembering the power of story in the pulpit! )

    • Thanks, Mike! Glad I could help your congregation in some small way. Though Serling is the one who really deserves the credit!

  1. Pingback: A Series for Storytellers | Shadow & Substance

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