The Thread of Imagination: Serling’s “Ingredients” for The Twilight Zone
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.)
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.
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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Hope to see you in some corner of the fifth dimension soon!