Serling’s Imitators Miss a Key Reason for His Success

Why do so many attempts to emulate Rod Serling fail? People have tried over the years to duplicate the success of “The Twilight Zone,” and it nearly always falls flat. Why?

Shadow Play9

Many writers and producers make the mistake of assuming that a weird story, or a clever twist, is all you need. But as I’ve tried to show in several previous blog posts, it’s not that simple.

And I recently read something that reminded me of another major reason Serling succeeded: his optimism.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Serling was a realist who leveled some devastating social critiques throughout his career. The author of “The Shelter“, “Deaths-Head Revisited” and “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street” clearly wasn’t wearing rose-colored glasses.

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But unlike many modern writers, he clearly intended to pull us back from our worst excesses. A man who saw unspeakable horror in World War II, saw the Cold War at its hottest, and lived through a time of high-profile assassinations, knew that while men and women possess a lamentable capacity for evil, they also have a capacity for good.

Television’s “Angry Young Man” wasn’t angry because he saw us as irredeemable. He was angry at the wasted potential — at what George Harrison in the Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” called “the love there that’s sleeping.”

Which brings me to what I read. Anne Serling posted it on Facebook. It’s from a speech her father gave in 1969:

“When three astronauts left this earth and circled the moon and took pictures of our small sphere, it must have conjured up in more than one mind the fact that ours is a brief and temporal moment. And it follows that those things that divide us and tear at us and bleed us — these, too, are temporal.

What is undyingSerlingseated and changeless is man’s capacity, not only to circle the moon, but to improve his own lot. If he can break the ties of gravity, he can also break the ties of his own inhumanities.

This may not be the promise. It may be only the wish. But to wish for less and expect less and strive for less would be to deny the one major strength that the frail human has: his spirit. And I’m not about to deny that.”

Unfortunately, many of us would deny it. We become disillusioned. We mutter in cynical tones. Trust erodes. Which is why I’m grateful that someone as talented as Serling experienced the same discouragement, yet refused to give up. Indeed, he stamped some of his greatest work with it.

I think we all want to respond to that attitude, no matter how hardened we become. That’s why Serling’s work continues to exert a unique magic on us, even today.

He never stopped calling to the “better angels of our nature,” in President Lincoln’s words. And we can’t help but admire him for it.

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About Paul

Hard-working, hard-playing fan of all pop culture, especially the Twilight Zone. Which led to a Twitter page. And then to a blog. And then to ... stay tuned. Yes, that's a picture of Rod Serling, not me. You can find the real me under the "Your Host" tab on my blog, along with biographical details that, while 100 percent accurate, sound kind of boastful and braggy. Sorry.

Posted on 09/08/2015, in Rod Serling and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. This is such an uplifting, in a weird sort of way, post, Paul. I’m not sure I’ve ever thought of him this way. I think you’re right, though. He did see the potential for goodness in many cases, but he wasn’t afraid to call out evil in all of its forms.

    • Glad you enjoyed it, Dan. Yes, it’s easy to NOT think of him this way, given the dark side of many of his stories, but I think once you look a bit deeper at WHY he was writing them, you see the optimism I refer to here.

      A lot of people mistake optimism for a POV that closes its ears to evil, but I feel as if Serling was showing us its proper form — taking a hard look at how we screw things up, but reminding us that we can, and should, do better.

  2. Whether it’s Rod Serling or Gene Roddenberry, somehow people think we can leave all our too human baggage behind just by escaping the Earth’s orbit.

    But Marcusson was right: people are alike all over.

    • I agree that such a point of view would be folly. But I don’t think Serling — who, after all, WROTE “People Are Alike All Over” — subscribed to it. At any rate, I don’t think it’s really germane to this discussion.

      Serling wasn’t saying, “Now that we can leave this earth, we’ll find peace and contentment out beyond the stars.” He was using the moon shot as an analogy, saying that it put our earthly problems in perspective and suggesting that perhaps we could likewise rise above THEM.

      We CAN be better. So can the people on Mars. And the people wherever. The question is, will we? That’s up to us. But, he’s saying, it’s not impossible. That’s my takeaway from this passage.

      • “… If he can break the ties of gravity, he can also break the ties of his own inhumanities,” but recall that the first full scale rocket was a V2.

  3. Excellent post! Thanks for sharing those words of his.

  4. Paul, this is an outstanding post! Rod was able to scare us without losing his optimism & without resorting to gore! His words & message stay with the viewer long after the show is over.

    Don’t get me wrong, I love The Walking Dead, but its best moments are often void of zombies or gore. The first episode in the series proves that.

    American Horror Story is a good example of an excellent series gone awry. No matter how many awards they give it, it has not lived up to its first two seasons, resorting to disgusting the viewer.

    While My Guitar Gently Weeps just happens to be my favorite George Harrison song! :-)

    • Glad you enjoyed it, Jo Ann! I’ve never failed to be impressed at how Serling retained that essential optimism, even with every negative thing he experienced. So when I read that passage, I thought it was something that really deserved to be highlighted.

      As for violence on screen, I couldn’t agree more. Forgive me if I’ve sent you this link before, but check what Serling had to say in the early ’70s: https://thenightgallery.wordpress.com/2011/12/28/serling-on-film-violence/

      I’ve seen only a smattering of AHS episodes, but I’m sure your assessment is correct. Walking Dead, by contrast, I’ve seen from the start, and while it’s exciting and interesting, I often wish the violence were toned down. Yeah, it’s zombies, I get that, but still. As you say, many of its most powerful moments have been zombie-free (Amy and Andrea in the boat in Season 1’s “Vatos”, to cite just one example).

      So here’s to Serling. And Harrison, of course!

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