Serling’s Clever Formula for Making Political Points on Twilight Zone
Every now and then, I’ll see an argument erupt on one of Facebook’s many Twilight Zone fan pages. Not about which episode is best — though feelings can run strong about that, too — but about politics.
Someone will post a meme about something that’s in the news, and the sparks start flying. Because getting political violates the ground rules for these pages, the admins soon delete it. Some people even end up getting thrown out if they’ve been especially rude.
One thing almost always occurs before the dust settles, though. Most people approve of the no-politics rule, but someone will say something like, “Well, Serling was political!” Or “The Twilight Zone was about politics!”
And you know what? They’re right. But when we look at how Serling handled politics on TZ, we see a window into why he was so clever, and why the show’s popularity endures to this day.
Part of the genius of The Twilight Zone — why we’re even discussing it decades later — was that it took moral stances, but put them in the form of modern fables. As a result, it appeals not to a narrow audience, but to a wide swath of people.
I see this reflected in the many different types who follow my Twitter page. They come from all across the political spectrum, yet they’re united in their love of one remarkable television show.
I don’t think that would be true if Serling had made it about the people, places and things that populated the big news items of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Imagine if he had written stories about Dwight Eisenhower, Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon, and Gary Powers. That may have been interesting when it first aired, but it also would have caused the series to age very quickly.
On a couple of occasions, he did skate very close to making the show directly about a particular individual who was then in the news. In “The Whole Truth”, for example, the used-car dealer unloads the cursed jalopy onto Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev. In “The Mirror”, he chronicles the rise and fall of a dictator who looks like Cuba’s Fidel Castro. He even says at the end, “Any resemblance to tyrants living or dead is hardly coincidental”.
It’s also, I believe, no coincidence that these episodes aren’t very popular with many fans. Serling had bent one of his cardinal rules, and the resulting episodes fell short of the show’s usual excellence.
Most of the time, however, Serling wisely avoided that. As he put it, “I knew that I could get away with Martians saying things that Republicans and Democrats couldn’t.”
Yes, his decision was a practical one. He was reacting to network edicts that he obviously chafed under. But in the end, I think they helped him.
Think about it: A direct assault on a particular person or stance rarely succeeds. People’s defenses go up. They don’t listen. But if you cast your lesson in a story that takes place in a fantasy setting, you’re free to make your point in a way that flies under the radar screen.
Sure, some people still won’t listen. But others who might have otherwise tuned you out will.
Take “The Shelter”. Not one word is spoken of who’s in charge or what their positions are. We just see ordinary people in an ordinary neighborhood reacting to an extraordinary situation. Yet few could fail to connect the dots and realize that a policy of Mutually Assured Destruction is, well, to use its acronym, mad.
The same goes for many other episodes, from “The Obsolete Man” to “Eye of the Beholder”. Serling often spoke of the fact that people would respond positively when presented with intelligent entertainment. And by imparting moral precepts in an enjoyable way, the series proved that time and time again.
Thanks to this formula, Serling was able to tell the truth repeatedly over the course of TZ’s 156-episode run. And he didn’t even need a haunted car to do it.
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Hope to see you in some corner of the fifth dimension soon!