Why No One Could Have Expected “The Twilight Zone” to Last So Long
If you’re a Twilight Zone fan today, it’s hard to imagine a time when it wasn’t viewed as … well, as a work of art, really. As something that would go on to be enjoyed by generations of viewers.
But in 1959, there was no reason to think that.
Not because people didn’t expect much from Rod Serling. Not at all. The man who had won three Emmys at that point for writing some of the live-TV era’s most celebrated teleplays was widely praised. It’s just that TV worked a bit differently back then.
Okay, a LOT differently.
I touched on that in my last post, which concerned my surprise that the man brought onboard to produce Twilight Zone in its fifth season greenlit “Caesar and Me” without realizing that the series had aired an episode about a ventriloquist dummy, back in its third season. How strange, I thought. How could he be unaware of any of TZ’s previous episodes?
But, as I noted in the post, TV didn’t operate the same way back then. TZ wasn’t yet this acclaimed classic, airing in reruns over the course of decades. No one could sign in to Netflix or Hulu and see the seasons and episode titles at a glance.
Something that I happened to read shortly after I published that post has really reinforced that point. It came from an essay written by Jim Houghton, the son of Buck Houghton, producer of The Twilight Zone‘s first three seasons. Jim was just a boy at the time, but he related some fond memories of being on set and watching his father (and Rod Serling) at work.
Jim even got a small speaking part in “The Last Rites of Jeff Myrtlebank”.
The entire essay (which is featured in Stewart Stanyard’s “Dimensions Behind the Twilight Zone”) is well worth reading. But I wanted to highlight one portion toward the end. He writes:
There was never any sense that what was going on at Cayuga Productions [Serling’s production company] would last through the ages. In that era, you made up to the 39 shows, reran a choice few in the summer, then either shot another season or went off the air, never to be heard from again.
If the idea of syndication existed, it was a gleam in someone’s eye. It never occurred to anyone that the unique qualities of The Twilight Zone — combined with the fact that Viacom eventually came to own all the episodes free and clear, making them inexpensive to rerun — would create an enduring classic with no end in sight forty-odd years later.
(Of course, the reason that Viacom came to own them all “free and clear” flowed from the fact that Serling, after Twilight Zone‘s final cancellation, sold them his half of the series — a decision he came to regret. But that’s a subject for another post.)
This sense that TV shows were merely a fleeting commodity explains something that comes up often in interviews with the various actors who starred on The Zone. They all express their admiration for Serling and TZ. They all say how they knew the material was special. And yet, again and again, they say how amazed they are that everyone still remembers the show so well, and how no one expected it to last like it has.
And let’s face it — many shows, then and now, don’t really deserve to live on in memory. But a select few turned out to be pretty special, and for their sake, we can all thank whoever invented syndication.
Our pop culture would certainly be poorer without them, and especially without that “enduring classic with no end in sight”.
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Hope to see you in some corner of the fifth dimension soon!
Posted on 04/17/2020, in Twilight Zone and tagged Caesar and Me, Judgment Night, Midnight Sun, Nick of Time, Rod Serling, The Last Rites of Jeff Myrtlebank, Twilight Zone. Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.