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.

“The Midnight Sun”

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?

“Caesar and Me”

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”.

That’s Jim on the left. Huckleberry Houghton!

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.)

“Judgment Night”

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.

“Nick of Time”

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!

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 04/17/2020, in Twilight Zone and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. I for one appreciate syndication, and the fact that the shows live on. I also own the DVDs, just in case. It doesn’t matter who owns them, they are inseparable from Rod Serling.

    I think I’ve mentioned this before, but I remember taking my daughter to see “the Monsters on Maple Street” at the Museum of Television and Radio (now The Paley Center) in NYC – we viewed the Kinescope recording, complete with commercials. I hope it survives another 50 years.

    • Definitely wise to have those DVDs as a backup. Plus you get those cool extras. And yes, Serling is right there, front and center — everyone knows he’s the man.

      What a treat seeing “Monsters” that way! Love seeing old ads. Talk about time travel …

      • My daughter was in her early teens. The ad was for new Filtered Chesterfields which were “now perfectly safe to smoke!” She looked at me and said “how dumb were you people?”

      • Ha! Good question. Sadly, just as dumb as people now. We just have new things we’re myopic about.

      • That’s true. I tried to explain the limited resources was had for news way back in those dark ages. Even in the 90s, it didn’t make any sense. Imagine trying to explain that today. Actually, this post is probably hard for some people to believe.

      • No doubt. This was so early in TV’s history that there simply WERE no reruns (to really speak of) or classic shows yet. It was all too new! Everything was here today, gone tomorrow.

  2. I don’t think anyone even as close as the eighties thought their shows would live on to such a degree. Well TZ, puts almost everything else to shame but you know kwim.

    Somehow I think the creators and producers tend to also under-estimate the staying power, love, and creativity of the fans as well. It wasn’t the same back in the 60s, but I can imagine that one guy or gal constantly talking about TZ and their friends like, “that shows been off the air for 2 years, will you quit it already?” lol But now there’s no quitting on anything.

    You can find at least a blog post for the really obscure, if not a website, full blog, picture site, fan forum, magazine/news article dredging it up. I’m glad the studios tapped into that and have done a decent job releasing these gems. And now more than ever on streaming, but I prefer to keep hard copies. I’m sure TZ will live forever if it can.

    The majority of the show was full of stellar writing and performances that outweigh any chance of it getting overly dated. Newer versions can barely touch them and I think it’s because that sense of wonder and what-if? is practically gone from viewers now. It feels like every concept’s been done before and TZ was actually the starting point for many of them! I was just in a small conversation on Youtube after watching a short film on Screamfest (Channels like them, Alter, Omeleto, and DUST have some incredible TZ like shorts on there.) and we saw the definite influence from the episode “The Trade-Ins.” We appreciated that ending more too.

    I’d like to read a post about Serling and Viacom sometime! Keep up the great work here. I love this blog.

    • Thanks, Lady G, I will! It’s definitely a timeless series, as proven by how many diehard fans are still enjoying the series some six *decades* later. Remarkable.

      There’s no question that the Internet and social media has helped, of course, as it enables fans of the obscure and the not-so-obscure connect. But in the end, it’s the quality of the work that’s done it.

      TZ was one of a kind — just like its creator. :)

  3. I’ll only add a small data point. I saw only a handful of TZ episodes when they were first broadcast, but I did read more than one of the short-story collections made from the TV scripts’ stories. I can definitely remember in 70’s having people in various college poetry and literature classes referencing TZ stories.

    I thought this odd, not because I didn’t like what I knew about TZ, but because TV show stories didn’t seem to match the focus of such academic classes. Odd to recall that, considering what I think now, but that’s what I thought at the time.

    But let me continue. Other elements of what was thought of as pop culture entered into those classes’ discussions and banter: rock music and film. But not TV shows, and certainly not long canceled TV shows.

    I think the short-story collections may have had a part in this, not just in my exposure to many of the classic episodes as stories in a book rather than broadcast TV shows, but in helping give them a literary “long-tail” after they disappeared from screens.

    • Good point, Frank. You’re right about the short-story adaptations (and heck, some comic-book ones as well) sort of giving TZ an extended lease on life — not to mention college classes that took a closer look at pop culture, For that matter, Serling himself taught writing in the wake of TZ and even encouraged students to take a critical look at his work. And believe me, they did.

      Thanks for bringing that aspect into the conversation here. Glad you enjoyed the post.

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