The Alchemy of a Twilight Zone: More Than Just “Unbridled Imagination”
I don’t consider this blog merely a place to fan over Rod Serling’s work. It’s that, make no mistake! But every now and then, I like to ponder why his signature series was such a success. Specifically, what made The Twilight Zone work?
So when I came across this long quote from Buck Houghton, the man who worked hand in hand with Serling to produce the first three seasons of TZ, I knew I had to share it:
“The Twilight Zone is a world that allows for things to happen that do not happen in real life: fantasies operate, wishes are fulfilled, life‘s loose ends are tied up, frustrations are resolved, discontents are played out, dreams come true, magic asked for is delivered. Unbridled imagination, working to the benefit — or destruction — of commonplace people.
The challenge, for the writer, of creating a true Twilight Zone story is to stretch, bend, and otherwise distort reality so as to tantalize the viewer, but never so far that it can’t snap back into focus at the last minute to provide a recognizable and satisfying irony or insight.
Therefore, the writer walks a fine line, mixing reality and unreality without falling into an attempt merely to shock, or to propose outrageous situations to finally have nothing to say to us.
This is not to say the writer undertaking to make up a Twilight Zone story has to first find some deep-dish, meaningful message and then construct a story that will convey it. More likely, a writer will take a ‘What if?’ that has always fascinated him and, in the course of playing it out, will find a conclusion that provides the satisfying or disturbing capper.
The writer is free to pose almost any ‘What if?’ and proceed with it to some conclusion unfettered by the need to mirror real life, but he can never treat far-outness as an end in itself — the conclusion reached must ultimately appeal to our sense of truth, justice, or irony. It must have a crackling resonance in common human experience.”
I wanted to applaud when I first read that. If Houghton had said that in front of an audience, and I was there, I would have given him a standing ovation. It’s perfect.
This explains the folly of those who think a strange story is all you need to make a TZ. Or who assume an irony-laden ending is enough. Or who believe you must start with some heavy-handed moral. No. There’s more to it than that. And Houghton really nails it here. No wonder he and Serling were such a great team.
The Houghton quote is from Arlen Schumer’s “Visions from the Twilight Zone.” For more posts on what made TZ work, click here.
For a daily dose of Serling, you can follow me on Twitter, Facebook or Pinterest. You can also get email notifications of future posts by entering your address under “Follow S&S Via Email” on the upper left-hand side of this post.
Hope to see you in some corner of the fifth dimension soon!