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.

“The Arrival”

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.”

“Dust”

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.

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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 03/27/2021, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.

  1. Howard Manheimer

    We won’t END the nightmare! Merely guiding you through it, because this is…..The Twilight Zone!

  2. That certainly helps explain why the latest incarnation didn’t work. That’s a great quote, Paul. It sounds as if he’s saying “it has to be perfect” but the overwhelming majority of the episodes were.

    • Yes, I don’t know how in the world they did it, but what a partnership. Somehow they just clicked in a profound way. I wish we could have had Houghton throughout the full run of the show, but I’m grateful he was co-pilot for at least two-thirds of it.

  3. Indeed. It explains not only why the Peele reboot didn’t work but why none of rest of them did either.

    • Absolutely. Sure, every now and then, someone comes up with a reasonably entertaining story. I don’t mind admitting that; I certainly don’t look down my nose at them in their entirety. But the original TZ is on a completely different level — and this quote, as you point out, explains why.

  4. These are beautiful words, and so true. It’s hard to replicate the masterpieces and great storytelling they produced on TZ. Other shows of the era tried – The Outer Limits, Thriller, The Veil among others. Those were of course more hardcore sci-fi and supernatural, but I feel TZ was the perfect blend of everything. Amazing Stories in the 80s to me actually did a better job of capturing the essence of TZ than the reboot version of TZ which aired around the same time.

    • The perfect blend, yes! Much as I enjoy those other shows, there’s something about TZ that puts it head and shoulders above them — and Houghton explained it perfectly.

  5. A state of fantastical, moral, polemical verisimilitude.

    There is an art to writing this way without appearing cheesy (okay, yes, perhaps some brie did finds its way into one or two episodes, but it was *brie,* maaan, not Limburger!), yet creating a world of nuanced storytelling that subtlety positions a mirror before our souls. Even if we don’t consciously admit it to ourselves, hopefully a deeper part of our being registers the message!

  6. That hits the nail on the head…and underscores just what a delicate balance is needed to craft a true TZ story.

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