The Right Length for a Twilight Zone: Half an Hour or an Hour? How Serling’s Answer Changed

Opinions about Twilight Zone‘s fourth season, when Rod Serling’s landmark anthology series expanded to an hour, vary widely. Some fans really enjoy it. Others? Not so much.

“I Dream of Genie”

But even the biggest cheerleaders for Season 4 will admit that Serling and his fellow scribes were much more in the Zone, shall we say, when their stories clocked in at 25 minutes, not 50.

“Ours is the perfect half-hour show,” Serling said at one of several points when talk of an hour-long version came up. “If we went to an hour, we’d have to fleshen our stories, soap-opera style. Viewers could watch 15 minutes without knowing whether they were in a Twilight Zone or Desilu Playhouse.”

There’s a little Zone-like foreshadowing. Serling’s foray into the fifth dimension soon became an hour-long jaunt, and his warning about “fleshening” would prove prophetic. You’ve heard of doing more with less; this was a case of doing less with more.

“The Incredible World of Horace Ford”

That’s not to say Season 4 didn’t have some good episodes. We got, for example, “He’s Alive” (with Dennis Hopper as a neo-Nazi being coached by Adolf Hitler’s ghost), “The New Exhibit” (Martin Balsam as the curator of some homicidal wax figures), “Printer’s Devil” (Burgess Meredith as a diabolically talented journalist), and “On Thursday We Leave for Home” (James Whitmore as the power-hungry leader of a barren space colony).

I could name others, and perhaps you could too. As Marc Scott Zicree, author of The Twilight Zone Companion, wrote: “The series had not disgraced itself.”

Far from it, in fact. Still, it was wise to go back to the half-hour slot for Season 5. As Buck Houghton, TZ’s producer through its first three seasons, later pointed out, the extra length made it very tough to do the kind of surprise endings that Serling and the other Zone writers specialized in throughout most of the show’s run.

“The Bard”

“In the half-hour form, we relied heavily on the old O. Henry twist,” Serling told TV Guide, referencing the famous author who wrote “The Gift of the Magi” and other irony-laden classic tales. “So the question is, can we retain the Twilight Zone flavor in an hour? We may come up with something totally different.”

Not totally different, as it turns out. We still get time travel and other elements of imaginative fiction in the 18 hour-long Zone episodes. We go to other planets, get some social commentary, and even learn to be careful what we wish for. What could be more Zone-like? But it wasn’t the same.

And yet if Serling had gotten his way when TZ first launched, it would have been an hour-long from the start. The kind of dramas he was already famous for writing all clocked in at an hour or more, which was considered the proper length for any kind of series with prestige, like Playhouse 90. But the half-hour slot? That was for sit-coms and kid shows.

“The Parallel”

But it had taken a lot of arm-twisting to get CBS to even agree to The Twilight Zone. They were very wary of allowing their award-winning star dramatist to fool around with anything as déclassé as science fiction. They finally relented after the success of “The Time Element,” but by giving Serling a half-hour slot, they were clearly hedging their bets.

Obviously Serling had the last laugh. But initially he wasn’t happy about the shorter time slot.

Replying to a fan letter he received shortly after the series began, Serling wrote, “I share your wish that it would be an hour show but the Gods and the network were of another mind.” In a letter written during Season 2, he said, “I share your feeling as to the length of The Twilight Zone. I, too, would prefer the hour format, but unfortunately the network has only the half-hour available.”1

“Of Late I Think of Cliffordville”

For further evidence that Serling was hoping for the hour slot, consider his revisions for the episodes “A Stop at Willoughby” and “The Gift.” The original drafts for both were written before the series began — as potential pilots. In the end, Serling went with “Where is Everybody?“, so those stories were saved for later episodes (in Seasons 1 and 3, respectively). But in each case he had to revise his original 50-minute draft as a 25-minute one.

In time, of course, it was apparent to all that this was for the best. The Twilight Zone was indeed “the perfect half-hour show,” as Serling later called it. Near the end of Season 2, CBS first mulled the idea of expanding the show to an hour, and when they decided against it, its executive producer was relieved. “Frankly, I’m glad of it,” Serling said. “We can keep that vignette approach.”

“Death Ship”

The following year, however, the situation had changed. CBS and Serling were negotiating the return of Twilight Zone as a mid-season replacement show that would, in fact, be an hour long (at least in part because the show it was replacing, Fair Exchange, was an hour-long). But Serling was trying to look on the bright side. The extra time, he told New York Times columnist Val Adams, “would give us a chance for much more probing in the story line. We could put much more emphasis on character. Right now we have to emphasize plot.”

There were times, to be sure, when the expanded run time did allow for richer characterization. Anyone who has heard Captain Benteen in “On Thursday” rhapsodize about the beauty of Earth has enjoyed a scene that would have been severely truncated or cut entirely if it had been in a half-hour script.

The same goes for the climactic robot-human meeting between Alan Talbot and Walter Ryder Jr. in Charles Beaumont’s “In His Image,” as well as the haunting reveries of astronauts Ted Mason and Mike Carter in Richard Matheson’s “Death Ship.” And I would hate to see a shorter version of “The New Exhibit,” which plays like a perfect little horror film.

“The New Exhibit”

But when you consider how much snap and suspense was drained out of the series when it went to an hour, you have to ask yourself if the character/plot trade-off was worth it. Especially when the extra time could just as often serve as a drag, bogging down otherwise intriguing stories like “The Parallel,” “The Thirty-Fathom Grave,” and “No Time Like the Past.”

Besides, characterization is hardly lacking in many of the half-hour episodes. Sure, we get some fairly two-dimensional protagonists, like Bartlett Finchley in “A Thing About Machines” and Oliver Crangle in “Four O’Clock.” But we’re more likely to meet someone as richly detailed as Janet Tyler in “Eye of the Beholder.” Or Martin Sloane in “Walking Distance.” Or Professor Fowler in “The Changing of the Guard.”

Would we know Henry Corwin any better if “Night of the Meek” had been an hour long? Hardly. Serling’s portrayal here may be concise, but it lacks nothing.

“Passage on the Lady Anne”

“Our shows this season were too padded,” Serling said after Season 4 wrapped. “The bulk of our stories lacked the excitement and punch of the shorter dramas we intended when we started five years ago and kept to for a while.” As we’ve seen, it’s debatable that this was his intention, but his take on the hour-long experiment is valid.

Twilight Zone in the half-hour form is quite simply plot stories with kicker endings,” Serling told a reporter. “You just can’t do an hour show with a kicker ending.”

That the Twilight Zone had to learn that through trial and error may be the most Zone-like ending of all. Be careful what you wish for!

“On Thursday We Leave for Home”

***

Several of the quotes in this post come from “The Twilight Zone: Unlocking the Door to a Television Classic” by Martin Grams Jr., an excellent resource.

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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 02/28/2022, in Twilight Zone and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 16 Comments.

  1. GREAT take on the hour-longs, Paul, detailing their good points and (mostly) bad points. I, for one, only consider 2 of them–“Thursday” & “Death-Ship”–to be worthy of the one-hour length, with you expressing in detail why both episodes deserve it. The other 16 i find unwatchable, totally padded to fit the hour. But then, i think ALL of The Outer Limits’ episodes were padded, too–as were all the Alfred Hitchcocks! There’s something about these related genres that work best in the half-or form, as you so acutely pointed them out.

    • Thanks, Arlen! You’re right — the fact that The Outer Limits and Alfred Hitchcock also experienced bloat strongly suggests this sort of show simply wasn’t suited to a longer time slot. I think it was providential, quite frankly, that CBS would only give Serling the half-hour slot. It’s fair to ask if TZ would have taken off if he’d had an hour to play with from the start. Instead, he was forced to turn out shorter (and therefore more potent) stories. This may explain why Serling had so much trouble with movie scripts and other long-form fiction — his talents were simply too well-suited to something shorter and punchier (though his book “The Season to Be Wary” is excellent). Sometimes limits are helpful, even when we don’t realize it at the time.

  2. Howard Manheimer

    For me, the only 4th season episode I could do without is “He’s Alive”, the voice guiding him to be hateful sounded exactly like Hitler. Not a surprise to me, “Death’s Head Revisited” was a much better storyline, regardless of the episode length. I get twice the entertainment in most fourth season excursions. Some episodes don’t need to be seen lots of times, like “Four O’Clock”, but most are endlessly rewatchable. TZ FOREVER!!

    • I agree that, as TZ episodes that center on Nazis go, “Deaths-Head” definitely trumps “He’s Alive.” It’s much more imaginatively written, acted, and directed.

      And yes, I’m sure no one was surprised when, partway through “He’s Alive,” Hitler’s identity is confirmed. But I’m not sure that was the point. As you may recall from my Twitter page, the episode began as an idea for a feature film that Serling later turned into a TZ. I think the point was to warn people that, yes, Hitler the MAN was defeated rather decisively in 1945, but Hitler the IDEA lives on — and we must be on our guard against it.

      Right there with you on TZ’s rewatchability!

  3. I always preferred the half hour shows and was amazed that he could put out rich characters, and complete stories that really made you stop and think or scare me to death in less than 30 minutes!

    • Same here, Deborah. The ability to sketch such memorable plots and characters in such a short amount of time is a rare gift. No wonder we’re still marveling over these wonderful episodes so many years later!

  4. It took me a long time to appreciate the hour long episodes. Some are among my favorites, but if I had to choose, I’d go with the crisp half hour versions. Of course, today you’d need the hour slot to pack in the commercials.

    • Good point, Dan. I don’t think the hour-longs grab us like many of the half-hours do. Ironically, I think that’s because the writers knew their time was short, forcing them to be more economical and hard-hitting with their portrayals.

      Yes, as I’ve tried to point out here, the extra time COULD yield some good things, and I can enjoy Season 4 on its own terms. We do get some rewards if we give it a chance. But on balance, TZ was much more effective when it was shorter.

  5. I wonder? Do you think that because Mr Seling preferred half-hour episodes to hour-long episodes, he preferred reading short stories to novels? Just like me. But I wonder if that was true?

    • Interesting question. I can’t state categorically that he preferred short stories to novels; his library was full of both. But considering what he choose to adapt over the years, and the original works he came up with, it certainly seems he preferred shorter works.

  6. Those half-hour dramas of TVs B&W era could do fine things with smart writers such Sterling and the others on TZ. I’ve likened how they work to lyric poetry, or sonnets: time for one turn in the plot and maybe a concluding couplet.

    I use plot here loosely, because — as in some great lyric poems, plot isn’t clear or asked to contribute much — rather you are presented with an evocative situation, some responses to that situation, and a novel realization about the situation. And that’s it.

    Longer form more often needs plot to make sense, and to carry continual development in which an evocative situation is only a scene in the plots march.

  7. “Thursday” and “In His Image” rank among my own favorite hour long episodes, but overall the series was better suited for the half hour format. Most anthology shows are, IMO.

  8. I have a confession … I still haven’t watched all the season 4 hour-long episodes! It’s like my brain says, nooo, that’s too long for a TZ episode. Can’t compute. I will eventually. I love my BluRay set, but I get so caught up listening to the fantastic commentary and special features after each 1/2hr. episode I only get through 2 episodes tops at a time!

    I discovered something cool! (From the comments section and I had to confirm) – Jordan Peele just made a new Sci-Fi movie called “NOPE.” In the trailer, the girl is dancing in her ranch house and suddenly the power/music shuts down. The sound effect used is near exact to the Jukebox shutting down in the TZ ep. Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?

    NOPE Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zs1HA1rBdGI

    TZ: (at the moment of shutdown) – https://youtu.be/mEOh3mdftEw?t=88

  9. “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance”…and to this, I would add, for the Twilight Zone, “…a time to reckon”….

    • Yes indeed. Perhaps TZ’s time as an hour-long show can best be viewed as a chance for fans to really appreciate the wonder of those half-hour episodes. :)

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