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.
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.
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.
“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.
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
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.”
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.
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.
“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!
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.
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!
Posted on 02/28/2022, in Twilight Zone and tagged Charles Beaumont, Death Ship, He's Alive, In His Image, On Thursday We Leave for Home, Printer's Devil, Richard Matheson, Rod Serling, Season 4, The New Exhibit, Twilight Zone. Bookmark the permalink. 16 Comments.