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Rebooting the Twilight Zone — and Staying on Message

I recently started to write a conventional review of “Replay”, the third episode of the new Twilight Zone on CBS All-Access. But I soon got bogged down in a lengthy synopsis, and it just wasn’t clicking for me.

Besides, if you’re interested enough to read an article about a particular episode, you’ve likely seen that episode. No recap is needed. So let’s try something that, I hope, will work whether you’ve seen “Replay” or not. Let’s talk about … messages.

If there’s one piece of conventional wisdom we’ve all absorbed about The Twilight Zone, it’s this: It was a “message” show. TV censorship was notoriously strict in the late 1950s and early 1960s, so Serling cleverly snuck his viewpoints in via allegory.

Instead of doing a show about, say, Senator Joseph McCarthy — whose investigations into charges of Communist infiltration in the U.S. government helped fuel the notorious “red scare” of the early 1950s — Serling would write “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street”. That way, he could show us the corrosive effect of suspicion and betrayal on ordinary Americans without saying one direct word about politics.

But while there is no question that Serling wove messages into the original TZ, people seem to forget that he didn’t do it all the time. Yes, some episodes had direct, pointed messages — like “He’s Alive” and “Deaths-Head Revisited”. And the Fidel Castro look-alike in “The Mirror” left little doubt he thought the Cuban leader might soon meet a violent end.

Other episodes functioned as modern-day fables. There are indirect messages that can be detected and appreciated if you’re looking for them, but they’re not essential to a “surface” enjoyment of the story. Examples include “People are Alike All Over”, “Eye of the Beholder”, “The Old Man in the Cave”, and “The Obsolete Man”, to name just a few.

Read the rest of this entry

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The New Twilight Zone on CBS All-Access: Not Perfect, But Very A-PEELE-ing

I’m used to writing “spoiler alert” on some of my articles about the original Twilight Zone, but it’s practically a joke. I mean, we’re talking about a series that debuted almost 60 years ago. And yet here I am, reviewing a new TZ, so it actually makes sense to warn people who may not have seen the initial episodes — or who are withholding judgment until they learn more about them.

So let me give you my impressions of “The Comedian” and “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet”. I’ll try to keep them, yes, spoiler-free.

WHAT I LIKE:

First off, this is a really handsome production. That’s not much of a surprise, of course, given the involvement of producer Jordan Peele, but for anyone familiar with the previous two reboots, it’s nice to see. CBS is finally giving TZ the respect it deserves. Gone is the cheap look of the TZ that ran from 1985-1989, and again in 2002. The cinematography and direction are feature-film-worthy.

And as you’ve probably heard, the show seems loaded with Easter eggs. For example, sharp-eyed viewers will spot Willie from “The Dummy” lounging in a scene from “The Comedian”. There are also in-jokes, such as the pilot’s name in “Nightmare”: Captain Donner. The director of the original episode? Richard Donner. (Here’s a spoiler-filled list of every Easter egg, courtesy of TV Guide.) Read the rest of this entry

Serling’s Re-Zoning Efforts: “Execution”

“I was amazed at what Rod had done.” — George Clayton Johnson

If you’re a Twilight Zone fan, you know the work of George Clayton Johnson. He wrote some of TZ’s most beloved episodes, including “A Penny For Your Thoughts”, “Nothing in the Dark”, and “Kick the Can”, which was remade for “Twilight Zone: The Movie”.

But even before he sold his first script to TZ, Johnson was contributing to the series. Rod Serling adapted two of his short stories for the first season: “The Four of Us Are Dying” and “Execution”.

I’ve already outlined how drastically Serling overhauled a story that Johnson called “All of Us Are Dying”. The changes he made for the then-unpublished “Execution” weren’t quite as extensive, but still — he made it uniquely his own.

Spoilers lie just ahead, of course. If you’ve never watched “Execution”, I urge you to check it out before reading the rest of this post. (It’s on disc, of course, as well as streaming on Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime.)

If you have watched it, though, you know it tells the story of Joe Caswell, a criminal who lived in the Wild West. When we meet him, though, he’s not about to do much more living. His neck is in a noose. Read the rest of this entry

Serling’s Clever Formula for Making Political Points on Twilight Zone

Every now and then, I’ll see an argument erupt on one of Facebook’s many Twilight Zone fan pages. Not about which episode is best — though feelings can run strong about that, too — but about politics.

Someone will post a meme about something that’s in the news, and the sparks start flying. Because getting political violates the ground rules for these pages, the admins soon delete it. Some people even end up getting thrown out if they’ve been especially rude.

One thing almost always occurs before the dust settles, though. Most people approve of the no-politics rule, but someone will say something like, “Well, Serling was political!” Or “The Twilight Zone was about politics!”

And you know what? They’re right. But when we look at how Serling handled politics on TZ, we see a window into why he was so clever, and why the show’s popularity endures to this day. Read the rest of this entry

Declare the Upcoming Twilight Zone Reboot “Obsolete”? Not So Fast

We’ve been hearing about the upcoming Twilight Zone reboot for quite a while, and now we have a premiere date: April 1, 2019.

If you’re like most TZ fans, your reaction falls into one of two camps: enthusiasm or dread. I see it almost every time the reboot comes up:  Someone either can’t wait, or is sure it’ll be a complete mess — a stain on Rod Serling’s legacy.

I have to admit, I fall somewhere in between. Basically, I’m cautiously optimistic.

I get the enthusiasm of the “pro” crowd. They’re TZ fans, so it’s only natural that the prospect of new episodes excites them. Who wouldn’t want a return trip to the fifth dimension? I like these kinds of stories myself, obviously, and I enjoy other anthologies, so the thought of having new episodes sounds like fun.

But I also sympathize with the “anti” crowd. Look at the first two reboots, they say. Sure, the ’80s one had some good stories, but by and large, it didn’t measure up — and the 2002 TZ was worse. Why should this one work? And come on, there’s only one Rod Serling!

Look, I understand. The challenge of rebooting one of the most beloved TV series of all time — of filling the shoes of the incredibly talented Mr. Serling — should give any sane person pause. Read the rest of this entry

“Rod Serling: His Life, Work, and Imagination”: A Review

Looking for a book about Rod Serling and The Twilight Zone? Until a few years ago, your options were pretty limited.

Many fans have a dog-eared copy of Marc Zicree’s “The Twilight Zone Companion,” but not simply because it’s a good book: For a long time, it was the only game in town.

But now? Take your pick.

You can read books by experts such as Amy Boyle Johnson (“Unknown Serling: An Episodic History, Vol. 1”), Martin Grams (“Twilight Zone: Unlocking the Door to a Television Classic”), Steven Rubin (“The Twilight Zone Encyclopedia”) and Mark Dawidziak (“Everything I Need to Know I Learned in the Twilight Zone”).

There’s also Anne Serling’s “As I Knew Him: My Dad, Rod Serling”, a heartfelt portrait of everyone’s favorite ambassador to the fifth dimension. There are books about the philosophy of TZ, the music of TZ … the list goes on.

So why would you pick up a new, 584-page book by Nicholas Parisi called “Rod Serling: His Life, Work, and Imagination”? Read the rest of this entry

The Rise of the Machines: A Human-Less Workplace

Headlines are supposed to catch your eye, and this one certainly did: “He’s one of the only humans at work — and he loves it”.

I’m sure any fellow Twilight Zone fan can imagine what episode I immediately thought of. Images of Robby the Robot behind a desk in the closing shot of “The Brain Center at Whipple’s” suddenly filled my mind.

The article in question focused on Zou Rui, an engineer at a factory in Shanghai, China, and one of the humans mentioned in the headline. He works for JD.com, an e-commerce company that is “one of the most automated in the world,” the writer tells us.

“Analysts say it’s a peek at the future of manual work in China and beyond — a place where a chosen few tend to the machines, while most workers have been rendered obsolete.” Um, “obsolete”? Now I’m really getting a TZ vibe. And not in a good way. Read the rest of this entry

Serling’s Re-Zoning Efforts: “It’s a Good Life”

“It’s an adaptation of what has been called one of the most terrifying modern fantasies ever written.” — Rod Serling on “It’s a Good Life”

One key to being a good editor is knowing what to change — and what to leave alone. Change for the sake of change is a rookie mistake.

Rod Serling knew that well. When he bought the rights to a story for use on The Twilight Zone, he did exactly what was necessary to make it work for television. No more, no less.

Sometimes — as with “And When the Sky Was Opened” and “The Four of Us Are Dying” — that meant making some pretty drastic changes. Other times — with, say, “To Serve Man” — he presented the written story a bit more faithfully.

In the case of Jerome Bixby’s “It’s a Good Life”, it was more than a bit. Bixby had already provided a very visual story, so Serling transferred much of what we find on the page to the screen.

But he did make a few interesting changes. Read the rest of this entry

Serling Edit: The Outro to “To Serve Man”

Rod Serling’s scripts were nearly always so smooth, even poetic, that it’s easy to assume they just came out of his head that way. But no. Like any good writer, he edited himself — sometimes quite extensively.

“A Thing About Machines”

I don’t mean he simply cut lines. He would also reword certain passages, often more than once. That way, he wound up with a polished product he could be proud of — one that, we can see with the benefit of hindsight, has a timeless appeal.

Consider his closing introduction to one of the most iconic episodes, “To Serve Man”. The final product goes like this:

The recollections of one Michael Chambers with appropriate flashbacks and soliloquy. Or more simply stated, the evolution of man, the cycle of going from dust to dessert, the metamorphosis from being the ruler of a planet to an ingredient in someone’s soup. It’s tonight’s bill of fare … on the Twilight Zone.

Read the rest of this entry

Serling on Camera: Filming “the Star of the Show”

“Because there was no regular, recurring cast, he was, in essence, the star of the show.” — Billy Mumy on Rod Serling

“The Old Man in the Cave”

Billy has a point. Anthologies differ from other TV series in one important way: Every episode offers us an entirely new story, with a new cast. The only continuity is the quality of the series itself.

The Twilight Zone had that in spades, obviously. But it had something else: Rod Serling, on screen. Hinting at what we’d see in the episode ahead, then returning at the end (at least vocally) to offer some wry comment about what we had witnessed.

I don’t know about you, but his presence is one of my favorite things about the series. “I think it was a major factor in the success of the show,” William Self, the producer of “Where is Everybody?” once said of Serling’s narrations. Read the rest of this entry