Blog Archives

Where WAS Everybody? In Binghamton, NY, for “Serling Fest 2019”

“Serling Fest” could really be held anywhere, couldn’t it? After all, you can find fans of Rod Serling’s work all over the globe. But celebrating the 60th anniversary of The Twilight Zone in his hometown of Binghamton, New York, on October 4-6, 2019, felt particularly appropriate.

All writers put pieces of themselves in their work, but Serling seemed to include more autobiographical touches than most. And his idyllic, pre-World War II childhood in this city near the northern border of Pennsylvania did much to shape his outlook.

When Gart Williams in “A Stop at Willoughby” feels himself inexorably drawn to a town “where a man can slow down to a walk and live his life full measure,” it’s easy to imagine him thinking of the Binghamton of the 1930s and ‘40s.

The Binghamton of 2019 hasn’t fully recovered from the post-war manufacturing cuts that contributed to its economic decline, but many parts of it retain a certain bigger-than-a-small-city-but-not-quite-a-BIG-city charm. And because so much of its DNA can be found in Rod’s scripts, it was an ideal place to gather with other fans and toast his work. Read the rest of this entry

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Preparing for “Serling Fest 2019” as The Twilight Zone Turns 60

Well, let’s enjoy a slice of virtual birthday cake today! Everyone’s favorite passport to the fifth dimension is turning 60.

“The Shelter”

Yes, on October 2, 1959, at 10:00 p.m., CBS aired “Where is Everybody?” It wasn’t an immediate hit, no, but it soon developed a devoted fan base. And once TZ hit syndication a few years later, the answer to that episode’s title was “in front of their television sets, of course”.

It’s hard to believe six decades have elapsed since it premiered. Sure, fashions have changed, cars don’t have fins on them anymore, and special effects have grown by leaps and bounds. But when it comes to the stories themselves, The Twilight Zone feels as fresh today as it did then.

Maybe even more so. Its themes — the pull of nostalgia, the fear of the unknown, the evils of racism, the allure of conformity, among others — seem timeless.

“The Monsters are Due on Maple Street”

If anything, it’s more relevant now than it was then. It’s easy to imagine that Rod Serling and his fellow TZ scribes DID have the time-travel devices they sometimes wove into their stories. Read the rest of this entry

My “Big Tall Wish” for the 2019 Twilight Zone Reboot

I never did go back and wrap up my thoughts about the latest Twilight Zone reboot, did I?

I wrote a pre-release post explaining why I felt it shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand, as some Zone fans were doing. As a fan of Jordan Peele’s “Get Out”, I kept reassuring fans here and on Twitter. I then reviewed the first four episodes. But that was it.

This wasn’t by design. I anticipated writing more about it. But I have to admit, despite the obvious care that’s gone into it, and the talent both in front of and behind the camera, my interest began to waver about halfway through the 10-episode first season.

Mind you, I had some reservations from the start, despite my initial enthusiasm for the project. For example, the length of the episodes, averaging about 45 minutes or more, didn’t help.

There’s a reason the original TZ spent only one shortened fourth season airing hour-long episodes: Although you can certainly tell some good stories over a longer time slot, it’s almost impossible to maintain the snap that graces the classic episodes we all know and love.

The original TZ pulled you in quickly and built its universe at a brisk pace, setting up those famous twist endings. The new TZ, yes, gave us a few surprises along the way, but we didn’t have many what-the-hell moments just before the credits rolled.

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Twilight Zone’s “Little Girl Lost” and the Art of Creating Another Dimension

Imagine you’re writing Twilight Zone‘s “Little Girl Lost”, and you get to the part where the father literally stumbles into that alternate dimension where his daughter is trapped. How would you describe it?

Sure, you could spell out what you’re imagining in detail. Nothing wrong with that. Or you could trust the Zone production crew and do what Richard Matheson did: His script at that point simply says: “INTERIOR: LIMBO.”

In “The Twilight Zone: Unlocking the Door to a Television Classic”, author Martin Grams relates how TZ’s art director approached producer Buck Houghton, pointed out those two words, and asked, “What’s that supposed to be, Buck?” Houghton’s reply: “That’s up to you.”

His faith was certainly not misplaced. Added Houghton:

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The Twilight Zone Episode That Never Was: A Serious Look at a Humorless World

Have you ever watched a Twilight Zone, then thought about how it’s even more relevant today than when it first aired?

If so, you’re not alone. Many fans feel that episodes ranging from “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street” to “Number 12 Looks Just Like You” offer more insight into our own time than they did into the early 1960s. We joke about the writers having Mystic Seers and time machines, but what they really had was a deep understanding of human nature — which, of course, never changes, no matter what the era.

But every now and then, you encounter an episode that seems eerily prescient. Case in point: Charles Beaumont’s “Gentlemen, Be Seated.”

Doesn’t sound familiar? I’m not surprised. It was commissioned and written, but never filmed (though it was later made into a TZ radio drama). When producer Bert Granet took another job shortly after Season 5 began, he left behind several assignments, including this Beaumont script. The next producer, unfortunately, didn’t care for “Gentlemen, Be Seated,” so he passed on it.

Which is a shame, really. I read it recently, and believe me, the feeling of déjà vu was particularly strong. Check out the radio summary, and I think you’ll see why: “In the future, humor is outlawed, so James Kinkaid joins a secret underground organization, the Society for the Preservation of Laughter, which exists to keep comedy and satire alive.” Read the rest of this entry

This Twilight Zone Actress Said She “Never Forgot” Serling’s High Praise

I often focus on the writing behind The Twilight Zone, and for a good reason: It’s the blueprint, the spine … in many ways the heart and soul of stories that resonate deeply with so many of us.

But a script can’t come alive without directors, actors and other crew members ⁠— and Serling attracted the best. I’ve highlighted some of TZ’s directors and big stars, but today I’d like to feature a lesser-known actress, one who took a single scene in the Season 1 favorite “The Four of Us Are Dying” and really made it her own.

The story concerns a man named Arch Hammer with a unique talent: he can change his face to look like anyone else. All he has to do is concentrate for a few seconds on how that person looks, and voila, he’s transformed into an exact duplicate.

This being the fifth dimension, Hammer has decided to use this skill for personal gain, no matter who else gets hurt. Part one of his scheme is turning himself into a dead ringer of a dead musician: Johnny Foster. That way he can reconnect with Johnny’s grieving girlfriend and make plans to run away with her after he has (unbeknownst to her) impersonated a slain gangster and stolen a lot of money. Read the rest of this entry

Black and White Vs. Color: Creating that “Twilight Zone Feeling”

Almost as soon as Jordan Peele’s Twilight Zone reboot was announced, some fans began asking, “Do you think they’ll film it in black and white?”

I didn’t blame them for wondering, though it seemed like a very remote possibility. Sure enough, the series debuted in color. And yet, as the first season of the reboot draws to a close, what do we have? All 10 episodes also available to watch in B&W.

“Nightmare at 30,000 Feet”

It’s a cool little gift to the show’s fans, no question. And it reminded me how lucky we are that the original series was filmed that way.

That’s right — lucky. The fact that the original Twilight Zone is in black and white wasn’t part of some master plan. In 1959, all TV shows were in B&W.

TZ stands out today, of course, in large part because its reruns look so different from the color shows around it. But back then, being a black-and-white show was commonplace. I’m sure that if color had been the standard when TZ first aired, it would have been in color, too. Read the rest of this entry

Catching “The Fever”: Where Serling Got The Idea

So many memorable stories begin in a writer’s mind with a simple question: “What if … ?”

Ideas can come from anywhere — something you read, something you hear, or something you experience. The difference between the writer and the rest of us is pushing beyond the moment and asking that crucial question.

Richard Matheson, for example, did it with “Little Girl Lost” when his young daughter rolled out of bed in the middle of the night. And Rod Serling did it with “The Fever”. (Spoilers ahead, naturally.)

Twilight Zone fans often call Earl Hamner’s “Stopover in a Quiet Town” the ultimate ad against drunken driving. Well, “The Fever” does the same thing for unchecked gambling.

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Hitching a Ride with the New TZ’s “A Traveler”: Is the Truth Out There?

If you’ve seen “A Traveler”, the fourth episode of the new Twilight Zone series on CBS All-Access, there’s a good chance your head was spinning a bit while it was on.

Even fans who liked this episode seemed at least a bit confused by the story. But as I explained in a podcast with Tom Elliot, that appears to be the point. The episode (written, tellingly enough, by X-Files scribe Glenn Morgan) plays quite freely with the whole idea of what’s true and what’s not — and whether, in the end, it even matters.

“You believe what you want to believe”, the title character says at one point. “Isn’t that what Christmas is all about?” The main gifts here aren’t packages that come wrapped with bows, but claims that, depending on your state of mind, are either acceptable or not.

If you’re interested in delving into the episode a bit more, check out the podcast. It’s a bit long (Tom was too gracious a host to cut me off mid-ramble!), but if you’re trying to figure out what was going on, and why, it might answer some questions for you.

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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.

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