The Twilight Zone’s Opening Volley (Patreon Bonus)

I just watched the first 8 episodes of The Twilight Zone and I got inspired by them, so I thought I’d write about them to get them out of my system to see if reading my thoughts on them and potentially thoughts about the other random media works I happen to experience in the future might be an enticing bonus for potential Patrons… I think I went a bit overboard with the ~7500 words here, but they virtually all came pouring out of me in one torrent overnight and that’s less than 1000 words an episode. I think I was kinda giving myself a fun breather, that Eastern Front article honestly took a lot out of me. The full text can be found here.

Nowadays when you hear “the golden age of television” you’re most likely to think of the cadre of prestige dramas following The Sopranos [1999-2008], but to this day Wikipedia is insistent that actually television’s golden age was the 40s to the 50s. (Either way, rather exactly bracketing the time period during which television was actually most popular.) What makes both of these eras “golden” seems to be primarily the adult dramas in both cases, with innovations in scripted sitcoms a distant second, and everything else being widely generally considered disposable dross. 

The dramas of this first “golden age” (from here on out imagine your own skeptical quotation marks) were indebted to theater, seeing it as its brethren in cheap but popular but impactful impermanence, and drawing from theatrical creatives in American TV’s early bases in New York City: playwrights and acclaimed Broadway actors getting big sweaty noir-lit close-ups in long takes in brand-new stories every week all season. This scene produced realistic and emotionally-intense works, and many of its flagships went on to be made into movies with basically no changes, like the first Palme D’or winner Marty [1955], 12 Angry Men [1954], or Rod Serling’s smash hit Patterns [1955/56], probably the first thing to ever be rerun (they simply acted it out all over again!) Owing in part to time and in part to preservation and in part to popularity, most of this first golden age is now largely forgotten. 

Except for The Twilight Zone [1959-1964]. The Twilight Zone, coming in at the tail end if not past the end of this era of theatrical adult drama, succeeding into the zanier 1960s, and remaining acclaimed and recirculating to this very day, stands as the only remnant of this tradition still left in pop culture, with the arguable exception of the aforementioned 12 Angry Men which has ascended to being liberal American myth and which nobody thinks of as television. It was unique then, but it seems even more unique now, with a sensibility not familiar from any other television show that a non-obsessive might recognize.

Of course, The Twilight Zone was deeply self-conscious of its historical position at this exact threshold. The old ways that had nurtured and rewarded Rod Serling so well were obviously dying or dead by 1959. Times were changing. The House Unamerican Activities Committee was making socially conscious and critical mass media seem like an actively unsafe line of business to be in, and the medium of television was getting hit from many angles with waves of criticism as being at-best goofy and asinine in the wake of the 1958 Quiz Show scandal, criticism it would live down to for most of the 1960s with a glut of childish, wacky, and disreputable shows.

So Rod Serling looked around and threaded the needle into a bullseye. You want wacky and disreputable? Fine, how about science fiction, then? Sure, kids can watch too, they might not get all they can out of it, but because it’s usually also going to be horror, they can still get spooked, and its headiness will only make it more mesmerizing to them. And to paraphrase Serling, nobody will think it’s social commentary if it’s dressed up in spaceships. He wrote the first eight episodes himself. He had to be responsible for putting this gambit in motion. Having just finished watching them, I believe these 8 to be very much a unit, arranged in their particular order to significant artistic effect, even if owing to the vagaries of broadcast television that order may or may not have been deliberate. Though an anthology of unrelated stories, they build on one another and often follow up the concerns of the immediately previous episode, to outline and pitch The Twilight Zone to a public that doesn’t yet know what it is.

Breakdowns of episodes 1 (“Where Is Everybody?”) through 8 (“Time Enough At Last”) pick up from here over on Patreon.

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