The Twilight Zone, 60 Years Later

The show's given us sixty glorious years of clipped voiceovers, twist endings, and twisted social commentary.

the twilight zone

In the late 1950s, a gifted writer had the opportunity to produce and present a weekly anthology series. The TV show’s unique atmosphere has turned it into an American classic, one which won many awards, inspired numerous reboots, and helped shape the whole filmmaking industry. This was The Twilight Zone, a suspense series renowned for its allegorical storylines and unexpected twist conclusions.

Rod Serling, the creator of The Twilight Zone, had a remarkable knack for storytelling. Everything from the scripts to the visuals, everything about the show was guaranteed to unsettle the audience and leave them pondering some of society’s (and humanity’s) deepest problems. Often, it also made TV spectators question their own morals by presenting them with a hypothetical yet alarming status quo, whether in the present or the future.

In The Twilight Zone, the audience is faced with a close-knit group of neighbors: comrades who turn on each other at the slightest suggestion of guilt. We see the pride of man get squashed by the power of a still-greater hominid. We see an unrebuked child, whose parents live in constant fear, use inexplicable powers to malicious ends. We see a man’s drive for perpetual vitality lead him to untimely ruin. We see the simplest of calamities, when unprepared for, destroy those who were not anticipating it. And often, we the audience, like many a protagonist from the anthology series, don’t see the encroaching Fall. These make up but a few of the admirable individual aspects of the show.

The Twilight Zone touched on subjects such as alien invasion, the limits of the human person under tension, the survival of the human race, and even a number of religious themes. Looking back, there are numerous instances where the modern viewer can easily see how the imaginations of Serling and the other scriptwriters were not far from what would become manifested in society a few decades later.

Among the scenarios explored in The Twilight Zone were societal indifference, a lack of charity, federally-inflicted limitations on religious belief, and a government deciding the worth of a person. All of these historic issues have come back to haunt us in the 21st century.

The topics addressed in the show were almost always sobering and carried with them a tone that frequently explored elements of the somber. The Twilight Zone was capable of making people look inwards at themselves and wrestle with who they were as people – a quality not found in the average TV show. In “Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” for example, the audience must initially decipher which of the neighbors might be human and which might be alien invaders. By the climax of the episode, the audience is asking, “Who are the real monsters on Maple Street? The aliens, or the humans?”

The cinematography and editing were often as sensational as the stories’ plots. The crew experimented with elements such as camera angles and the proximity and scale of objects within the frame. There are a number of episodes that include races of giant people as the shock factor at the story’s climax.

For these, the scale of the props and the camera angles had to be staged so as to produce a seamless presentation of a story. The angles had to add something to the storytelling, either by creating an allusion with size and depth of field or by generating an ambiance within a sequence. An excellent use of deliberate camera positioning for an effect of ambiance is the Dutch tilts seen in the episode “The Howling Man.” Here the tilts offer the audience a glimpse of the disorientation perceived by the protagonist.

In post-production, the editors would often make cuts in between pans and tilts. This technique was often used for introducing Rod Serling’s introduction scene. Serling would be off-camera. The camera would abruptly pan over, creating a motion blur. Then the clip of Serling was cut in. While perhaps a bit choppy by today’s standards, it suited their purposes at the time. Evidently, the editing, execution, and effects worked quite well.

The Twilight Zone proved this in 1961 when the show won a Primetime Emmy: Outstanding Achievement in Cinematography for Television.
Made during a time in which other popular mainstream series were employing color, The Twilight Zone refrained from this Hollywood fad. It was artistically intriguing yet genuinely different too. The point was not merely to bedazzle the eye. Instead, it sought to trick the eye and stimulate the conscience.

The show remained completely in black and white during its run from 1959 to 1964. This was an important aspect of the show’s overall tone: in a sense, this leaves something up to the viewer’s imagination. It makes the audience recognize there are some elements to the story that can never be definitively deciphered. Even the makers of the recent reboot of The Twilight Zone, understanding this, produced a monochrome version of the 2019 edition.

This year marks the 60th anniversary of the original anthology series. The show has long been revered and celebrated in numerous ways. The numerous reboots over the years are one of the ways that it has been relived.

Comedian-turned-director Jordan Peele takes Rod Serling’s place as host of the most recent reboot.  Produced by CBS, the series first began to be aired back in April and was comprised of ten episodes. This reboot serves as one of the strictest reboots of the series in the sense that the majority of the plotlines are adapted directly from screenplays of the original series. The content, then, remains just as alarming, unsettling, and inquisitive as it would have appeared to The Twilight Zone viewers in the 1960’s.

Revamped and polished, these reboot episodes serve as retellings of classic stories specifically for the modern audience. While mostly based on the original stories, the episodes of the new series have also added elements and scenarios which were never approached in Serling’s series as they would have been considered taboo.

Peele presents a show wholly geared toward the modern audience. His series remains controversial, as was Serling’s at times. However, Peele’s retellings include specific politically-charged themes and occasional raunchy tensions, whereas Serling’s controversial content revolved around various ideals which called for social improvement.

The 2019 version garnered mixed reviews, most likely due to its subject material. Nonetheless, a second season was confirmed for filming soon after the reboot’s initial release.

Besides reboots, in 1983, we had a big-screen spinoff – Twilight Zone: The Movie. The film itself was a brief anthology with each storyline handled by a different director. (Among its lineup was the highly-talented Steven Spielberg.) The movie made its mark on the cinema landscape, as well as an influence on all the directors’ careers.

The original series has also left its emblem on numerous other areas of pop culture. Lines and scenarios from the more iconic episodes have been parodied in numerous works of pop culture across a range of different media. The episode “To Serve Man” is parodied in a scene from Madagascar when the lemurs start panicking over the contents of a book entitled, “To Serve Lemur.”

There are less subtle references elsewhere, such as in The Simpsons episode “Terror at 5 ½ Feet,” a clear take off of Twilight Zone’s “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.” In the original version, a man confronts a ghoulish gremlin outside his plane window – The Simpsons transplants the gremlin to a school bus.

For the show’s 60th anniversary, The Twilight Zone is being celebrated in an array of works and events. The illustrated comic-book-style novel by Koren Shadmi, Twilight Man: Rod Serling and the Birth of Television, got its release this month, for example. Moreover, some of the iconic episodes of the original series are going to be screened at select cinemas across the country on Nov. 14.

The event is a collaboration between CBS Home Entertainment and Fathom, simply entitled The Twilight Zone: A 60th Anniversary Celebration. More than 600 movie theatres are intended to be participating in the coordinated event. The full episode list includes “Walking Distance,” “Time Enough at Last,” “The Invaders,” “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” “Eye of the Beholder,” and “To Serve Man” – half of which deal with extraterrestrial involvement.

Accompanying this six-episode-fete is an all-new nonfiction short Remembering Rod Serling. It is nearly impossible to have a full appreciation for The Twilight Zone without also understanding the man and the mind behind its conception.

The brilliance of Serling was undoubtedly the driving force behind the mystifying anthology series. He won several awards for his work on the series. The show captivates people to this day. A legacy that outlives its founder is certainly a success.

The Twilight Zone continues to evoke some of the same fears, philosophical musings, and moral churnings that it struck in its audience over half a century ago. It has maintained much of its relevance and potency. In doing so, it continues to satisfy and inspire any modern viewers who might happen to take a wrong turn, and veer off into The Twilight Zone…

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