As the holiday season comes to a close, once again millions of Americans conclude an annual ritual that brings us all together in appreciating sheer brilliance, watching the Twilight Zone marathon. The creative brainchild behind one of the most enduring and well-written shows on television is none other than Rod Serling.
Born Rodman E. “Rod” Serling, this talented early television pioneer was also a screenwriter, playwright, television producer, and narrator best known for his live television dramas of the 1950s and his science fiction anthology TV series, The Twilight Zone. He was also active in politics, both on and off the screen, and helped form television industry standards. Known as the “angry young man” of Hollywood, Serling frequently clashed with television executives and sponsors over a wide range of issues including censorship, racism, and war.
Serling submitted a script, entitled The Time Element to CBS, intending it to be a pilot for his new weekly show, The Twilight Zone. Instead, CBS used the science fiction script for a new show produced by Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball, The Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse, in 1958. The story concerns a man who has vivid nightmares of the attack on Pearl Harbor. The man goes to a psychiatrist and, after the session, the twist ending (a device which Serling became known for using) reveals the “patient” had died at Pearl Harbor, and the psychiatrist was the one actually having the vivid dreams. The episode received so much positive fan response that CBS agreed to let Serling go ahead with his pilot for The Twilight Zone.
Drawing on his own experiences for many episodes, Serling frequently wrote about boxing, military life, and airplane pilots. The Twilight Zone incorporated his liberal social views on racial relations, somewhat veiled in the science fiction and fantasy elements of the shows. Occasionally, the point was quite blunt, such as in the episode “I Am the Night — Color Me Black,” in which racism and hatred causes a dark cloud to form in the American South, before spreading across the world. He also held liberal views on gender roles, and many Twilight Zone stories featured quick-thinking, resilient women as well as shrewish, nagging wives.
The Twilight Zone aired for five seasons (the first three presented half-hour episodes, the fourth hour-long episodes and the fifth returned to the half-hour format), winning many TV and drama awards, and drew much critical acclaim for Serling and his co-workers. Though it had a loyal fanbase, The Twilight Zone drew only moderate ratings and was twice canceled and revived. After five years and 156 episodes (92 written by himself), Serling grew weary of the series. In 1964, he decided to not oppose its third and final cancellation.
Inexplicably, Serling sold the rights to the show to CBS. His wife later claimed he did this partly because he believed his own studio would never recoup the production costs of the programs, which frequently went over budget. Sadly, that would not be the case as Serling and his heirs lost millions in the sale of the show.
Serling was a heavy smoker for years and was often angry and stressed most of his life. After two minor heart attacks, Serling died two days after undergoing open heart surgery. He was only 50. While his life was short, his impact on television continues to live on. Today, The Twilight Zone has achieved both cult and iconic status for establishing the bar for quality television ahd the ability to use the medium to not only entertain but support a political agenda.
Below, check out our Ten Favorite Twilight Zone episodes:
The Howling Man
To Serve Man
I Am the Night – Color Me Black
A Game of Pool
The Night of the Meek
Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up
Time Enough At Last
The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street