Rod Serling and The Darker Side of “THE TWILIGHT ZONE”Movies/TV,News Ken W. Hanley
If you were going to look at THE TWILIGHT ZONE in terms of music, the perfect metaphor for the series most present voices would be the Beatles. If George Clayton Johnson’s introspective yet objectively lighthearted fare would make him the Ringo Starr of THE TWILIGHT ZONE, that would make Richard Matheson the more spiritually present and emotionally intricate George Harrison. And if Charles Beaumont would be the more polished and excitable Paul McCartney, the essential and darker flip side to that coin would be Rod Serling as John Lennon. And as silly and superficial as that may be, there might be no better way to describe Serling’s unique place on THE TWILIGHT ZONE: a creative genius who could create entertainment with others, but left unchecked, he’ll produce brash, angry art born out of societal frustration.
As the face and voice of THE TWILIGHT ZONE, most people could be forgiven for thinking Rod Serling as anything but THE TWILIGHT ZONE’s darkest force. After all, with a grin, a cigarette and a demeanor to rival the best salesman in the world, Serling looks closer like the atypical nuclear family patriarch than a progenitor of punk poets. But with a platform to tell personal, intimate stories about race, class, culture and humanity under the guise of sci-fi and horror, Serling took the building angst and horror in the wake of the Holocaust (which had happened less than 20 years prior) to deliver some truly haunting, vicious tales.
Although those more familiar with THE TWILIGHT ZONE know of Serling’s reputation as Hollywood’s “angry young man,” less informed fans of the series need only to look at Serling’s track record when it comes to the most psychologically taxing episodes of the anthology series. Whether it be “Deaths-Head Revisited,” “He’s Alive,” “The Monsters are due on Maple Street,” or “The Shelter,” Serling’s episodes paint a near-misanthropic picture of mankind, and in pure Serling fashion, each of those tales either ends with non-physical retribution or a cynical bookmark narration that explains the nature of hate and ignorance as never-ending. Even THE TWILIGHT ZONE’s unofficial pilot, “The Time Element,” is remarkably darker than much of Serling’s relatively safer, first season fare, and would be the anchor to further bleak episodes such as “The Changing of the Guard” or “No Time Like the Past.”
Serling’s darkness is even bolder considering he was one of the very, very few who traded in such subject matter without fear of being labeled a B-product peddler. By perceiving genre to be a safety net, Serling would use astonishing concepts to create a groove of ethical and moral fables but would never hold back when it came time to tell the stories Hollywood was too afraid to tell. In an age where Nazis were nothing more than cannon fodder in idealistic war movies, Serling was more interested in showing them as they deserved to be seen: as monsters, even if it came at the cost of adding the supernatural to drive his point home. And considering how uncomfortable talking about the nasty war crimes of the Nazis can be in this day and age, imagine audiences in 1960 getting these messages delivered right in their living room.
And furthermore, Serling’s excursion into these venomous social critiques highlighted one of the scariest aspects of THE TWILIGHT ZONE; namely, that humans can be scarier than any scientific paradox, demonic temptation or extraterrestrial invader. By doubling down on the inherent sadism of man, most of which had factual basis, Serling’s writing posed a threat that was real, familiar, and likely within your own life, turning your neighbors and your sins into living, breathing devils. And through the innocent and the persecuted in these heavier episodes, Serling attempts to scream basic common sense to his audience where sordid subjects would resonate far after THE TWILIGHT ZONE had gone off the air. Serling was Howard Beale before Chayefsky, except his platform was not the nightly news, but rather theatrical tales of mystery and suspense.
Sadly, Serling would never have a platform quite like THE TWILIGHT ZONE ever again, even if his personal crusade against society’s unspoken transgressions would dominate the focus of his later work. Even with NIGHT GALLERY, Serling’s horror-centric final hurrah in terms of televised anthology storytelling, the writer never quite struck the same uncompromising nerves as THE TWILIGHT ZONE. But at the end of the day, THE TWILIGHT ZONE is a rare piece of classic art that will continue to be relevant to contemporary audiences for years to come, and while stories like “To Serve Man,” “It’s a Good Life,” and “Time Enough at Last” will draw in new viewers, Rod Serling’s more passionate ventures into darkness will rear their ugly head to those same viewers one day or another.