The Twilight Zone

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Thu Sep 19 08:08:41 MDT 2002

 From 1959 to 1964, "The Twilight Zone" appeared weekly on CBS television
in the USA. Hosted and produced by Rod Serling, who also wrote the majority
of the scripts, the show combined elements of science fiction and fantasy
in order to deliver a message about contemporary society. Intrinsic to each
episode was a morality lesson presented by Serling after the end of each
teleplay, which always concluded with an O. Henry surprise ending. Typical
was the tale of a women in a hospital bed whose face was completely wrapped
in bandages. The doctors and nurses, whose faces are never seen until the
climax of the drama, are in a last-ditch effort to make her palatable to
the rest of society through plastic surgery. Born with a monstrous
congenital birth defect, she cannot walk out on the streets without having
people faint in terror or throw stones at her. When the bandages finally
come off, she is revealed to be a stunningly beautiful woman while the
doctors and nurses look like warthogs--to put it charitably. Serling's
comment went something like this: "When a society can dictate who is
beautiful and who is not in such a topsy-turvy fashion, perhaps we need to
dispense with the notion of beauty altogether." For an alienated teenager
like myself, this was an encouraging morality tale. Only a few years later,
African-Americans would draw similar lessons and stop straightening their hair.

Serling also drew upon the talents of Richard Matheson, who has been called
"one of the most important writers of the 20th century" by Ray Bradbury and
"the author who influenced me most as a writer" by Stephen King. The series
featured actors such as Robert Redford,  Robert Duvall, and Dennis Hopper
before their careers took off. It also featured established stars such as
silent-film legend Buster Keaton, Art Carney, Mickey Rooney, Ida Lupino and
John Carradine.

Rod Serling was born in Syracuse, N.Y., on December 25, 1924, and grew up
in Binghamton, the son of a wholesale meat dealer.

After a stint in the army and graduating from Antioch College, Serling went
to work on screenplays for MGM and then as a teleplay writer. "Patterns",
written for the Kraft Television Theater, was an excoriating attack on
sleazy big businessmen. Since the witch-hunt had made Hollywood such a
sterile environment, television became an outlet for blacklistees or
serious liberals like Serling who wanted to tackle important themes. Many
of these tv shows portrayed the nihilism and growing feelings of
disillusionment of the postwar world in the same fashion as "film noir".

Serling's next job was with CBS' Playhouse 90 (so-named for the fact that
it ran for 90 minutes.) Playhouse 90 represented television at its
greatest. It was not only presented live, it tackled important social
questions. Serling's most important work for the show was "Requiem for a
Heavyweight" that was remade as a feature film. When Serling left this show
in order to start "The Twilight Zone", people were surprised and
disappointed. This was short-lived as the show's artistic merits soon
became apparent. After "The Twilight Zone" went off the air, Serling
returned to Antioch College as a professor and lectured at college campuses
across the country. Politically active, Serling spoke out against the
Vietnam War in the late '60s and early '70s.

He died on June 28, 1975, in Rochester, N.Y., of complications arising from
a coronary bypass operation.

Last night a new revival of "The Twilight Zone" appeared on the UPN
network. The last attempt at a revival occurred in 1985-1987 on the CBS
network, about which I lack even a dim memory. Hosted by Forrest Whitaker,
the African-American actor who played Charlie Parker in Clint Eastwood's
"Bird" as well as many other films, the UPN show lasted an hour with two
separate teleplays.

The first episode was titled "Evergreen". It is the story of a family with
two wayward teenaged daughters. The elder is a particular problem in her
parents' eyes, with her tattoos and spiked hair. When mom and dad can't
take it any longer, they move into a gated community that is very strict
about children keeping to the straight and narrow. When the older daughter
wakes up after her first night there, she learns that her tattoos have been
removed while she was under a drug-induced sleep. When a teenaged boy, who
has set up with a tryst with her to smoke pot, is discovered after curfew,
he is zapped into unconsciousness by a roving swat team and taken off to
some undisclosed location. When she is finally caught in some misdeed
herself, we discover the fate that befell both of them. They are turned
into fertilizer that is used to nourish an evergreen tree on their parents'
finely manicured front lawn.

The second episode starred Jason Alexander (George Constanza from the
Seinfeld show) as Death, who has ended up in a hospital emergency room
after trying--unsuccessfully--to take his own life. It appears that he has
become depressed by his morbid existence. If he picks up a rose, it
shrivels and dies immediately in his hands. Although he does not succeed in
ending his own existence, he manages to go on strike, refusing to transport
people or any other living thing into the Other Realm. When the young
doctor who attended to him after his suicide attempt is shocked to see that
suffering patients in his emergency ward cannot be relieved from their
pain, he persuades Death to go back to work. Only one problem. The young
doctor is in the Book of Death and he accompanies Jason Alexander into the
Other Realm in the final scene.

Definitely worth watching for US citizens and any other country which has
the mixed blessing of receiving US television fare.

Louis Proyect

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