Saturday, March 01, 2014

The Twilight Zone

Recently I realized that I don't watch enough programming to justify having subscriptions to both HuluPlus and Netflix. For as little time and attention span as I have for watching entertainment on a screen, it made no sense for me to pay for both, even though they have quite different offerings. What determined my decision was how much of the original, classic Twilight Zone series each service could offer me. Netflix carries four seasons. HuluPlus has all five.

I'm surprised and dismayed by the number of people to whom I mention "The Twilight Zone" who think I'm talking about Bella and what's-his-name. There is also a decreasing number of people who hear the name "The Twilight Zone" and think of the original series that broadcast on CBS from 1959 to 1964. That's understandable because there were a few iterations of The Twilight Zone based on the original series and people born after 1980 often know those better. One was the 1983 movie. Another was the 1980's TV series, and the last was a much shorter-lived TV series that aired from 2002-2003. They were all named The Twilight Zone, but I'm writing about the classic 1960s show.

I find episodes of The Twilight Zone comforting. The opening sequence is much creepier than the stories usually are and the series as a whole is incorrectly thought of as scary. In spite of the eerie "doo-doo-doo-doo" music, only a fraction of the episodes count as horror. The rest are characterized by an atmosphere of unease, confusion and "what the heck is going on?" The supernatural plots can be mysterious or sentimental and they're often moralistic, with the bad guys getting punished in the end. Some are comical to the point of fatuousness, and there are even a few episodes that bore me. They're the ones with characters that don't engage me, special effects that just don't work and plotlines that don't say much.

I have The Twilight Zone on my mind because I've been watching all the episodes in sequence for months now (Hulu.com has every one). It's startling to see stars before they were big: the Twilight Zone was one of the weekly anthology series that served as springboards for the careers of people such as Veronica Cartwright, Burt Reynolds, Elizabeth Montgomery, Cloris Leachman, Julie Newmar, Ron Howard, Telly Savalas and Robert Duvall to name just a few. I had no idea Carol Burnett had cut her comedy teeth in one of the humorous Twilight Zone episodes or that Robert Redford must have been at the very beginning of his career when he portrayed Death in an episode with then internationally-known actress Gladys Cooper. William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy and George Takei appeared in different episodes and I was completely startled to see that Ann Jillian played a 13-year-old in one story.

Several actors appeared in a few episodes over the years. The Twilight Zone was kind of like Law & Order that way: it re-used its guest stars as different characters. Shatner did a couple of scripts and so did Anne Francis. But the actor who impresses me the most is Jack Klugman who did three episodes in all. He's fine playing an alcoholic musician and then a cocky pool player, but I wonder if he was up for any awards for his performance as a heartsick father who bargains with God to save the life of his son who's dying in Vietnam. No, Rod Serling didn't shy away from politics, although he often used allegories to shroud what he was saying about xenophobia or the Cold War. But in "Praise for Pip" Vietnam is not only named and represented, but Klugman's character even says this of it: "There's not even supposed to be a war there." Edgy stuff.

Rod Serling actually refers to the real world "by name" in just a few of episodes, like that one. The only sitting president whose name was ever mentioned in a Twilight Zone episode was John Kennedy. There are also episodes about Nazis and/or concentration camps that take place in the "present time" (the early 1960s) and show supernatural payback for former war criminals and those who follow them. For all of its bizarre premises and plot twists, The Twilight Zone was really a very moralistic show, with people often being punished just as they deserve.

If you have any curiosity about how white people spoke, dressed and lived their daily lives in the early 1960s, take a look at Serling's original The Twilight Zone. It's fun to see how rich people were represented (with sparkling new tweed furniture) and the conditions in which rural people were shown to live. For the most part Serling presents an all-white universe with very few people of color, even in bit parts. George Takei and other Japanese actors show up in stories about World War II, and there's one episode that takes place in Mexico that seems to have used a few actual Mexican actors. And that's about it. I've watched almost all the episodes and the only African American part was played by a white actor in blackface in a horribly racist episode about cursed African artifacts. What the hell, Rod Serling?

I like to think The Twilight Zone is an important part of American cultural history. The episodes reveal a lot about what people were focused on when it first aired, and many of those things are still our focus. Or maybe I'm just a Twilight Zone geek. I don't personally know any other Twilight Zone geeks, but I suspect we all think the series was much bigger than regular people think. If you've never considered it, check it out on Hulu or Netflix. Start with the very first episode of the first season "Where Is Everybody?" It's only 25 minutes long, so why not? It sets the tone for being not scary but intriguing and odd enough that it keeps you watching just to see how the heck the story could possibly turn out.

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