Saturday, July 30, 2011

The Future of Nostalgia: Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone

Whenever a film, television show or book captures something genuine and unique it runs a risk. Like most classic art, it carries an unfortunate weight as it becomes ingrained in popular culture –  we parody it to tame its power over us. To do that, we usually dilute it. In attempting to recapture its magic, to hold it dear, we ironically tame what attracted us to it in the first place. Nevertheless its power still remains because the work exists independent of time and our need to possess it. One such example of this paradox is The Twilight Zone. It wasn’t just great television, it was one of the most indelibly imaginative programs created. You couldn't tame its power.

Chances are if you haven’t seen a single episode of the original series (that ran from 1959-1964), you've likely come across some reference to a parody of it over the past fifty years. The Twilight Zone has been referenced in everything from Leave It To Beaver to Seinfeld and The Simpsons. I'm remembering, in particular, an episode of The Simpsons where Bart is the only boy who can see a gremlin on the side of the bus. That episode cleverly parodied a The Twilight Zone thriller originally immortalized by William Shatner in "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet." But homage is a tricky mistress. The Twilight Zone didn't have any recurring characters outside of its creator and host Rod Serling, who acted as the connecting thread. Without any discernible characters then, the show relied on the surprises from their dramatic twists at the end. Serling’s stories essentially focused on real people in extraordinary circumstances. He illustrated men and women who were awarded a second chance to rise up, or fall further into the doldrums of their lives. These stories reached an audience fifty years ago and in spite of the many parodies they haven’t missed a beat since.

Scene from "Walking Distance."
One of the series’ undisputed finest moments comes from an episode entitled “Walking Distance” where an executive decides to take a walk while waiting for his broken down car to be repaired. He can see his hometown in the distance. When he arrives in town he slowly discovers that he’s back in time as well, to when he was a little boy. He tries to tell his younger self to take advantage of his youth to no avail. His brush with nostalgia leaves an emotional and physical scar and he returns to his car with little more than fresh imprints of faded memories. Moments like these are not stuck in time; they’re timeless. Which is why you don't need to be a child of the fifties to get it. Each episode transcends the time that it was created and speaks volumes regardless of its production dates.

While the plots may now be familiar, the way the stories unfold is still unmatched. From week to week, the show presented tales that were uniformly excellent but never shoehorned into a specific genre despite the show being labeled science fiction. Episodes in any particular season danced between science fiction, fantasy, horror, drama and comedy without the quality ever suffering. The Twilight Zone existed in a dreamlike space concerning itself essentially with pasts that never were and futures that never would be. The quality didn’t deteriorate either despite the genre shifts and revolving casts.

Scene from "Deaths-Head Revisited."
The good and the evil inherent in humanity were visible in every episode. Rod Serling never preached despite trafficking in civic morals. A perfect example of that is found in an episode that I am surprised isn’t talked about more often named “Deaths-Head Revisited.” In the episode, a Captain in the SS returns to a concentration camp to fondly reminisce over his time spent putting Jews to their death during the war. The protagonist of the story takes the form of the ghost of one such Jew hoping for vindication. This is not a tale of redemption nor is it really one of revenge. The Captain is clearly evil and beyond saving just as the prisoner was good and also beyond saving. That's great dramatic television and it remains that way. Nothing else compares.

I’m often quick to revisit things I grew up with as a child then wish I had left well enough alone. But there is no sour taste sneaking its way into these elegantly crafted stories even after countless viewings. I’d never seen a single episode of The Twilight Zone before this past year and now it’s among my favorite shows. The Twilight Zone was the most intelligent, thought-provoking, funny, frightening and beautiful television show to grace the idiot box. Considered by many critics to be ahead of its time when it dominated the CBS Network fifty years ago, without a shadow of a doubt, we can now call this classic piece of history what it is: Timeless.

–  Andrew Dupuis is a devoted cinephile and graduate of Brock University's Film Studies program with an extensive background in Canadian and popular cinema. He is currently working on his first book.

1 comment:

  1. Well-put & my exact appraisal of the show as well. A friend recently gave me the complete collection & I've been making my way through it the last couple of months. I've never seen better TV, absolutely riveting & classic & although I've seen so many of the stories recast it doesn't take away from these original productions.