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Mitch Horowitz Headshot

Why Rod Serling Still Matters

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I doubt there's anyone born in the age of television syndication who doesn't have a haunting, dream-intruding memory of a Twilight Zone episode. We all know them: ventriloquist dummies who talk on their own, gremlins on airplane wings, neighbors who are space aliens or -- worse still -- who accuse us of being aliens. The visuals of The Twilight Zone form a kind of collective generational nightmare.

The remarkable thing about the man who created many of these episodes from 1959 to 1964, Rod Serling, is that the writer-presenter learned his craft not in the visual era but in the age of radio drama. It has been observed that Serling, whose characters routinely launched into long (and often enrapturing) moralistic jeremiads, wrote more for the ear than the eye. And it was Serling's sense of moral outrage -- against conformity, scapegoating, war as a first resort, commercialism above quality -- that brought posterity to his scripts and stories, and that served to marry speculative writing and filmmaking, perhaps permanently, to some kind of ethical position-taking.

Serling's role as a supernatural moralist is on brilliant display in a biography recently -- and thankfully -- rescued from near-oblivion in a reissue by Cornell University Press, Serling: The Rise and Twilight of TV's Last Angry Man by Gordon F. Sander. A historical journalist and cultural writer, Sander deftly depicts Serling's struggle to live by a moral code as television drifted away from serious drama and as the artist himself -- who rose quickly to fame as the enigmatic host of The Twilight Zone -- embraced the financial compromise of serving as a pitchman for products from beer to socks to floor wax. There's no particular sin in that, as Sander notes, but Serling's readiness to place his name and image behind consumer products did chaff with his self-chosen role as a gadfly who swatted back at the hand of ad agencies and number crunchers who wanted television programming catered to their needs. "We're developing a new kind of citizenry," Serling said in 1957, "one that will be very selective about cereals and automobiles, but won't be able to think."

Whatever his internal struggles, Serling's scripts resounded across generations, and not only in his writing for The Twilight Zone. He left a particular mark as the co-writer of the screenplay adaptation of Pierre Boulle's Planet of the Apes -- a movie too-little credited to Serling's genius and an enterprise unfortunately rushed past in Sander's otherwise meticulous account.

Consider the movie's iconic finale (a Serling master stroke), when Taylor the astronaut discovers the ruins of the Statue of Liberty sticking up from the sand, and realizes in horror that the real destructor is man himself. This was, in a sense, Serling's cumulative closing scene of The Twilight Zone, where the writer repeatedly tried to warn us that there really is a monster under the bed, and it's us.

Serling's parabolic lessons colored the tone of other science fiction classics, such as a crop of 1970s sci-fi dystopian vehicles including Logan's Run and Soylent Green where man adopts self-destruction, Serling style, as a sanctioned policy. The civics-in-space monologues delivered by Star Trek's William Shatner (a veteran Twilight Zone player) echo the tonality of Serling's heroes. And even the rebellion against interstellar fascism in Star Wars -- in which good is on the side of the freethinker Leia, the nonconformist Han Solo, and the idealist Luke -- was an indirect leaf from Serling.

Sander's biography not only reminds us of Serling's aims as an artist, but is particularly strong in tracking the rise and fall of the so-called "golden age" of television in the early 1950s, when dramatists such as Gore Vidal and Paddy Chayefsky - and Serling - turned out stirring and socially relevant teleplays. Sander describes the early days of television as a period in which the medium was still somewhat rarified and geared toward selected (and relatively few) TV owners, hence producers and writers could take chances. As audience numbers grew the race for mass appeal - a race to the bottom, as Serling saw it - displaced any ideals or pretensions to quality. While writing in 1992, Sander could have been forecasting the same decline that would overtake cable television in the early twenty-first century, as mass proliferation of cable spelled an end to most quality news, talk, and documentary programs, replaced by the lowest-denominator of reality shows.

Serling died of heart failure at age 50 in 1975 -- before the digital age was even prophesied by early computer programmers. But something in Serling's tone, in his concern over how people are eager to disparage one another without ever looking within, seemed to foresee the crisis of civility in today's online culture, where message boards, comments, and consumer reviews abound with spleen and sarcasm. "In almost everything I've written," Serling said in 1967, "there is a thread of this: man's seemingly palpable need to dislike someone other than himself."

Serling believed that a person should never be wholly comfortable with the age he lives in. Indeed, sometimes I'm moved to post a Serling comment on Twitter, but I can't. His best quotes are too long. I think that's just how the discomforted prophet would have wanted it.