Thought-provoking stories shown just once a year on TV
Wednesday, January 04, 2017 10:27 AM
My wife and I continued a New Year’s tradition this year — a marathon, not of running, but of watching “Twilight Zone” episodes. However, since we have become so familiar with the show’s episodes, which first aired from 1959 to 1964, in recent years we don’t actually watch many of the shows repeated during the annual New Year’s marathon.
However, the annual event always reminds us what is missing from television today. The black and white episodes of science fiction without many special effects may not seem special today, but the show was groundbreaking in many ways nearly 60 years ago and still has a characteristic that is rare even, or especially, now.
The original show struggled to find a large audience during the years it aired. However, it picked up popularity during its original run and the show eventually came into its own, partially through reruns. In 2013, the Writers Guild of America ranked it as the third best-written television series ever and TV Guide ranked it as the fifth greatest show of all time.
The writing — the stories, or moral fables — is what fascinates me. It may be a science fiction show, but the lessons are as old as time. There are always complications, moral quandaries or unexpected situations, but often when people get what they think they want, they are profoundly unhappy with the results.
The show always opens with a narrative from creator Rod Serling: “Witness Mr. Henry Bemis, a charter member in the fraternity of dreamers. A bookish little man whose passion is the printed page, but who is conspired against by a bank president and a wife and a world full of tongue-cluckers and the unrelenting hands of a clock. But in just a moment, Mr. Bemis will enter a world without bank presidents or wives or clocks or anything else. He’ll have a world all to himself... without anyone.”
And they always end with his closing narrative: “The best laid plans of mice and men... and Henry Bemis... the small man in the glasses who wanted nothing but time. Henry Bemis, now just a part of a smashed landscape, just a piece of the rubble, just a fragment of what man has deeded to himself. Mr. Henry Bemis... in the Twilight Zone.”
Many of Serling’s stories included social criticism, but the science fiction masked the messages, making it easier to keep sponsors and escape network censors. In a 1957 essay, he noted that a Martian can “say things that a Republican or Democrat can’t.”
In a 1955 newspaper article, he was quoted as saying that he enjoyed television dramas that dealt “in all the grays that make up character” in an effort to say something meaningful about the human condition.
Serling ended up carrying on that tradition as his moral convictions influenced the tales he brought to life on television, using allegories, science fiction and unusual premises to tell complicated moral and social stories.
Many of the themes attacked prejudice, which Serling called “the singular evil of our time.” Many episodes also challenge conventional thinking.
One memorable episode, “The Eye of the Beholder,” featured a young woman, beautiful by our standards, who is marginalized in a society where “normal” people have pig-like snouts and misshapen mouths — a condition hidden until the episode closes.
The victim is undergoing her final treatment in an attempt to look normal, but the camera only shows her bandaged face and the shadows of nurses and doctors. The doctor wonders why she must be judged on outward beauty, but the nurse warns him not to speak as it is considered treason in this society where the leader, as is later shown on a flat screen television, calls for greater conformity.
Many of the shows had twist endings, where the viewer is jolted with unexpected transpositions and ironic moral lessons.
Several episodes deal with mob mentality. In “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street” suburban residents convince themselves that space aliens, masquerading as human beings, are hiding among them in their quest for world rule. Suspicions first fall on a local eccentric, then a man in the shadows, who is killed by a shotgun blast and revealed to be a scout leader returning from an outing. In the end, Maple Street residents end up turning on each other with terrified residents smashing windows and taking up weapons in a mass riot.
At the close of the episode, Serling narrates: “prejudices can kill, and suspicion can destroy, and a thoughtless frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout all of its own.”
One constant in “The Twilight Zone” is that it always made you think once the twist at the end was revealed and the final narration came to a close.
Today, the technical side of television is much more advanced with gorgeous camera work, sophisticated special effects and complex scenes. However, the stories are usually mindless, with most of them played for laughs, titillation, escapism or staged reality.
Thought-provoking stories that provide a moral lesson, or at least lead to questioning the status quo, are still rare.
In a short promotional clip aimed at potential sponsors of “The Twilight Zone,” Serling insisted, “It’s our thinking that an audience will always sit still and listen and watch a well-told story.”
That’s still true today, at least for some people. However, that audience often has to wait until each New Year’s holiday to watch the finest examples of those well-told stories.
Note: In 1997, the episode “To Serve Man,” about aliens with seemingly altruistic intentions, was ranked 11th on TV Guide’s 100 greatest episodes of all time and “It’s a Good Life” about a 6-year-old who terrorizes a community, was 31st. Serling stated his favorite episodes were “The Invaders,” a show almost devoid of narration about people from “outer space,” and “Time Enough at Last,” in which the opening and ending narration was quoted above.