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The Shadow Box (Part 7)

What was so ineffably cool about the Twilight Zone was: most of the time, it was regular people moving around in the regular, recognizable world—a very 1950s world, mostly—going about their regular business, when a crack, a fissure, a ripple in reality opens up like a seismic fault under peaceful grazing land. Time slips off its predictable track, the laws of physics shift and roll over, perspectives are turned inside out, the familiar becomes alien. Old-time fairy tales and legends are full of this stuff, of course—magic swords, speaking rocks, enchanted pools, love potions, ghosts. What Rod did was to place it all in the “modern” world—our world, not some distant world of the past. Mundane, everyday objects—radios, cars, dollhouses—become charged with potent strangeness. It’s all wonderfully sly and thought-provoking: A toy phone rings and your dead grandmother is on the line. A woman returns a gift to a department store, only to find that the clerk is a mannequin, takes a snooze, wakes up, and she’s a mannequin, too! An ordinary box camera (say it the way Rod would have: “An ordinary box camera….”) takes pictures that predict the near future. Naturally, it’s misused by greedy people. The moral lessons were nicely mixed with mind-broadening invitations to step through, and savor, the rift between so-called solid empirical reality and the strange, fluid, shimmering, ever-shifting world of our own dreaming minds. That was the wildly successful formula that was the Twilight Zone. 

What made TZ different from standard science fiction—which often carried a social message, too—was that the technical details were not what was important. We didn’t need to know how an “ordinary” (Rod loved that word) bottle lying on the street became an enchanted lamp with a genie in it, or how a ventriloquist’s dummy came to life and terrorized its master. We don’t know, and don’t want to know, how a camera takes pictures of the future, how a stopwatch freezes time (and is used to pull off a bank robbery, but the robber drops the watch, breaks it, and finds himself trapped in a world of stillness where his pile of purloined money is worthless), or how Talky Tina, a true “living doll,” came to start giving advice to her mistress (and causes the girl’s bad daddy to trip over the doll on the stairs and plunge to his death). A few strokes of the brush are all we need. These objects and their mysterious properties just “are.” That’s what defines a fable. And that’s the way we like it.

Between cautionary tales and trips into other dimensions, Rod entertained us, expanded our minds and deepened our awareness of human foibles all at once. Who could ever forget “Eye of the Beholder,” the classic episode where a woman has undergone plastic surgery to correct what must have been a hideous facial deformity? Her head is swathed in bandages, and we only hear the voices of the doctors and nurses around her. There’s unbearable suspense as the bandages are unwound, revealing….a lovely, normal face. But the doctors and nurses squeal with disgust. Then we see their faces for the first time, and they look like a cross between Quasimodo and Porky Pig. “There’s no change!” one of the docs says through his distorted gash of a mouth. 

Or “The Shelter,” wherein a guy, the owner of the only fallout shelter in town, is mobbed by his neighbors trying to get in when they think nuclear war has started. After he kills a bunch of them and drives off the rest, it turns out that it was a false alarm, just orbiting satellites. Or “Time Enough At Last,” the story of a bookworm bank teller who just wants to be left alone to read, who falls asleep in the bank’s safe while he’s in there with a book, survives a nuclear war, is thrilled to be alone at last so he can just read—but he breaks his glasses!! Or “The Gift,” where an alien comes to earth, is killed by fearful mobs, but it turns out he was going to give humanity the cure for cancer! And of course, “The Rip Van Winkle Caper,” a tale of four thieves who steal a million bucks, hide in a Death Valley cave in a state of suspended animation for 100 years, wake up, then die by accident, thirst and greed before they ever find out that gold is worthless in the future! And the German U-Boat captain in “Judgment Night,” who finds himself mysteriously aboard a passenger liner that he sank during the war, doomed to spend eternity on the ship among the innocent lives he snuffed. 

One of the most vivid and memorable TZ episodes was “The Lonely.” A man serving a life sentence on a prison asteroid is given a perfect, lifelike female robot for companionship. She’s like a real woman in every way, seems to possess full sentience. They fall in love. Then one day, a rocket lands, a search party finds the man and his robot girlfriend, and he’s told that he’s pardoned, that he can come back to earth with them. But….there’s only room for him. The robot’s gotta stay behind. He agonizes, begs, pleads. One of the search party guys solves the problem for him by shooting the robot in the face. Instead of blood and bone, we see wires and transistors, and hear her voice calling his name: “Cory! Cory!” And as she “dies,” her voice slows down and mechanically distorts, still saying his name: “Corrreeeee…” 

There were alcoholic Santas in the Twilight Zone, and ambitious, self-defeating jockeys who wished to be ten feet tall, people in a circular room who were actually discarded dolls in a charity bin. There were soldiers, hit men, washed-out gunfighters, fading movie stars, suicides, businessmen who got on trains in the present and got off in the past, astronauts who returned to an empty earth, radios that only played old programs. Rod drew inspiration from the existential likes of Cheever, Camus, Kafka, Goethe, Nabokov and Sartre, “translated” them into popular form, brought them to us through the wonderfully democratic and accessible medium of television. And above all, he made it fun. Like in “The Bard,” where a talentless writer uses a book of witchcraft to summon William Shakespeare. Why? Well, to help him succeed in the world of TV writing, of course!

Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone, born at the end of the 50s, was truly a product of that incredibly complex era. Post-war commie-fear, conformity and nuclear hysteria were the visible surface layer of a powerfully potent time of social transition. Brewing just beneath that surface, getting ready to bust out, as things always do if enough pressure is applied, were civil rights, rock ‘n’ roll, Lenny Bruce, free love, mad creativity—in short, revolution. Rod was in the vanguard of that revolution, holding the door open in a sly, gentlemanly way, inviting us to take a scenic detour around the perimeters of normal life, a detour that would take us on  a direct route through…..the Twilight Zone. It inspired us, freed our imaginations, and taught us many things—not the least of which was this: Question reality.

Some people are snobby about television. They espouse blindly and with smug self-satisfaction the parochial doctrine that the “boob tube” can only, by definition, dispense trash, that the medium of television itself, through some insidious hypnotic combination of light waves, x-rays, vibrations and radiation, renders worthless absolutely anything it beams into the human brain, even the works of Aristophanes, and that the only effect it can have is passivity and stultification of the creative urge. But we who know better can feel magnanimously superior to those people and sorry for them and everything they’re missing out on. Saying TV is intrinsically no good is like reading a Harlequin Romance and then declaring that books are no good. Balderdash, baloney, and malarkey. I’m a better, smarter person because of some of the stuff I saw on TV when I was a kid. 

Sometimes I look at old photographs from the 1800s, of people in frontier towns or in front of their sod houses on the prairie, in their grubby, itchy clothes, their hair plastered down on their heads, and I see a kind of craziness around their eyes, the quietly desperate look people acquire when they can never take a hot bath and from hearing nothing but the howling wind and their own voices.

 And I think: Those poor fuckers. They needed television.


  1. RJ May 28, 2023

    Wow! So well written. I grew up in the 50’s and recently bought the entire TZ run on DVD. Was overwhelmed by the post-Nazi and nuclear menace vibe that resonated through many episodes of the series. But one watch was enough. I sold them to a used record outlet. Too much darkness.

  2. Chuck Dunbar May 28, 2023

    “Rod was in the vanguard of that revolution, holding the door open in a sly, gentlemanly way, inviting us to take a scenic detour around the perimeters of normal life, a detour that would take us on a direct route through…..the Twilight Zone. It inspired us, freed our imaginations, and taught us many things—not the least of which was this: Question reality.”

    Again, thanks to you, Eleanor Cooney, now for this second part on the Twylight Zone. Very nicely done, a fine read that takes me back in time.

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