I recently watched a review of Aqua Teen Hunger Force, and in it, the reviewer noted that he didn’t find that TV show as funny as he thought he should have. The reason is because it was such a trailblazer and other TV shows had copied its formula to even better effect in the years since it debuted. This reminded me of Lethal Weapon 2, which was lampooned and copied so much that it felt almost derivative when I finally got around to seeing it a few years ago.
And that brings me to the topic of this article. Why hasn’t The Twilight Zone suffered the same fate as so many other innovative programs? That TV show debuted in October 1959 and ran for five seasons. It wasn’t the first show of its kind – One Step Beyond first aired in January 1959 – nor was it the last – Boris Karloff’s Thriller premiered in 1960 and The Outer Limits arrived in 1963. And, of course, there are modern incarnations like 1985’s Amazing Stories, 2001’s Night Visions, and the currently running Black Mirror. But the original Twilight Zone series still stands out as a monumental achievement in popular entertainment, social commentary, and unconventional storytelling. Why does it hold up so well? Let’s find out.
It Embraces Old-Fashioned Ideals
The Twilight Zone is a product of its time, and that’s a good thing. It has a late-’50s mentality in which freedom is good and tyranny is evil. Righteous people are generally rewarded while wicked people usually get a fitting comeuppance.
For example, there’s an episode called “The Hunt” in which a good-natured backwoodsman dies while trying to save his hunting dog from drowning. They both end up in the afterlife, and an agent of Satan tries to lure him into Hell, falsely claiming that it is Heaven. The man refuses to enter when he’s told that his dog can’t go with him. He keeps journeying until he comes across a much kinder man, and the following scene unfolds.
There’s something magical about this. Without a hint of irony or winking at the audience, the show portrays a good man going to his eternal reward. And if you think that’s great, check out “The Obsolete Man,” which shows a librarian who defies a totalitarian state to his dying breath. When being interrogated and told that there is no God because the state has proven it, he declares “There is a God!” and “You cannot erase God with an edict.” To see the hero of a story bravely defending his belief in God on a popular TV show makes me yearn for that lost time when such a thing was possible.
Then there’s “Still Valley,” in which some Confederate soldiers have a chance to defeat the entire Union Army using magic. But when one of them starts to recite the spell that will accomplish this dark deed, he finds that he can’t finish it because he would have to renounce God and embrace Satan to do so.
These old-fashioned morality tales are a welcome reminder that such topics were once treated with the respect they deserve.
It’s Hard to Predict
Another wonderful thing about The Twilight Zone is its unpredictability. Some of its most famous episodes rely on brilliant twist endings to pull the rug out from under the audience. For example, there’s “Eye of the Beholder,” “To Serve Man,” “Time Enough at Last,” “The Invaders,” and “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street.”
Other times, the stories are more character-driven and they don’t really have a twist ending. “A Game of Pool,” “Living Doll,” “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” “The Lonely,” “Walking Distance,” and “It’s a Good Life” are excellent examples of this.
Some shows, like One Step Beyond, have endings that are easy to predict. With The Twilight Zone, unless you’ve had an episode spoiled for you, it’s easy to be swept up in the story and not know what is going to happen next. Sure, “The Hunt” is a little predictable in the parts where the old man tries to talk to people, not knowing that he’s dead. We’ve seen that done many times in films like Ghost and The Sixth Sense. But the final act of that episode is hard to see coming.
Sometimes we get the story from the villain’s perspective like in “Four O’Clock” while in others we follow a well-meaning person who gets deceived by the Devil himself as in “The Howling Man.” You never know what you might get. The Twilight Zone simply refuses to be pinned down to one genre. The soothing voice of Rod Serling is the connective tissue that holds all of these disparate stories together, but beyond that we have no assurance of what will happen from one episode to the next. And that’s to the show’s credit.
It Roots for the Little Guy
We rarely get the perspective of a powerful world leader or someone who is successful in life. Instead, we get stories like “Mr. Dingle, the Strong,” “Penny for Your Thoughts,” and “Night of the Meek” in which lowly men are temporarily endowed with incredible powers. How they use those powers depends on their level of maturity and their ambitions. But the point is that we get to see people thrown out of their element and placed into situations where they have to make hard choices.
I’ve talked about “A Stop at Willoughby” before in another article. That episode sums up a lot of the show’s appeal. It’s about a man who never feels good enough for his boss or his wife. He wishes to escape his troubles and go to a place where he can rest and feel loved.
Even if the little guy of the story suffers or dies in the end, there’s almost always a sense of justice in their fate. When the show deviates from the formula and actually shows a powerful king in “The Fugitive,” it hides his identity until the very end. For the majority of the episode, we just think of him as a kindly old man who likes to play games with children. It’s only at the final twist that we learn he’s really a handsome ruler of a faraway kingdom. Despite his high status, the show focuses on the humble parts of his personality to make him likable and relatable.
In the Zone
The Twilight Zone has a timeless quality, thanks to its old-fashioned morals, unpredictable storytelling, and down-to-earth characters. That’s the reason why it’s been turned into a movie, been resurrected multiple times on the small screen, and still has an enduring appeal nearly 60 years after its debut. It found that cultural sweet spot that has been emulated many times but never fully recreated.
This is the Deja Reviewer bidding you farewell until we meet again.
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Solid analysis, Robert! TZ is indeed timeless entertainment, and for all the reasons you laid out. Nicely done.
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The context of your review underscores the reasoning behind TV stations scheduling marathons during the new year. We need to renew ourselves with these well done morality tales.
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