Friday, October 02, 2009

Philosophy in the Twilight Zone

Today is the fiftieth anniversary of the airing of the first episode ("Where is Everybody?") of The Twilight Zone, one one of the two greatest dramatic TV series ever (the other one being of course The Sopranos).

Maybe this is a good time to announce that a book of original philosophical essays on the series that I edited with Noel Carroll is out in paperback.

My own contribution (other than the introduction to the book and a lot of editorial work) is a biographical essay on the development of Rod Serling, the creator of the series and author of 92 of the 156 episodes, as a writer. It is a very interesting story, dramatic and funny by turns. As I say in that chapter:
The emergence of the Rod Serling who created The Twilight Zone is a rather odd case of artistic evolution. He changed, rather abruptly and driven by the pressure of circumstance, from an artist who thought it was his highest calling to comment on the problems of the day by depicting them directly, to one who commented on principles and universals involved, not merely in the problems of the moment, but of human life itself. In so doing, he became just the sort of author who deserves the sort of treatment he is given in the essays in this volume. For to move from the concrete issues of the day to the principles that underlie them is to move from a journalistic approach to these problems to a philosophical one.
My favorite T-Zone episode is probably "The Midnight Sun". Partly I'm sure this is due to my childhood crush on the star, Lois Nettleton (a half hour of a sweaty Lois wearing nothing but a slip -- woo hoo!), but it does happen to be a brilliantly crafted piece, full of irony and surprises. The surprises begin immediately after the title, which suggests a land of frosty cold, but soon is revealed to refer to a world of searing heat, where the sun is so huge and bright it still lights the sky at midnight. They continue to the end, which is one of the best "twist" endings (Rod called them his "snappers") in the series. The closing narration is also mercifully free of any preachy or patronizing moral:
The poles of fear, the extremes of how the Earth might conceivably be doomed. Minor exercise in the care and feeding of a nightmare, respectfully submitted by all the thermometer-watchers in the Twilight Zone.
The tale is full of meaning, but the meaning is for you to find. Kind of like life.


constant gina said...

What is so amazing is that 50 years later these shows hold up so well. Oh they are in black and white, which is really kind of cool. And occasionally you'll see the old cars or a dial telephone that gives away the time. Most of the time, they could have been shot yesterday.

Lester Hunt said...

So true! One of the best examples of the could-have-been-shot-yesterday aspect is "Eye of the Beholder," which deliberately withholds clues as to where, and when, who until the bandages come off Donna Douglas' eyes.

Anonymous said...

My brother is a big TZ fan and watcher of the New Years Sci Channel Marathon so your book would be a great Xmas present for him.

Opening monologues with Serling smoking the cigarette is a great critique on the early 60's when I was just barely relating (born in 54) so TZ gives me great insights into my childhood.

The episodes have many Cold War themes and reference to religous zealotry and racial intolerance.

Love to watch the episodes and see just about every youthful TV and movie actor and actress from the late 20th century (Burgess Meredith, Ann Margaret, Gleason, Landau, Shatner etc.)

Favorite episode is Anthony sending everybody into the cornfield. Reminds me of the republican party when all of the candidates have to agree on endless tax cuts and endless deficit spending. Ron Paul is the guy they all threaten to banish into the cornfield because he refuses to agree.

Lester Hunt said...

That's "It's a Good Life." Yes, it must be one of the ten or so greatest episodes. I just saw some blogger saying it is a great symbol of life on a PC campus, where there are penalties for saying saying wrong things, but they don't tell you in advance what all the wrong things are.

For me it is interesting that what Anthony punishes you for is not being up-beat and happy enough. People are often like that.

Just because they are about principles and ideas, and not about journalistic particulars, they have universal meaning and value for everyone.

Ann said...

Yeah, The Midnight Sun was probably my all-time favorite, too! Another one I liked was 'Room for One More' - just amazingly creepy. Is it possible to get all the episodes now on DVD?

Anonymous said...

The "To Serve Man" episode has alot of political overtones. Especially how politicians use words with double meanings. The alien being has a resemblance to BHO.

Lester Hunt said...


That episode is titled "22." "Room for one more, honey" is a line that recurs in the episode, becoming more ominous each time we hear it. That one is somewhat unique, in that it has no apparent philosophical or moral point -- it's just scary. Maybe that's one reason it's so effective, I don't know. It's also one of the six episodes that were videotaped instead of filmed.

Lester Hunt said...


The alien is played by Richard Kiel, who is acromegalic. (He's best known as "Jaws" in the Bond movies.) I don't see the resemblance to BHO, except in his willingness to sacrifice the interests of individual humans.

Ann said...

Thanks for clarification about '22', Lester. Black and white was used so effectively via the lighting - these were all pretty noir in that respect weren't they? I also think the music for this show IMO is maybe the most riveting every composed for a show. I don't just mean the often-parodied do-do-do-do tuples, either, but the really fantastic edgy effect with, was it bongo drums and violins?

Aeon J. Skoble said...

It's indeed a terrific book! Congrats Lester!

Lester Hunt said...


Sorry, but I overlooked your question about DVDs. Yes, every episode is now available on DVD (five slip-cased boxes, one for each season). They are beautifully restored, and many have audio commentaries (some of which are tapes of lectures by Serling). Lois Nettleton's commentary on "The Midnight Sun" is smart and interesting. She was a sort of beatnik-intellectual type.

You can get them used on the internet, quite cheaply. Highly recommended.

You know, I think I'll try to post a "top ten episodes" list soon!

Anomalous Poster said...

Dear Lester,

I guess I am a bit late to this party. I am just reading Philosophy of the TZ now. Having read only the first chapter I have a vexing problem. You,for some reason I cannot fathom,leave out the episode,“I Am the Night—Color Me Black" (5th, final season)which seems to be Serling’s final adaptation of the theme of the lynching of a wrongly-accused black male, aka Emmett Till story. I don't see why you don't note that this theme, forshadowed by Dust and Doomsday,IS finally realized in the TZ. How does it seem to you that this episode is irrelevant to your thesis?

On another note, well two notes, why did they cancel the series after the 5th season; wasn't it still profitable? And, why does the Wisconsin Historical Society have some of Serling's papers, since he never lived there or taught there, to my knowledge, and as such a historical society in Wisconsin would be unseemly as such an archive?

Thank you for your consideration.

Lester Hunt said...

Well, I think at least I can answer your last question. The Wisc Historical Society Archive early on began collecting materials on blacklisted Hollywood writers. Several of the Hollywood Ten gave them their papers. It eventually became a major trove of documents on left-leaning Hollywood writers. I have always assumed that this was why Serling gave them a bunch of his papers. Years later, his widow gave the rest of his stuff to a school that at least sounds like a community college near the town where they had a summer home. I really wish she hadn't done that. Not only does it sound like that school does not have the fabulous resources that the WHS has, but it means that there is a lot of neat stuff that is not accross the street from your office(!).

As to your other question, I don't remember "I am the Night" well enough to say why I didn't mention it. Maybe because it is not literally about a lynching, but I am honestly not sure. Maybe I'll re-view it and comment later.

Anomalous Poster said...

I'll save you the trouble:

SynopsisJagger is a man who is to be hanged after being wrongfully convicted of killing a bigot in self defense. On the day of his execution, the sun does not rise in the morning. There is also still some dispute as to whether or not Jagger is guilty. However, Jagger is hanged anyway, much to the delight of the town. The town Reverend steps in and says that the sky is black because of all the hatred in the world, namely the hatred surrounding Jagger's execution. The sky becomes even darker in the town. Later, a radio broadcast reveals the town is not the only place this disturbance has been seen in. The sky has turned dark in North Vietnam, a section of the Berlin Wall, Chicago, a street in Dallas, Birmingham, Alabama, and other places of hate around the world.

[edit] Production notesSerling wrote this script primarily as his personal reaction to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963. Indeed, mention is made in the story of "a street in Dallas, Texas" (where Kennedy was murdered as his motorcade traveled down Dallas's main street) as being enveloped by the strange darkness.

Anomalous Poster

Anomalous Poster said...

Dear Lester,

I mistook the actual plot of the episode, having just seen it again now. It was not a black man who gets hung, but a white man; the preacher is black, and quite memorable. The victim is a mid-western white man who had a fight with a white rascist and killed him in self-defense, to some extent, anyway. What is so striking now is that on the gallows the man admitted that he enjoyed killing the man, implying that it might have been self-defense, but that it was done with hatred, not pure self-defense. He did not kill him for a racial cause, a moral cause, or merely in self-defense. Rather, he killed with hatred. Perhaps moral righteousness? The black preacher then changes his mind about him. Whereas before he had thanked him for standing up for his people, he then changes upon hearing that he killed with pleasure and pronounces him guilty. This is quite a difference from an innocent man being kille; a more complex moral judgment is being presented here. This departs from the Emmett Till narrative and the previous adaptations of it thus. Here, the victim is himself guilty of hatred, equal to the rascist and equal to those who came to enjoy watching his death agony. Serling is equating the hatreds, not making a simple innocent versus guilty play. I think, myself, that the assassination of JFK upped the ante for Serling and he felt he had to show that hatred itself, not rascism, interestingly, is the radical evil. Even the man who hated a hater is guilty here. And those who enjoyed his hanging too are guilty of hate and thus doomed. Serling then admonishes the audience to look in the mirror to see the phenomenon more clearly. How intense is this episode?! Is he saying that it is wrong to hate evil doers? Yes. I think this is a spiritual, pacifist message from Serling at a desperate time in this country's history. I don't think he was ever more direct, do you?

Submitted for your approval,
Anom. P.

Anomalous Poster said...

Looks like I will have to comment on my own comment. Having seen this important episode again, I am troubled by the exchange between Jagger and the pastor. Whereas I had said that the pastor represented SErling's own views, I noticed that after Jagger is deemed guilty by the pastor, Jagger accuses him of siding with the majority, in agreeing with the crowd for its own sake. Glaringly, the pastor, dripping with contempt, says "The majority is all that's left. The minority died on the cross 2000 years ago" or something very close to that. Why in hell would the pastor himself say that, that the majority is all that's left? It now appears that Jagger is the Christ-figure here, not the pastor. He is willing to die on the cross, so to speak, in the absolute minority of one. He does not forgive any of them, hence he falls short of that status, to be sure, but isn't there a twist to this scene, where one would superficially think that pastor had seen the light, yet he immediately shows himself to be as contemptible as the sheriff, the deputy, the journalist and the townees, when he unbelievably says the majority is all that's left. Look at the hatred in him. In this subtlely placed twist, the pastor is shown also to be a hater, is he not? He too wanted to be liked by the crowd. He did not give him peace as he had said he would. It seems that Serling was faulting all of them. Could Serling really have been saying this? If so he is making a critique of modern Christendom on top of rascism and hatred. Strains of Kierkegaard in the Twilight Zone? The condemned man killed in self-defense, it is all but said, and the justice system and Christendom killed him out of self-interest, which is far lower on the scale of morality. As soon as a man of God says all that's left is the majority, he's done. But, would Serling have made the condemned man, who murdered and felt pleasure in it, the hero, as opposed to the pastor, who at first seems very much the hero? It seems more likely that he is saying we are all fallen, including Christendom.

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