The Original Golden Age of Television
The designation of the label, “Golden Age of Television”, has been redefined in recent years. We now refer to the fifties generation of television as the “first” golden period and our modern era as the “second” period of high quality programming. With remarkable film-like dramas such as Mad Men, The Wire and House of Cards carrying us further away from the memory of our cultural past, it’s easy to downplay just how superb TV was back then, as well.
What modern TV viewers fail to realize today, or take for granted, is how groundbreaking the writing was on early pioneer shows such as I Love Lucy, The Honeymooners and The Jack Benny Program. Each building an entertainment foundation–a blueprint–that has been remade, referenced or ripped off in the six decades since their inception.The sitcom format owes itself to each of these classics, and that includes a lot of heavy hitting network shows today.
As the black-sheep of its time, one show survives in routine syndication to this day. Its eerie, guitar-based theme song echos from halls of pop-culture history and sparks our collective memories: The Twilight Zone.
Why The Twilight Zone Has Lasted
The Twilight Zone has a timeless quality that portrays ordinary people trapped in a slightly altered reality. The black and white cinematography complements the suspenseful, and often times macabre subject matter in the shows screenplays. The Atomic Age cynicism of the shows creator and its writers makes itself evident in many episodes that masterfully illustrate the fears of average citizens on subjects ranging from nuclear war to the march towards a technological dystopia where humanity is squelched.
The shows creator, Rod Serling, came from a blue-collar Jewish family in Syracuse, New York. He grew up during the Great Depression and saw intense combat in the Pacific Theater during World War II. Like many men of his generation, he witnessed the horror of war at a young age and struggled with it later in life. Serling would vent his resentment in a creative manner to help illuminate the obstacles humanity experiences through science-fiction writing.
In 2013, the Writers Guild of America listed The Twilight Zone as the third best written television show of all time. The superb writing team of Serling, Charles Beaumont and Richard Matheson would produce 127 of the shows 155 episodes over the course of five seasons–the last ending in 1964.
The Darkest Corners of The Twilight Zone
There are numerous iconic episodes that promote timeless moral lessons that still resonate with modern audiences. The fact that younger generations continue to watch this show is a testament to its genius–which has arguably yet to be matched. Among those classic episodes are some very thought-provoking stories that leave you feeling cold inside. Here’s ten of them…
“The Shelter” – Rod Serling (Season 3, Episode 3)
The show was at its best when it portrayed average, middle-class Americans pitted against the looming threat of nuclear holocaust or alien invasion. Seeing as the show was aired during the height of the Cold War, Space Race and Cuban Missile Crisis, it’s fair to say these fears were justified. This could also explain why TZ’s forward thinking didn’t go over too well with viewers of the time–who favored the escapist light-hearted comedy of Jackie Gleason and Danny Thomas over the gloomy realism of this show.
When an emergency bulletin over the radio interrupts a suburban dinner party, things get heated as multiple families fight each other to get into the fallout shelter of the neighborhood Doomsday Prepper. Things aren’t so funny anymore as animal survival instincts take over and the law of the jungle prevails.
As the Stockton family huddles in their shelter, their “friendly neighbors” tear at each other to knock the door down. You never truly know what your “civil” friends are capable of when their lives are on the line. Take a look at Black Friday sales today for example.
Our perception of good and evil is turned sideways (dutch angles included) as American hiker, David Ellington, seeks refuge from the rain at a castle in Europe. He’s greeted by a man that appears to be Moses and is told that the howling wolf he hears is in the storm is actually Satan, who’s trapped in a jail-cell with only a holy shepherd staff barring the door.
Satan appears as a charming, handsome man who tries to appeal to the worldly senses and logic of Ellington. By appealing to his logic, Satan reveals Ellington’s lack of faith and exploits it by convincing him that Brother Jerome is a lunatic and that he should be released. The devil never appears to us as a gnarly, ugly creature but a kind, smooth-talker. A lesson for life to remember.
“The Midnight Sun” – Rod Serling (Season 3, Episode 10)
The universe is built on order but what happens when that order is disrupted by unknown forces and disconnects our planet from its orbit, launching it towards the fiery blazes of the sun?
This tense story provides a grim portrait of a world inching closer to its hellish fate. As temperatures rise exponentially, apartment neighbors–Norma and Mrs. Bronson, lean on each other during the earth’s last days. Reality quickly settles in for the pair–they’re about to burn alive and there’s nowhere on the planet they can run to avoid it. How’s that for scary?
A trio of United States Air Force pilots crash land in the Mojave desert after a failed space mission and begin to notice some strange occurrences: like disappearing from existence without a trace. Col. Ed Harrington is erased from existence, literally, causing Col. Clegg Forbes to have a breakdown.
Col. Forbes (Rod Taylor) panics after realizing a cosmic mistake of fates has occurred and that he and the other two crew members shouldn’t have survived the crash. As the hand of fate begins to play clean-up by wiping the surviving pilots from existence, Forbes vainly attempts to alert Maj. Gart (Tim Hutton) that he’s next on the liquidation manifest. Rod Taylor gives an electric performance here.
“The New Exhibit” – Charles Beaumont (Season 4, Episode 13)
If you’re going to have obsessive hobbies in life, make sure they don’t include collecting life-size wax figures of infamous murderers in your basement.
Ferguson’s Wax Museum is set to close down operations and make way for a shopping mall. Martin Lombard Senescu (Martin Balsam), dedicated museum curators, wants to salvage the wax figures from his section of a guided tour that features a handful of the most villainous killers in history including Jack the Ripper and Bluebeard.
Senescu stores the life-like figures in his basement to the dismay of wife, Emma. Martin’s morbid curiosity with what drives a man to become a murderer sends him down a dark road in the Twilight Zone. This is a precautionary tale of how obsession with evil subject matter can pull your soul into the pit of hell.
“Nick of Time” – Richard Matheson (Season 2, Episode 7)
Do you control your own life or are you a slave to superstition? This is the question presented to a newlywed couple waiting for their car to be repaired in Ridgeview, Ohio.
Don and Pat Carter (William Shatner and Patricia Breslin) spend the afternoon in a small-town diner where tables are adorned with fortune telling napkin dispensers. What started as an innocent way to empty out the change purse between sips of soda turns into a nightmare when the answers on small paper cards start to match up exactly with the questions–complete with a grinning devil bobble head on top.
Ask a question, insert a penny and you get a paper fortune answering your inquiry. A simple pastime that’s harmless until they get prescient answers to their real-life issues. The machine seems to know everything including Don’s work promotion and a nearby car accident.
This sends Don down a spiral of idolatrous behavior where he is asking the napkin holder questions as if it were a god. His obsessive behavior threatens his marriage and future. Moral of the story: don’t look for answers in the wrong places.
“The Obsolete Man” – Rod Serling (Season 2, Episode 29)
What is to become of a society if the state declares itself God and makes religious practice punishable by death? Romney Wordsworth finds out the hard way in this gloomy depiction of our future.
In this future, totalitarianism has strangled the life out of the individual in a tug-o-war between personal rights and state authority. Books are obsolete. God is obsolete. The individual is obsolete.
In the face of a draconian government, librarian Wordsworth (Burgess Meredith) is sentenced to a death of his own choosing without the writ of habeas corpus or an attorney. His is a fate very similar to those persecuted in fascist and communistic societies throughout history.
In an epic showdown of ideals between the condemned, Bible clutching librarian and a snarky, atheistic state chancellor, we learn that virtue is greater than the law of man–a law that’s infinitely corruptible and tainted.
“The Masks” – Rod Serling (Season 5, Episode 25)
What makes humans the most deceptive creature on the planet is our ability to mask our intentions with false niceties and insincere facial expressions. In this episode, a dying tycoon reveals the true nature of his family with a unique method.
An old man named Jason Foster is on his deathbed on the night of Mardi Gras. He invites his relatives to a cocktail party but there’s a catch–if they have a shot in hell of inheriting any of his wealth they must wear four masks specifically selected by Foster.
Each grotesque mask is chosen to match the perceived character traits of each member of the family ranging from vanity, cowardice, greed and sadism. With the four ghoulish looking relatives gathered around the dying man like vultures, a surprise is revealed at midnight.
“The Hitch-Hiker” – Rod Serling (Season 1, Episode 16)
Imagine you’re driving cross-country by yourself at about 55 per click when you notice a leering man on the roadside, gesturing for a ride. Who is this strange man and how does he keep getting ahead of me? Questions that haunt Nan Adams on those dark stretches of highway in the Twilight Zone.
After blowing a tire on a road-trip from New York City to Los Angeles, Adams begins to notice the eerie specter of a nameless hitchhiker on the roadside every several miles. You get a real feel for how open the country used to be during the ’50s. There weren’t shopping malls, McDonalds’ and gas stations off every exit–just long, lonely stretches of driving time where your mind begins to wander.
There’s nothing that strikes a throb of nostalgia in the heart more than the visual of a classic female beauty from my grandparents’ generation steering a streamline, chrome American sedan down a road long forgotten. Inger Stevens–what a beauty, right?
“The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” – Rod Serling (Season 1, Episode 22)
This is another one of those shit-hits-the-fan episodes that depicts middle-class suburbanites tearing at each others throats due to a perceived alien threat. Appliances quit working, cars quit working and civility between the nice people of Maple Street quits working.
Much like “The Shelter”, this story dissects crowd psychology and collective hysteria–when the fragile world of Maple Street is halted, the thin veneer of kindness is cracked by a small pebble of fear hurled at the group. Thanks to a child and his science fiction comic, neighbors begin to suspect each other as being an alien that’s responsible for the power outage on the street. Calamitous fights break out between the friends and neighbors.
This story is a perfect example of how easily crowds can be manipulated to cause riots and civil disobedience. When survival instincts kick in, no law can hold back the ignorant fear of the general population.
Watch The Twilight Zone on Netflix
With Halloween around the corner perhaps you’re in the mood for a trip down a spiraling hole of mystery, horror and fantasy? If you are, check this classic show out on Netflix.