Friday, 13 May 2016

The Enduring Legacy of the Twilight Zone

Here is an excellent article (h/t Steve Duffy) about why the success of TTZ didn't prompt a slew of similarly good series. It is, it seems, mostly down to commercial pressures on US networks. Rod Serling, one of the true legends of weird fiction in the 20th century, ended up doing commercials for almost everything, including cigarettes, the product that eventually killed him.
Television now demanded celebrity, not literary ability — probably the main reason Serling shifted from scriptwriting to shilling, lending his distinctive persona to the makers of toothpaste and beer and many other products.
The article is also good on the censorship that went along with the power of sponsorship. Trying to deal with racism was asking for trouble when so many white American viewers were racist.
“From experience, I can tell you that drama, at least in television, must walk tiptoe and in agony lest it offend some cereal buyer from a given state below the Mason-Dixon.”
Good job the US outgrew all that nonsense. Fortunately, thanks to the power of the DVD and online streaming, people today can enjoy Serling's work (and that of writers like Matheson, Bloch, and Beaumont) without the cereal commercials. Brian Murray's article is a good longer read, full of praise for Serling. The man was not without his flaws, but he deserves to be called great because he was well aware of his failings and went ahead and tried to make a work of art anyway. He was sentimental, but so was Dickens. He wrote an awful lot of stuff, not all of it good, but so did Shakespeare. He could moralise to Olympic standard, but so could Mark Twain.

And perhaps his view of television as a genuine art form has been vindicated. I well recall that 'in 1976, just a year after Serling’s death, several of the most popular network shows were, in effect, comic strips — The Six Million Dollar Man,The Bionic Woman, Charlie’s Angels'. The Seventies is often recalled as a golden age of British television by older folk like me. But I'm sure that in part this is because American shows the BBC and ITV bought in were often terrible. Nothing as well-written as I, Claudius or Porridge arrived from the States back then.

Now things are not so clear-cut, and technology has to some extent liberated a new generation of Serlings offering 'high-quality scripted series distributed by cable channels and streaming companies — dramas of a scope that the movies cannot hope to match, shows that viewers can binge-watch at home on giant screens'. Futuristic stuff! No longer merely a possibility in The Twilight Zone.


Oscar Solis said...

Good post on Serling and The Twilight Zone. I have binge watched TTW and it's an interesting experience. You realize that about half or more were just ok, with some pretty awful episodes in there. My main beef was that many of the shows that Serling himself wrote could be preachy but he was a social commentator but, luckily, these were balanced out by episodes written by Matheson, Beaumont and others. Thinking of TTW brings to mind the idea that 'N" by Arthur Machen would have been a good basis for an episode, while also wondering what they could have done with a Robert Aickman story. There are a lot of shows of high quality out now but I doubt many, if any, will have the staying power of TTW.

By the way while you were enjoying a British Golden Age I was suffering through junk like the shows you listed as well as Happy Days (third season on), Laverne and Shirley and All in the Family (despite it's classic status). Now that's real horror.

Oscar Solis said...

I just reread my comment. I should have paid more attention in English and Grammar classes :)

valdemar said...

Hi Oscar, I agree that a lot of TTZ eps were sentimental and low-powered by modern standards, but I think Serling's preachiness wasn't always to the fore. And I think such things go in cycles. During the Cold War and the early Civil Rights struggle a former paratrooper like RS would have to be pretty dense not to have strong opinions on our species and its failings!

Aonghus Fallon said...

Funnily enough, I binge-watched a load of TTZ episodes on Youtube last year. I thought they were pretty good. I was nodding my head in agreement re your comment about the quality of most 70's fare ('The Dukes of Hazzard' anyone?) but I suspect there was a lot of dross in the 50's and 60's too, albeit of a different kind (e.g. innumerable cowboy serials).

valdemar said...

Very true! Tony Hancock fans may recall a couple of radio shows about the endless Westerns on both BBC and ITV. That said, the novelty value of early TV, plus the relatively limited viewing hours, must have been a factor. It was like looking into a 'What the Butler Saw' machine at first. By the Seventies I think more people were able to spot formulaic stuff.