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Why more than 50 years later, we're all still in 'The Twilight Zone'

Rod Serling at Ithaca College; Photo Courtesy Ithaca College
Rod Serling at Ithaca College; Photo Courtesy Ithaca College
C. Hadley Smith

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TV shows come and go. Most can't stay relevant once they've gone off the air, after time has numbed their ability to connect with viewers.

But "Twilight Zone" is different. The show examined race issues, criticized our dependence on technology and, five decades later, millions of people young and old still find the show's timeless themes as fresh as the day they aired.

And it's all thanks to Rod Serling. 

Marc Zicree, producer, screenwriter for shows like Star Trek and author of "The Twilight Zone Companion,"  says it's no accident that the messages in "Twilight Zone" stayed relevant all these years. Rod Serling was trying to do more than just scare you. 

"At one point he [Serling] said, if I made this science fiction and populated the congress with robots and put it in the 21st century, I could have gotten my point across," Zicree says. "It wasn't just escapism, it wasn't empty, you can watch an episode and know what the ending is and still get as much value from it as the first time you saw it."

In the 1961 "Twilight Zone" episode "A Quality of Mercy" Serling tackles the futility of war. 1963's "The Old Man in the Cave" imagines the mob politics of a post-apocalyptic world.

"Rod was a very committed human being and he had a great empathy for people who were suffering and that really comes across," says Zicree. 

In a 1959 interview with journalist Mike Wallace, Serling expressed how he felt about the current methods of sponsor-run television:

 "I think it's criminal that we're not permitted to make dramatic note of social evils as they exist... of controversial themes as they are inherent in our society."

But, in the end, what was "Twilight Zone" getting right the most? Sure, the show featured great acting talent, from William Shatner to Martin Landau, but what was "Twilight Zone"'s real secret? 

"It was definitely the writing," Zicree says, "because, prior to Rod Serling, producers ran network drama and the writers were subordinate to them. Rod was basically the first modern showrunner. Nowadays, writers run television. You know, Vince Gilligan on 'Breaking Bad' or Damon Lindelof on 'Lost,' Matt Weiner on 'Mad Men.' All of them basically wanted to grow up to be Rod Serling."

And Serling recruited the best writers to help him with "Twilight Zone," too. Greats like Charles Beaumont, Richard Matheson, and Earl Hamner, Jr.

Rod Serling gave Hamner him his first job writing film.

"A friend, it was actually Ray Bradbury, said why don't you call Rod, who was looking for writers, and see what he's got up his sleeve," Hamner says. 

Although Hamner was hesitant at first -- he had never written for film before -- the "Twilight Zone" episodes he wrote became classic examples of television drama. Episodes like "Stopover in a Quiet Town" imagine an alien abduction experience decades before "The X-Files."

"I just thought it was a miracle that I could write that kind of fanciful material," Hamner says. "But it really opened up a whole are for me. When "Twilight Zone" finally went off the air, I was left with a whole stockpile of really good stories... It gave you an opportunity to make an observation about human nature without making it seem preachy."

And that's what stands out to TV writers down to today. Serling wasn't just writing short TV dramas, he was writing allegories, stories that don't always have happy endings. J.J. Abrams created the TV show "Lost," directed the new Star Trek reboot and is signed on to direct Disney's new "Star Wars" movies. In interviews he's called "Twilight Zone" "mindbending." He's even developing an unproduced Serling screenplay

"He cast an incredibly large shadow," Zicree says. "All of us look up to him, whether it's Steven Spielberg, or J.J. Abrams... The implicit message in what Rod was doing with 'Twilight Zone' was you can aim high, you can write something that doesn't talk down to the audience, you can write something that's the totality of who you are as a human being -- you can take what you feel about most deeply and most profoundly -- and you can communicate it and the audience will understand that."

So, if you love to get lost in the grainy, black and white world of a New Year's Eve "Twilight Zone" marathon, you're in good company. And, if you're happy about the way TV is going these days -- a little more subtext and a little less melodrama -- then you probably have Rod Serling to thank. 

If you'd like to learn more, head over to Ithaca College's Rod Serling Conference next weekend (Nov. 8 & 9) at The Hilton in Universal City. More on the the conference and registration information at the Rod Serling Conference website