The Twilight Zone: Still Freaky at 50

Friday was the 50th anniversary of the debut of The Twilight Zone. It was never a big hit but ran for 156 episodes and stands as one of the smartest and creepiest TV anthologies ever. It certainly give me the willies as a lad.
It was also a proving ground not just for promising on-screen talent–Robert Redford, Charles Bronson, William Shatner, Billy Mumy, Burgess Meredith, Dick York and Lee Marvin all headlined memorable episodes–but for bringing great genre writers such as Charles Beaumont and Earl Hammer, Jr., to television.

The series ran from 1959-1964. Original network CBS ignored the Oct. 2 anniversary but, as usual, David Bianculli is on top of it over at TV Worth Watching. He asked several of us who contribute to TVWW for our Twilight Zone memories. Read all the submissions here. Below is the one I contributed, a bit of a cheat because it is really about the CBS remake of the classic Rod Serling series, the one that ran in the mid-`80s:

My most vivid Twilight Zone memory was almost worthy of a Rod Serling script. On that signpost straight ahead could have been written: “Warning: Clueless journalist.”
It occurred in the mid-‘80s, when CBS tried to revive the series. It was an uneven revival, featuring scripts from writers like Stephen King, Arthur C. Clark and an aborted attempt by Harlan Ellison. Bruce Willis and Morgan Freeman got a little face time on the revival; one episode featuring Sid Caesar as a past-his-prime magician stands out in my memory.
I was living in LA at the time, and as a photo editor and writer was just starting to get into this racket for TV Guide Canada.
A photographer I knew back then introduced me to her boyfriend, an amiable Texan who knew this guy who was re-doing the music for the series. He figured he could get him on the phone if I wanted to interview the dude. Why not, I thought, looking to fill space in the TV magazine’s front page “Grapevine” column.
The call came through, and we talked about staying true to the original melody, so closely identified with the old black and white series. This guy was a guitarist, and said he tried to add a bit of a rock edge to the iconic theme. He was a pleasant gent on the phone and seemed happy to talk about being pulled into the Twilight Zone.
It wasn’t until I sent the short piece back to the office in Toronto that an editor asked if I knew who the hell I had just interviewed. It was a name I was not at the time that familiar with. It lay somewhere between the pit of man`s fears and the summit of his knowledge. Submitted for your approval: Jerry Garcia of The Grateful Dead, a rock icon now found only in…The Twilight Zone.

One Response to “The Twilight Zone: Still Freaky at 50”

  1. It is a shame that a true milestone like TZ’s 50th anniversary has gone largely unnoticed.

    TZ was cancelled eight years before my birth, and I never saw it until well into my adult years, so I’ve got no childhood attachment to the show — and yet it’s probably my all-time favourite television series.

    I’ve seen every episode of the series multiple times by now via DVD and cable/satellite, and was long ago hooked for life.

    There are duds as well as gems in the TZ mix, but the show’s high points were outstanding, influential and numerous.

    It’s a crime that reruns of this series don’t air more widely and more often. Canada’s Space channel, for instance, does a better job as a sci-fi/fantasy showcase than its US counterpart SyFy for the most part, but I’ve long been disappointed by the complete lack of TZ episodes on Space.

    As far as I know, the only channel airing TZ regularly in Canada is NTV (a general-interest cable/satellite channel out of Newfoundland), which airs random eps in the dead of night on the weekends and one or two mini-marathons per year (usually somewhere during the Christmas/New Year holiday span).

    My own personal top ten would probably be Season 1’s “Where is Everybody?” (with the wandering amnesiac in the deserted town), “One for the Angels” (sidewalk peddler vs. Grim Reaper), “Time Enough at Last” (doomed bookworm longing for time to read), “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street” (self-destructive madness in the suburbs) and “The After Hours” (with those spooky mannequins); Season 2’s “Nick of Time” (honeymooners vs. fortune-telling machine), “The Invaders” (old woman vs. miniature aliens) and “Shadow Play” (a condemned prisoner insists the whole world only exists in his nightmares); Season 3’s “The Midnight Sun” (humankind roasts as Earth spirals toward the Sun); and Season 5’s “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” (the plane with the gremlin on its wing).

    That last ep seems to have stuck with a lot of people, both hardcore TZ fans and casual viewers. It’s one of my wife’s favourites, for instance, along with “Time Enough at Last,” “The Midnight Sun,” “The Howling Man” (where the monks claim to have Satan locked up in their monastery) and “The Changing of the Guard” (where an involuntarily retired schoolteacher contemplating suicide gets a ghostly visit), all good ones.

    A parting thought: if another TZ revival ever happens, they should hire Misha Collins (SUPERNATURAL’s Castiel) as the host. He’s got that “eerie, all-knowing mystery man hovering on the fringes of the action” routine down cold…

    -Sean

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