My Television Critics Association pal Mark Dawidziak has come out with one of those, “Why didn’t I think of that!” ideas. He’s written the perfect book for classic TV lovers and knowledge-seekers in general: “Everything I Need to Know I Learned in The Twilight Zone.”
Mark is a very funny man who has my respect for a lot of reasons but primarily for being able to do both Abbott and Costello’s parts of “Who’s on First?” The Cleveland Plain Dealer TV columnist has probably written more books than I’ve read. He just finished another one while I was writing this blog.
I love how he stumbled on this idea while forcing his teenage daughter to watch all 156 episodes, in order, from the classic Rod Serling anthology series of the late ’50s – early ’60s. I too warped my kids, imposing my TV and music touchstones upon them. Katie and Dan were the only ones at their schools, for example, who knew who Fred and Ethel Mertz were, or that Buddy Sorel plays the cello.
Mark started showing one or two episodes of Twilight Zone a night and at the conclusion of the sixth episode, “Escape Clause,” he told his daughter, “Let that be a lesson to you. Always read through a contract.” The episode finds this hypochondriac (played by David Wayne) making a rash deal with the devil.
This nightly ritual began to take place a few years ago, around the time of the U.S. mortgage crisis. Suddenly, a light went on for Dawdziak. “I realized there truly is a wonderful set of life rules here,” he writes. “Not only could you live your life according to the precepts and parables of The Twilight Zone, maybe you should.”
The result is this handy, fifth dimension self-help book.
Among the classic TZ episodes that start taking on new meaning: “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street” warns that “divided we fall.” Never judge a book by its cover? Dramatically slammed home in “To Serve Man.”
The lessons and parables are all there. As Stephen King once wrote, “That The Twilight Zone is damn near immortal is something I will not argue with…”
Dawidziak weaves in comments from several TV stars and showrunners who either acted in TZ episodes or were very much influenced by Serling’s storytelling. Among them: J.J. Abrams, Tom Fontana, Robert Redford, James L. Brooks, William Shatner, Billy Mumy and David Chase.
What makes “Everything I Need to Know I Learned in The Twilight Zone” even more fun to read is Dawidziak’s wry sense of humour. There are apt references to The Marx Brothers and especially Mark Twain in just about every chapter. Dawidziak, like Hal Holbrook, performs one-man shows as Twain and has written books on the famous author and humourist. He argues — convincingly — that both Twain and Serling are moralists in disguise, something Twain once admitted, “got me in a heap of trouble.”
Serling, too, ran into opposition, primarily from network censors in his day. He learned early on that he could sneak through critiques of, say, MacCarthyism, if he cloaked his messages in sci-fi storytelling. In wake of the most recent U.S. presidential election, some of his Twilight Zone parables seem to take on even greater resonance. (See Lesson 44: “Don’t be a bully.”)
Bottom line, the signpost up ahead says buy this book. Read more about it here at this review I wrote for Saturday’s Toronto Star book section.