Alot of times, film reviewers and cinema pros aren’t really interested in television much, and I think a good number of them would tell you that the attention to and quality of cinematic excellence just doesn’t happen much in a show. And they’d be right for the most part. Particularly in the old days, TV was about getting that quick fix of drama, adventure, or comedy, and with twenty-something episodes per season, the budget wasn’t as huge per episode as a standalone movie would be. But there’s one show I’ve seen that has become one of the most popular older shows of today, and it’s because it ignored the barrier between movie quality and television quality. If that doesn’t make sense, no worries, because I’m about to explain as we talk about “The Twilight Zone”.
“The Twilight Zone” (TZ for short) began in 1959 and ran for 156 episodes (some half-hour, some hour-long) over five seasons, ending in 1964. The show was an anthology (meaning that none of the episodes had anything in common), but virtually all of the episodes covered something odd, scary, dystopian, or in the realm of scifi. And combinations of these elements happened often. So, we have a mostly half-hour show that thinks it can do drama better than its competitors like “The Outer Limits” or “One Step Beyond”. For that matter, TZ had to compete with long-running radio anthologies like “Suspense”, “Escape”, “Lights Out”, “Wierd Circle”, “The Saint”, and many others. So how did it stand out above the rest? What makes it so beloved to this very day?
It’s all in the title of the post: TZ was made like a film, not like a TV show. In the opening paragraph up there, I contrasted why a TV show isn’t as big a deal as a movie, but TZ made its episodes in the same style as a film. In a typical episode, there was a story that fully developed, with a full climax, and in between there would often be scenes with little to no dialogue (sometimes whole episodes), and huge acting talent from the cinema doing the acting. Additionally, there was immaculate attention to the set, where things were placed in relation to the camera (even dipping into the art of photography), and even shadows and effects caused by the positions of items and people. Plus, whenever there was an alien or something other-worldly, it was never overdone to the point of cheesiness (like “Lost in Space” and “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea“).
Of course, TZ was airing during the reign of Westerns, which were often formulated, with simple-to-follow plots (how much can happen on one ranch before it gets repetitive?), and this caused an effect known as talking down to the audience, in which the show doesn’t exercise an audience member’s brain or even imagination, and thus, a viewer can multitask or zone out (no pun intended) and not miss much, if anything. P.S., this isn’t a slam on Westerns, but it does happen to be the truth.
So along comes TZ, which requires one’s full attention for the duration of the show, and oftentimes is unpredictable. Yes, there were a few episodes that were flops, but they were few and far between. If an audience of the 1960s wanted to fully engage in some form of entertainment, they’d go to the theater and watch a film. TV was just a way to pass the time, and wasn’t really taken seriously. Because of this, the typical audience would miss main points of a TZ episode’s plot, and the show was constantly in danger of being pulled off the air. But there was a quality about it none can deny: it was good, as good as any movie of the day, but in a manageable chunk of time. And its meta-commentaries on real-life stuff keeps it hauntingly relevant even to today.
“The Twilight Zone” spawned two other TV revivals, both of which we’re going to look at, but the original is more often than not the only series of the three that a modern-day audience member is even aware of. That’s because it took all the qualities of an old film, put it into a half-hour format, and called it a TV show. That’s why it’s still so well remembered. What do you think?