So you want to know what I rank as the greatest show of all time?
1. THE TWILIGHT ZONE (1959-1964, 1985-1989 CBS)
Rod Serling’s THE TWILIGHT ZONE produced 156 episodes in 6 years. It was written by many of the greatest science fiction, suspense, fantasy, and horror writers of the time including Serling, Harlan Ellison and Ray Bradbury. The series was known for its endings which usually had some sort of sick twist to them as well as Serling’s voice over work for introductions and closing remarks. Along with ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS, no TV shows did as much for television as them. The show pushed the limits of reality and provided a lot of abstract ideas and plot lines that were not only accepted by viewers but relished by viewers. It inspired a movie and multiple revivals of the show.
To understand the importance of the show, one must understand the importance of its creator. Rod Serling was a prolific writer (I believe he wrote something like 150+ episodes of TV from 1957-1964 alone) and he was fighting a system. Early TV was dominated by sponsors. A sponsor would pay for entire shows, and they wanted shows presented in a certain way. Serling was unable to tell stories he wanted to tell. Politics was a subject that just wasn’t allowed for instance.
Enter Ray Bradbury. Bradbury had a famous conversation with Serling about allegory. Serling then wrote the teleplay PATTERNS, and it was the first show to ever be re-run. CBS’s president at the time claimed the screenplay had by itself advanced TV 10 years. Serling then wrote TIME ELEMENT and pitched it as well as THE TWILIGHT ZONE. CBS would decline saying TV viewers weren’t ready.
Enter Lucille Ball. Lucy did a lot (and yes, I know how can her show not be on the top 100 list somewhere? Trust me I noticed a little too late, so many shows … one bad memory) for a lot of shows. She did more for science fiction than anyone in the 50s and 60s for TV (she saved STAR TREK too). She was a huge fan. When Bert Granet who was producing the WESTINGHOUSE DESILU PLAYHOUSE found TIME ELEMENT in storage at CBS he was riveted. However Desi Arnez wasn’t as riveted. Lucy saw it, and history was made. TIME ELEMENT aired and it caused an avalanche of letters. The result was a reluctant CBS greenlit THE TWILIGHT ZONE. With that one move… TV was changed forever. However people didn’t want change.
A famous interview with Mike Wallace (60 Minutes fame) had Wallace ask a question like this:
Wallace: You’re going to be, obviously, working so hard on THE TWILIGHT ZONE that, in essence, for the time being and for the foreseeable future, you’ve given up on writing anything important for television, right?
For that reason alone I lost total respect for Mike Wallace. However at the time this was what TV executives thought, and it’s what many reporters were reporting. Then they saw the show…
Serling took full advantage of the opportunity and brought in Richard Matheson, Charles Beaumont, and George Clayton Johnston (sci fi legends) to help him write stories that defied what was previously allowed on TV by using allegory. The result was a TV show that was watched by many, but not a lot. It’s ratings were barely enough to stay on the air. Yet, it was critically applauded. It won awards (Hugo and Emmy). Colgate was convinced to save the show as a new sponsor.
However the 2nd season would be a fight against CBS and their new network idiot James Aubrey. Aubrey fought the show tooth and nail until the budget was practically nothing and less episodes were shot. Despite this the quality of writing was still better than anything on TV today, and it again won an a Hugo and an Emmy. It also was given a brand new Emmy for Outstanding Program Achievement, and won an other award for helping with Race Relations. Aubrey was convinced to can the show however.
Things were looking like sure cancellation, then Ray Bradbury contacted people and said “I want to write an episode of THE TWILIGHT ZONE,” that got the sponsorship needed and Season 3 was under way. It wasn’t as good as previous seasons and Serling admitted being tapped out and tired. However it was still good enough to win its 3rd straight Hugo Award. The show however was finally cancelled. Serling would give up TV and become a professor at his alma-mater.
However the replacement show totally flopped, CBS then decided to bring the show back, but renamed it TWILIGHT ZONE, and extended it to an hour in length. Beaumont had fallen extremely ill (a publicly un-named brain disease) his output was questionable. Serling despised the hour long length, and he kept his job as a professor and basically phoned everything in. His limited travels to LA provided the time to shoot his narration. However the new hour long version did better than anyone hoped, so a 5th season was bought (and changed back to 30 minutes).
Season 5 saw a new producer who really knew how to piss off the writers. The changes he made resulted in Johnston quitting, and the new producer axed the production of several episodes. One of which was later made as an episode of AMAZING STORIES and was nominated for numerous awards. The show did however have a resurgence in quality with many well remembered episodes (including William Shatner’s famous episode with the gremlin on the wing of the plane). This final season would also have an episode that would end up being filmed in France, and released there as a short. The episode won an Academy Award, making THE TWILIGHT ZONE the only drama to win an Emmy and an Oscar.
CBS finally decided to cancel the show for good, resulting in Serling being quoted as saying “That’s ok, I’ve decided to cancel the network.”
The impact of THE TWILIGHT ZONE wasn’t really felt until years later when like another sci fi show STAR TREK it became a major force in syndication. The 2nd most successful 1950s program ever in syndication behind only I LOVE LUCY, THE TWILIGHT ZONE was able to make a lasting impression on numerous future writers, directors, etc. The impact of the series would lead to a movie and resurgent TV series by CBS. CBS would again treat the new show poorly, but it would have episodes written by the likes of Harlan Ellison (that’s a huge feat right there), Stephen King, and J. Michael Straczynski.
The famous episodes of this show are still some of the greatest TV ever. Perhaps the greatest episode of any TV show period, is the infamous TIME ENOUGH AT LAST. This episode is famous for Burgess Merideth’s book lover being the last man on Earth and breaking his glasses, unable now to read all the books he so desperately wants to read. Then you have THE MONSTERS ARE DUE ON MAPLE STREET another famous episode that is infamous for its allegorical dealings of a possible communist Russian attack on the US.
This series pushed TV. It pushed sponsors. It pushed the Networks. What is amazing is just how stupid the Network executives and sponsors were. They had no clue what was being told right under their noses. When Aubrey was asked years later how he felt knowing that the show had dealt with communism, black listing, racism, etc. his response was “it did? You’re mistaken, the was a show about aliens and monsters.” I’m paraphrasing that quote there, but the stupidity of the people running TV at the time was amazing.
Of course UPN tried to bring the show back with episodes that weren’t worthy of THE OUTER LIMITS or NIGHT GALLERY let alone THE TWILIGHT ZONE, and that is a shame. This is a show that easily could handle a revival every 15 years or so. Just go after the right writers that like to push the boundaries and give them a setting to weird us all out.