Rod Serling Was In His "Zone": A Look Back At His Creative Genius

Herbie J Pilato

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The development and execution of The Twilight Zone original series (CBS, 1959–1964) and its induction into the annals of TV history is a story of an obsessive need for acceptance.

Exhibit A: Rod Serling, Zone’s core creative force, executive producer, and charismatic host. The show’s popularity preyed upon his endless reservoir of ideas, originally inspired by his obsession with the past and his preoccupation with aging, mixed in with a measure of courage and faith, and the survival techniques he learned in the army.

With monumental tenacity, Serling went on to seek and gain reign over his creation on what was nearly a daily basis, all the while delivering top-notch scripts at a frenetic pace. With a strong desire to succeed, and an intense need for creative control, this small-in-stature (he stood 5’5”), though foreboding and critically-acclaimed non-stop talent, employed a no-holds-barred approach to getting his product on the air — as he saw fit — and settled for nothing less. He protected his turf, circumvented the typically charted waters of TV production, and opposed the demands placed forth by network executives, with a back-door approach to realizing the fruition of his “other-worldly” dreams.

Serling believed in his vision and rarely bowed to editorial invasion, fiercely guarding the end results of his Zone.

The Twilight Zone presented weekly excursions into an unknown, yet familiar territory, which showcased morality plays and controversial topics, presented under the guise of science fiction. Characters with dimension were introduced to the audience with arresting aplomb, many of whom were granted a second chance against the odds — much like Serling himself. Though almost canceled twice before its original network demise, The Twilight Zone stayed afloat due to Serling’s tactful maneuvers around Hollywood minds that were uncertain of anything — and everything — related to Zone — except Serling’s undying passion. In the end, however, Serling himself died young, at 50 years old, never reaching the twilight of his years, though not before he explored, unobtrusively, the senior mentality, and other untapped areas of legitimate topics of conversation, with several, very-real trips into The Twilight Zone.

By December 1959, episodes such as Walking Distance (with Gig Young playing a man who travels back in time to his boyhood and hometown) continued to examine Serling’s bi-lateral obsession with youth and old age.

CBS executive Jim Aubrey convinced Serling to tape six segments, instead of film them. But the disadvantages of video outweighed the advantages. The video episodes had to be shot on a sound stage. Except for stock footage, there were no scenes shot on location.

Since so much of Zone’s essence had to do with “going somewhere,” again, into “another dimension,” not having locales was a glitch in the way of plot development and aesthetic appeal.

Another video handicap was the limited use of camera sets and angles, due to editing. The use of video was abandoned after six episodes, and Serling would later call the experience “disastrous.”

CBS also had strong reservations about granting Serling too much creative control. But he told stories with class, distinction, and social commentary, masked behind the premise of science fiction. As the original Star Trek TV series would showcase a few years later, many of Zone’s episodes were morality plays or parables in disguise. Likable characters were granted a second chance; unlikable characters received their comeuppance.

Serling’s immortal success in the Zone was sealed.

[This article is based on research material found in the book, Dashing, Daring, And Debonair.]

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Herbie J Pilato is the author of several books about pop culture including RETRO ACTIVE TELEVISION, THE 12 BEST SECRETS OF CHRISTMAS, MARY: THE MARY TYLER MOORE STORY, TWITCH UPON A STAR, GLAMOUR, GIDGETS AND THE GIRL NEXT DOOR, DASHING, DARING AND DEBONAIR, and NBC & ME: MY LIFE AS A PAGE IN A BOOK, among others. He's also a TV writer/producer, and has worked for Reelz, Bravo, E!, TLC, and hosted THEN AGAIN WITH HERBIE J PILATO, the hit classic TV talk show (which premiered on Amazon Prime in 2019).

Los Angeles, CA
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