[14 September 2010]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
For many, the tolling bells of News Year’s Eve mean one thing and one thing only. No, not unreachable resolutions or drunken dates with last minute mates. Not a rapidly degenerating Dick Clark (or his proto-replacement, Ryan Seacrest), the Big Apple, an illuminated crystal ball, and a mass Manhattan countdown. It’s has nothing to do with champagne, toasts, drunken mishaps, DUIs, and/or endless off-key choruses of “Auld Lang Syne”. In fact, for many of the more sane members of the long past-partying population, New Years is a time to reflect on something a tad more sinister - of traveling through another dimension—a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind. A journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination.
That’s right, the annual signpost up ahead is the SyFy Channel’s delightful decision to run every episode of Rod Serling’s seminal Twilight Zone series as part of a twice yearly marathon (Fourth of July weekend being the other usual genre showcase stopping off point). From 1959’s “Where is Everybody?” to 1964’s “The Bewitchin’ Pool” the cable place for all things otherworldly presents all 156 slices of sobering speculative fiction from this Golden Age of Television classic. Featuring the writing of such literary luminaries as Richard Matheson, Charles Beaumont, and Serling himself, it (along with The Outer Limits) would form the benchmark for how fantastical material was handled within the limited scope of the small screen.
Known for its big ideas and often biting social commentary, The Twilight Zone (now finally finding its way onto the Blu-ray format from Image Entertainment) is one of those rare relics that, while sometimes dated, never deteriorates or disappoints. Even as the show stumbled a bit during its final few seasons, it always rewarded the attentive viewer with thought provoking, sometimes shocking living room entertainment. With Serling’s ever-present activism at its core and a love for all things out of this universe running its engines, Zone was more than just an Amazing Stories geek-a-thon. Instead, it was an example of how high minded motives mixed with artistic quality could coalesce into something that was both engaging and enlightening.
So much has been written about Serling’s slap in the face to broadcast mediocrity that it seems pointless to preach even further. It remains a terrific series, steeped in enough mainstream appeal to help the casual viewer past some of the wackier concepts. Fighting for every word in every script. it’s creator saw the show as a chance to take the medium in a direction steeped in intelligence and invention. While budget and time constraints often thwarted the approach, Serling and his staff always managed to get their point across in vivid, vaulted strokes. Arguing over its effectiveness now seems futile. Instead, it’s far more interesting to note what makes The Twilight Zone such intriguing marathon fodder as well as looking at other examples of the day(s) long boob tube epic to see why most, if not all, fail to fulfill the promise presented by this almost 60 year old cathode chestnut.
For the most part, cable TV thrives on the marathon. It’s a chance to take product produced especially for a network - say The Real Housewives of New Jersey for Bravo - and milk as much advertising cash out of said cow as possible. In other cases, like those involving a series similar to The Twilight Zone, a syndication package provides ample reason to revisit a show in full. The Hallmark Channel loves to throw I Love Lucy on any chance it gets, running through every hilarious adventure of the groundbreaking sitcom with red-headed, henna rinsed abandon. Similarly, outlets like TV Land and TBS bring out their best (The Office for the latter) and most befuddling (The Nanny?) for a start to finish fest.
Almost always part of a holiday programming dynamic, the reasoning behind such a strategy is simple - people will be spending their Labor/Memorial/Arbor Day doing something other than watching TV, so why not kill two commercial birds with one big stone. In other instances, it can be seen as counterprogramming as when Cinemax brings out its ickiest, most gore-splattered horror films for their “Not So Merry Christmas” fright film packages. AMC used to hire Tim Burton (or other such off the radar luminaries) to program its collection of Halloween oriented B-movies, and almost all category specific channels (food, travel, sports) finds ways to celebrate a single program or approach during the course of its yearly output.
In the case of The Twilight Zone, however, there seems to be more than just mere dollar signs involved. Because of the series groundbreaking attributes, because of its association with horror and science fiction combined with the fan’s clear love for revisiting its many wonders, SyFy can get away with a bi-annual broadcast (though they did stumble a bit this year, giving the groan-inducing Greatest American Hero Zone‘s Independence Day nod). Something similar happened in the ‘90s when Mystery Science Theater 3000 was a Comedy Central mainstay. Using the “foul” quality of the films as a subtext, the bad movie riff fest was given a Thanksgiving “Turkey Day” salute that saw many revving up their VCRs for 24 plus hours of Joel/Mike and the ‘bots goodness.
In fact, the parallel to MST3K cannot be ignored. Both The Twilight Zone and that infamous ‘cowtown puppet show’ played to a demographic considered to be underserved by the media - the sharp and the sensible. While other channels challenge the elements of taste (Game Show Network and its recent Baggage blitz) or tolerance (really, A&E, an entire day devoted to those poor psychotic souls known as Hoarders?) something like Mystery Science did little more than offer up amusement soaked in a solid sense of humor. The Twilight Zone does something very similar. Looking at the new Blu-ray release, we begin to recognize the aspects of the series that would keep viewers coming back again and again - the brilliant scripts, the surprise endings, the gallant performances, and the notion of being taken somewhere few shows would dare venture.
It’s easy to celebrate Season One when you have a pristine presentation of such timeless TV treasures as “Walking Distance”, “Third from the Sun”, “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street”, “A Stop at Willoughby”, and “Time Enough at Last”. In fact, that’s another reason The Twilight Zone marathon works. While almost every show is good, the standouts make you hungry for more, desperate to see what the next installment brings. Like a compelling novel, Serling’s brainchild is the video version of a page turner. Not every chapter is a pot boiler, but when it does start to simmer, it’s hard to make it stop (those looking for insight into the reasons why can plumb the wealth of bonus features offered on the bonus overloaded Blu-ray).
Sure, sometimes a marathon is nothing more than a mere marking/marketing of an event - a date, a time - or an individual or personality either living or late. For the sponsor, it’s a shortcut to an effective cost/benefit analysis: a certain set of hours, an entire product’s placement. Luckily, we still have thrilling events like the Twilight Zone series overview to remind us of why, sometimes, a single episode of something is just not enough. Even with its current availability on the various home theater formats, there is just something so right about seeing Rod Serling’s baby in all its cut-up, commercial break glory. It’s the reason for the New Year’s season. It’s the reason why so many remain enamored of this exceptional show.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/130945-zone-ing-out/