When “Where Is Everybody?” first appeared on our small TV screens on October 2, 1959 as the premiere episode of a new weekly anthology series called “The Twilight Zone,” no one at the time could have foreseen how important that broadcast would become in the annals of popular culture.
In fact, the series’ future was never a foregone conclusion as the network heads tried to wrap their brains around a series that departed from the usual mindless fare that was attracting advertising dollars at the time. On the Friday night it premiered on CBS, “The Twilight Zone” shared it’s half-hour time slot (10:00) with “The Detectives Starring Robert Taylor” on ABC and “The Gillette Cavalcade of Sports and Phillies Jackpot Bowling” on NBC. Hard as it is for some to believe, those were the choices viewers had during those days before the arrival of cable TV and streaming services. And, before the advent of 24/7 on-demand viewing, if you wanted to see an episode of “The Twilight Zone” you had no choice but to be in front of a TV at 10:00 on a Friday evening. That’s why I see Netflix and related services as downright miraculous, and you should too. Of course, when I want to watch an episode I can easily pick a Blu-Ray disc from my complete series box of “Twilight Zone” episodes, complete with commentaries, featurettes, interviews, isolated music scores, and related stuff. Will miracles never cease? These are truly the good old days, aren’t they?
I’ve written about Rod Serling’s now-iconic series several times in these pages, and the occasion for my revisiting this “fifth dimension” again is the publication of yet another book on the series–Mark Dawidziak’s clever book EVERYTHING I NEED TO KNOW I LEARNED IN THE TWILIGHT ZONE: A FIFTH-DIMENSION GUIDE TO LIFE (2017, Thomas Dunne Books). Mark has written several books, including one on the Barter Theatre, and two of my favorites are his analyses of my favorite TV series, “Columbo,” and his blow-by-blow treatment of the short-lived TV horror series “Kolchak.” In his new book about his lifelong obsession with “The Twilight Zone,” he takes his cue from the many “Everything I Need To Know” books that have proliferated in the past few years (i.e. books about lessons learned from Kindergarten, Little Golden Books,”The Andy Griffith Show,” and, as you can guess, Star Wars). And he also pokes fun at the way–too–many self-help and leadership books that claim to offer magic formulas for turning our lives around, as if they need turning at all–of course, the first step to self-improvement is contributing to the author’s bank account by purchasing his or her book.
The two other books that most closely resemble Dawidziak’s are Dave Thompson’s THE TWILIGHT ZONE FAQ: ALL THAT’S LEFT TO KNOW ABOUT THE FIFTH DIMENSION AND BEYOND (2015), which takes a thematic approach to the series, and Douglas Brode’s (with assistance from Rod Serling’s widow, Carol) ROD SERLING AND THE TWLIGHT ZONE: THE 50TH ANNIVERSARY TRIBUTE (2009), which is organized around topics and themes like the American West, threats from outer space, death, identity crises, time, and nostalgia.
Dawidziak divides his book into fifty short chapters, each corresponding to a “lesson” drawn from series episodes. These lessons include “Always keep your heart open to the magic that comes your way,” “Nobody said life was fair,” “Dogs really can be your best friend,” “It’s never too late to reinvent yourself,” “Respect your elders,” “Make the most of the time you’ve got,” and “Be careful what you wish for.” These chapters sound like topics for high school and college graduation, don’t they? Actually, we can only hope the next graduation speaker we have to suffer through takes his or her inspiration from Dawidziak’s book. After all, most graduation ceremonies all-too-closely resemble encounters with the Twilight Zone.
I will choose three lessons for this column. First, as a nostalgia debunker, I like Dawidziak’s chapter, “Don’t Live In The Past,” that examines five key episodes that all deal with our frequent desire to return to the days of our youth. “Walking Distance,” one of these episodes, is about a tired businessman who finds himself transported to the hometown of his youth, where he sees himself as a boy. His father, after realizing who the businessman is, addresses his grown son’s desire to change the past with the following advice: “I guess [you want to change the past] because we only get one chance. Maybe there’s only one summer to every customer. That little boy, the one I know, the one who belongs here, this is his summer, just as it was yours once–don’t make him share it. . .You’ve been looking behind you, Martin. Try looking ahead.” Second, “When You Reach A Fork In The Road, Take It” (stealing a quote from baseball great Yogi Berra) uses a stellar episode, “A World Of Difference” to teach its lesson. Arthur Curtis, another bewildered businessman, comes to the horrifying and disorienting conclusion that his well-ordered life is nothing more than a role he is playing on a movie set (shades of “The Truman Show,” which undoubtedly used this episode as its inspiration). After being pursued by those who think he has lost his mind, Mr. Curtis finds a way out, and starts a new life. My third example is the lesson found in “Divided We Fall,” which takes a look at a favorite episodes I often share with my history classes. “The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street” is a compact and frightening little parable that dramatically demonstrates what happens when a community turns on itself as fear and paranoia replace reason and trust. Needless to say, this is an episode that should be required viewing today.
I hope you will, with the assistance of Dawidziak’s book, revisit “The Twilight Zone” and learn some of the valuable fifth-dimension lessons that await you there. As the author reminds us in the preface to his book: “You gain this understanding and appreciation while grappling with the lessons in that middle ground between light and shadow” And then he asks “Isn’t that where most of us live our lives, struggling toward the light while coping with the shadows that threaten to overwhelm us?”
See you next week with more “lessons’ from the multi-faceted world of pop culture.