How the ’80s Twilight Zone honored and extended Rod Serling’s legacy

How the ’80s Twilight Zone honored and extended Rod Serling’s legacy

There’s an episode of Northern Exposure in which the impressionable, young Shelly Tambo (Cynthia Geary) becomes addicted to watching TV after her doting husband Holling (John Cullum) installs a satellite dish. In need of guidance, Shelly turns to Cicely, Alaska’s resident spiritual adviser and high priest of cool, the disc jockey and autodidact Chris (John Corbett). Chris is sympathetic to her plight, though he can’t relate to it; he says he himself has never gotten the appeal of TV, “’cept maybe for the Zones.” The Twilight Zone, Rod Serling’s classic sci-fi anthology series, which ran from 1959 to 1964, is the original underground cult show, and one of the earliest TV series to acquire a new, hip luster years after it was originally broadcast. Kids who grew up watching it in syndicated reruns were transfixed by the low-budget punchiness of the best episodes, and their perfectly preserved, claustrophobically intense atmosphere of Cold War paranoia.

So it makes sense that The Twilight Zone was one of the first TV series to get its own reboot. Still, the fact that it happened at all can largely be chalked up to the magical effect that the name “Steven Spielberg” has on Hollywood executives. Spielberg was one of the four big-name directors who worked on 1983’s  Twilight Zone: The Movie, which represented a landmark moment in Boomer nostalgia and its effect on the shape of popular culture. There had been movies based on TV shows before, but spin-offs like Munster, Go Home!; House Of Dark Shadows; and the Get Smart movie, The Nude Bomb, were cheap fan bait for hardcore addicts. Along with the Star Trek movies, the Twilight Zone film—best remembered for George Miller’s high-adrenaline remake of “Nightmare At 20,000 Feet” and Joe Dante’s fun remake of “It’s A Good Life” (and, sadly, for the on-set helicopter crash that took the lives of actor Vic Morrow and two children)—served notice that the generation that grew up watching TV took its pop-culture nostalgia seriously. 

For his next trick, Spielberg announced plans to launch his own TV series, Amazing Stories—basically, a high-concept, A-list-talent version of The Wonderful World Of Disney—and suddenly, anthology shows were the hot ticket of the fall 1985 TV season. Since CBS owned the rights to The Twilight Zone, the show gave the network a ready template with strong name recognition that it could produce in-house. (NBC, which already had Amazing Stories, also took a flier on a reboot of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, with new remakes of old episodes joined to “colorized” classic introductory sequences starring Hitch himself.) 

The original Twilight Zone had served as a meal ticket for hungry young talent, which enhanced the interest value of those reruns whose unknown stars turned out to be stars of tomorrow (Robert Redford, Robert Duvall, and William Shatner). The new Twilight Zone attracted a number of big-name actors and directors who were charmed by the idea of being associated with Rod Serling’s venerable brand. Some of the directors who worked on the show—such as Wes Craven, who directed the first segment of the first episode and several other installments, and who was just coming off the original Nightmare On Elm Street movie—were as hot then as they would ever be; others, such as William Friedkin, had suffered some career setbacks, and may have seen this as a good chance to show what they could still do even when working fast and dirty, without the weight of a multimillion-dollar production on their backs. 

The network also managed to pull in scripts from the likes of George R. R. Martin, novelist and Batman comics writer Alan Brennert, Farscape creator Rockne S. O’Bannon, and Babylon 5 creator J. Michael Straczynski, and sponsored adaptations of stories by Joe Haldeman, Arthur C. Clarke, Stephen King, Robert Silverberg, Theodore Sturgeon, Greg Bear, Robert McCammon, and Harlan Ellison. More remarkably, Ellison himself agreed to lend his name to the series as creative consultant, the unlikely get of the century given Ellison’s well-aired feelings about TV. (For the grisly details, see his book The Glass Teat, or any interview in which he was asked what he thought about how the makers of Star Trek handled his best-known TV script, “The City On The Edge Of Forever.”) Inevitably, Ellison walked off the series shaking his fist after one of his scripts, a Christmas episode based on a Donald Westlake story, elicited cries of horror from the Standards And Practices department. 

The “new” Twilight Zone never achieved the stylistic unity and clear, strong personality of the original—a unity and personality that can make a fan more forgiving of the dud episodes turned out by Serling and his team, because a subpar episode of Serling’s Twilight Zone is still recognizably an episode of The Twilight Zone and not easily mistaken for anything else. But the show had too many talented people working on it, in too honest a spirit of attempting to do right by Serling’s legacy, to avoid producing its fair share of interesting episodes. The producers further honored Serling by not trying to replace him as on-screen host. Instead, Charles Aidman, an actor who had twice appeared on the original series, provided voice-over introductions. There was also a brief, shadowy glimpse of Serling’s face in the opening title sequence, set to a new version of the Twilight Zone theme provided by The Grateful Dead. (A second revival, which aired for a single season on the defunct UPN in 2002-2003, featured on-screen narration by Forest Whitaker; it is mainly remembered for a sequel to the classic episode “It’s A Good Life,” for which the older Bill Mumy and Cloris Leachman reprised their roles as the kid who wishes people into the corn field and his favorite adult.)

The episodes of the CBS series, which ran for two seasons, were an hour long, and some included three stories ranging in length from 10 minutes to half an hour each. After CBS stopped broadcasting the show, another season of half-hour stories was produced in syndication. Then the whole series was broken into half-hour chunks for syndicated reruns. For the purposes of this list, each story, regardless of its running time, is considered an “episode” of the new Twilight Zone.

Shatterday” (season one, episode 1a): Bruce Willis stars as a smug, soulless yuppie who accidentally calls his home phone and finds himself talking to himself. Directed by Wes Craven from Brennert’s adaptation of a Harlan Ellison story, this little morality play has practically no supporting cast and zero atmosphere. But that just makes it easier to focus on the main (current) point of interest: seeing Willis, less than a year into a screen acting career that only really began when a 1984 guest appearance on Miami Vice and the spring 1985 premiere of Moonlighting yanked him out of total obscurity, where he was doing a one-man show.

“Nightcrawlers” (season one, episode 4c): The same year that both Sylvester Stallone and Chuck Norris had hit movies in which they refought the Vietnam War, this episode, directed by William Friedkin, presented a supernatural metaphor for the country’s inability to get over a war that had been over for a decade. Scott Paulin plays a troubled vet whose war flashbacks spill over into the real wold, collateral damage be damned. It also presented a bit of a problem for the folks in Standards And Practices, who were reportedly unprepared for the level of violence Friedkin included in his first cut.

“The Burning Man” (season one, episode 8b): Ray Bradbury is said to have considered this short, pastoral fever dream one of the best adaptations of his work, and he wasn’t wrong. It’s especially noteworthy as a showcase for the great character actor Roberts Blossom, whose movie roles ranged from playing the Ed Gein-esque Ezra Cobb in the sicko exploitation movie Deranged to Macaulay Culkin’s next-door neighbor in Home Alone.

Dealer’s Choice” (season one, episode 8c): In this comedy episode, a bunch of guys discover their weekly card game has been invaded by the devil (Dan Hedaya). Like other comedy episodes of any incarnation of The Twilight Zone, it feels unduly tickled by its own brand of dust-covered whimsy, and it would be a stretch to call this good TV. But it’s kind of fascinating: Where else can viewers see Hedaya, Morgan Freeman, M. Emmet Walsh, Garrett Morris, and Barney Martin (Jerry’s dad on Seinfeld) sitting around a table kibitzing for 20 minutes, under the direction of Wes Craven, no less? Some of the classic Twilight Zone episodes stand up mainly as pieces of pop-culture ephemera, and a segment like this maintains the tradition.

“Dead Woman’s Shoes” (season one, episode 9a): In this remake of one the best-known original Zone episodes, “Dead Man’s Shoes,” Helen Mirren plays the character who slips on a pair of shoes that belonged to a murder victim and becomes possessed by the previous owner. It’s a treat getting to see her switch from that mousy character to a brash, confident sophisticate on a revenge mission. This is directed by Peter Medak, whose movie credits include The Ruling Class and The Krays.

“The Shadow Man” (season one, episode 10a): Another new Twilight Zone episode, “Monsters!,” touches on children’s love of horror fiction and scary movies in a way that reflects the Spielberg influence on ’90s pop culture; it’s about the tender, loving friendship between a lonely little boy and his new neighbor, a century-old vampire (Ralph Bellamy). “The Shadow Man”—directed by Joe Dante, whom Spielberg hired to satirize his own aesthetic in the movie Gremlins—is a spook story that suggests there may be something unwholesome and vindictive about the symbiotic relationship between boy and monster. With a genuinely eerie twist ending, it might be the greatest episode of Goosebumps never made.

Gramma” (season one, episode 18a): Barret Oliver, the star of The Neverending Story, plays a boy trapped alone in the house for the afternoon with his dying grandmother. A pure horror tale adapted by Ellison from a Stephen King story, it features a cameo appearance by the Necronomicon, and it understands there’s nothing scarier than family.

“Button, Button” (season one, episode 20b): Mare Winningham stars in a gimmick story by Richard Matheson that feels so canonical it should have been one of Matheson’s contributions to the original Zone, though the story itself was first published in Playboy in 1970. Matheson did the adaptation himself, but used a pseudonym (“Logan Swanson”) after the producers decided to change the ending. The new ending does work, though. And the strength of the gimmick and Winningham’s near-feral performance are enough to overcome the acting of her co-star, Brad Davis, who signals that he’s playing a weakling by delivering his lines as if he were Porky Pig. Richard Kelly later made the same story into a movie, The Box, to show just had badly someone could fuck it up if he were so inclined.

“A Saucer Of Loneliness” (season two, episode 1b): Shelley Duvall is perfectly cast in this shaggy UFO story that touches on Serling’s sentimental streak regarding lonely, “ordinary” people but wraps it in enough genuine eccentricity to make it palatable. Duvall plays a quiet, solitary waitress who receives a psychic communication from what looks like a visual effect from an ’80s Laurie Anderson video and finds herself besieged by strangers who want to know why she was singled out. The story also features the great comic actor Richard Libertini, a strikingly plausible candidate for Duvall’s soul mate.

“The Call” (season three, episode nine): Some of the writers—notably J. Michael Straczynski—hung in there through the third season, which CBS had commissioned just to pad out the syndication package. (Even Harlan Ellison was persuaded to submit a new script called “Crazy Like A Soup Sandwich,” and it has some of the most unmitigated, unmistakably Ellisonian dialogue spoken aloud since The Oscar.) Though the star directors fell away, the producers were able to employ some talented up-and-comers, including Atom Egoyan. But the most distinctive work done in the third season tended to be by some of the actors. The possibilities of the weird-anthology format are embodied here by William Sanderson’s beautiful, touching performance as a man so isolated and lonely that he falls in love with a sculpture. (It’s basically an unofficial remake of an original Twilight Zone episode from 1963, “Minature,” in which the young Robert Duvall longed to live inside a dollhouse.)

And if you like those, here are 10 more: “One Life, Furnished In Early Poverty” (season one, episode 11b); “Her Pilgrim Soul” (season one, episode 12a); “To See The Invisible Man” (season one, episode 16b); “Shadow Play” (season one, episode 23a); “The Last Defender Of Camelot” (season one, episode 24b); “The Once And Future King” (season two, episode 1a);  “The Storyteller” (season two, episode 3a); “The Toys Of Caliban” (season two, episode five); “The Cold Equations” (season three, episode 16); “Something In The Walls” (season three, episode 19)

Availability: The entire series is on DVD, and can also be viewed on YouTube.

Next time: Todd VanDerWerff presents 10 episodes that could lead Community toward six seasons and a movie.

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