Monday, August 12, 2019

Deep Dive Rewind: The Twilight Zone, Part One

As the television industry began to grow up in the 1950’s, a few writers and producers sought to utilize the medium in ways that they couldn’t in film. Certain topics were seen as being off limits at the movies; not because of censorship or the Hayes Office, but because of the huge costs involved in producing a major motion picture. The studios would purposely avoid making films that covered American social problems for fear of alienating audiences and reducing the box office. Television’s smaller budgets should have allowed for more experimentation, but the medium’s reliance on advertisers and local affiliates watered down any possible experimentation.

Rod Serling had embraced television and found great acclaim writing for many of the biggest anthology series of the time. He soon found the medium’s restrictions to be too creatively confining. Sponsors would take too active a role in each script, making changes both petty and severe. Lines that might be seen as referring to a competitor’s product would get cut. References to racial issues would definitely get removed because they might offend white viewers in the south. Serling found these restrictions stifling.

Serling eventually thought he’d figured out the key to producing the sort of programming that he thought could change opinions and improve the world- by dressing up his morality studies in supernatural and science fiction themes. He came up with the idea for an anthology series that would feature science fiction and fantasy themes which paralleled modern issues and social problems. He wrote a pilot script- The Time Element, but it initially gained little notice. The script was about a man who went back in time to try to warn the United States about Pearl Harbor. The script was shelved until the Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse needed another hour of programming. The script was chosen and became one of the highest rated hours on television that week.

CBS took notice of Serling’s success. The Twilight Zone was finally given a pilot order.