Portrait of Rod Serling, host of the The Twilight Zone CBS television series. August 1, 1963. Los Angeles, CA. (Photo by CBS via Getty Images)
Screenwriter and Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling, who died 45 years ago on June 28, was a shrewd appraiser of human behavior and of the American cultural milieu. But could he really have predicted what the country is going through right now? Maybe, maybe not.
But it’s doubly disappointing that SyFy Channel has decided to forgo it’s annual Independence Day Twilight Zone marathon this year—we could really use the fun house mirror turned on ourselves, to remind us of ourselves, during this strange time of both social isolation and civil strife. It’s somehow comforting to settle in for a TZ episode and sense the continuity: while many of our fellow human beings are craven, crass, untrustworthy and downright unsavory, there is always hope and transcendence, of speaking one’s mind, of seeking the truth. Of good people doing the right thing.
There are a number of episodes that writers have noted are especially prescient. One, “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” (1960) is about a pleasantville neighborhood, the kind Donald Fagan sings about in “I.G.Y”…the future looks bright…on his seminal album The Nightfly. Dads washing cars, moms cooking, kids buying ice cream from a man in white pressed pants on the corner. A bright light—and then—all the streetlights and appliances go dead.
Then a teenager touches it all off with a comic book kernel of fear: it’s the aliens. And they may be among us. He might as well be the alien himself, because his words spark such dissembling, neighbors turning on neighbors, glass breaking, a man shot. It’s savage. One mild-tempered character pleads, “let’s not be a mob!” but the mob takes off without him.
Two aliens sit far up on a ridge by their spaceship. When deprived of power, says one, “(humans) pick the most dangerous enemy they can find and it’s themselves. All we need do is sit back—and watch.”
The old divide and conquer. Serling, who wrote the episode, was particularly pessimistic, but we can see today how much this kind of scapegoat hysteria works: neighbors literally turning on neighbors over not wearing masks, demanding that people wear masks, so-called Karens who call the cops, Karen-hunters stalking middle-aged women with cell phone cameras, Nextdoor posts that snitch on teenagers congregating in the park, runners breathing hard without masks on the bike path, chalk-writing in the street. The very worst is the shopkeepers and workers harangued, assaulted and harassed while doing their jobs during COVID, or beaten and looted during recent violence in our cities.
We can also sense familiarity in “The Obsolete Man,” (1961) in which a future fascist state arbitrarily decides who is essential or not, and if the latter, liquidation. “Like every one of the super states that preceded it, it has one iron rule: logic is an enemy and truth is a menace,” Serling informs us in the opening narration.
Romney Wordsworth is a librarian in this state. The chancellor is in charge of pending “obsolescence.”
“Since there are no more books, Mr. Wordsworth, there are no more libraries. The field investigators in your sector have classified you as obsolete,” announces the chancellor from a high perch, judge and jury.
He goes on:
“And of course it follows that there is very little call for the services of a librarian. Case in point: A minister. A minister would tell us that his function is that of preaching the word of God. And, of course, it follows that since the State has proven that there is no God, that would make the function of a minister somewhat academic, as well.”
“Lie! No man is obsolete!” Wordsworth roars back. “I am nothing more than a reminder to you that you cannot destroy truth by burning pages!”
The chancellor gets his comeuppance in the end, as the little librarian, played by the always capable Burgess Meredith, cleverly shows that the state, like all tyrannies, is brittle, and will eat its own to survive. The chancellor is later attacked by the rabid brown-shirted mob after he himself is declared, “obsolete.”
For Serling, it is simple, “any state, any entity, any ideology that fails to recognize the worth, the dignity, the rights of man—that state is obsolete.”
It is easy to make the connections to today’s “burning” of history, of statues set aflame, flung down, disappeared. An ever growing mob-like organism fueled by the backlash against police violence, erupting racial fury and toxic self-righteousness, seems to think that by vanquishing symbols of the past, pushing them down the “memory hole,” we will erase the injustices of their time, but as Wordsworth said, “if i speak one thought aloud that thought lives, even after I am shoveled into my grave!”
James Pinkerton noted in these pages this week, that the stories of the men whose visages in the form of Congressional portraits or statues are being tossed away, will indeed live on. Yes, but in the endeavoring to vanish them all, we risk making it too difficult to remember, for our children to learn from the mistakes of the past. If the mob is strong enough it will be successful in supplanting the old and creating a new society that is more fragile, more authoritarian, prevailing over a spoon-fed, infantile populace. Just look at Communist China today, a mere half-century after the cultural revolution set out to “destroy” that country’s history. There is a reason that George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four is not banned there, but any review or analysis comparing it to modern China, is.
But to a young Rod Serling in 1959, he could not have conceived that it would be the progeny of the counterculture that was just awakening with the dawn of the New Frontier that would be the very thing he prophesied in “Monsters Are Due On Maple Street,” “Obsolete Man” and a handful of other Orwell-inspired episodes.
While conservatives see the counterculture as the beginning of the end of American civilization, what Patrick Deneen has called the failure of liberalism, in TZ’s time (1959-64) it meant something quite different. There was a growing appreciation afoot for independent thinking, of imagination over conformity and the stifling conventions of American middle class life (authors like Ray Bradbury were opening up fissures with their own work on this subject), which included the dumbing down and homogeneity of society spurred on by mass consumption and technology. It also meant pushing back on suburban malaise, industrial pollution, and racial segregation. It especially eschewed Big Brother and the previous decades of snitches, spooks, and black lists. They had enough of war.
Things were happening and seeping into the prime time line-up. Serling was far from “alternative,” but TZ was reflecting some exciting things happening at the margins, and the series mainstreamed these issues enough for the entire family to embrace.
It’s cliche to say things were simpler then—they weren’t. There were just different monsters under the bed and enemies outside the garden door. As we know, things got carried away, and social movements that were supposed to make people more free and equal seem to be ceding control to the extremes, which focus more on control, retribution, payback. Instead of “coming together” as The Beatles implored, we got more tribal. Today, instead of a marketplace of ideas and open debate, news organizations are caving to the prevailing winds and deciding what is and what isn’t in the “sphere of consensus” or “legitimate” topics of conversation. In other words, deciding what we read, watch, and how we are supposed to think. A “cancel culture” has made sure that those who do not conform, even on their own side, are liquidated.
One thinks it would be difficult for the Serling of 1960 to have anticipated any of this. In his view, the burgeoning societal shift was rooted in the values of the Declaration of Independence: the dignity of the human being, liberty, and equality. Maybe when he died in 1975 he was already seeing the project going in an unanticipated direction, what conservatives would say, “off the rails.” Decades later, the landscape is unrecognizable, and it really feels like we are on a precipice, between the America we knew and something looking like Orwell’s Animal Farm.
Maybe at last, as Serling would say, we are truly entering into…the Twilight Zone.