How to Watch Television

By Ethan Thompson; Jason Mittell | Go to book overview

32
The Twilight Zone

Landmark Television

DEREK KOMPARE

Abstract: Few programs in television history are as iconic as The Twilight Zone,
which lingers in cultural memory as one of the medium’s most distinctive aesthetic
and cultural peaks. Derek Kompare examines the show’s signature style and voice
of its emblematic creator Rod Serling, exploring how the program’s legacy lives on
today across genres and eras.

As with any other art form, television history is in large part an assemblage of exemplary works. Industrial practices, cultural influences, and social contexts are certainly primary points of media histories, but these factors are most often recognized and analyzed in the form of individual texts: moments when particular forces temporarily converge in unique combinations, which subsequently function as historical milestones. Regardless of a perceived historical trajectory towards or away from “progress,” certain programs have come to represent the confluence of key variables at particular moments: I Love Lucy (CBS, 1951–1957) revolutionized sitcom production; Monday Night Football (ABC, 1970–2005; ESPN, 2005–present) supercharged the symbiotic relationship of sports and television; Hill Street Blues (NBC, 1981–1987) introduced the “quality” serial drama to primetime.

The Twilight Zone (CBS, 1959–1964) is an anomalous case, simultaneously one of the most important and least representative of such milestones. While universally hailed as one of the medium’s creative peaks, its actual influence on subsequent programming, unlike that of the examples listed above, has been marginal. Its compact tales of ordinary people encountering extraordinary situations certainly provide some of the most memorable moments in American television history, including episodes like “Time Enough At Last” (November 20, 1959), when fate, and gravity, ruin a bookworm’s post-apocalyptic utopia; “The Invaders” (January 27, 1961), a stark lesson in perspective; “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” (March 4,

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