Submitted for your approval: As members of the Writers Guild of America gather this weekend to honor their best, that’s always a good time to remember Rod Serling, arguably the most influential TV writer the medium ever produced.
As the creator of “The Twilight Zone” – a series that resonates throughout pop culture to this day – Serling still casts an outsized shadow. And yet even he experienced considerable frustrations with TV’s limitations, as is documented in a new book by his daughter Anne Serling, “As I Knew Him: My Dad, Rod Serling,” which will be released by Citadel Press on April 30.
Filled with anecdotes and self-reflection, for students of television, the book is more of a speed-read than a must-read. Although Serling is an interesting personality, there’s far more than anyone needs reminiscing about personal moments and how he was as a man and father.
Nevertheless, several tidbits and facts stand out, beginning with the sheer explosion of creative genius Serling exhibited in a relatively brief span — from his mid- to late-30s, during the five seasons in which “Twilight Zone” aired.
The series yielded 156 episodes in that time; Serling wrote a staggering 92 of them.
Beyond cementing his reputation as a master of small morality tales, the series also made Serling publicly famous — perhaps as recognizable as any writer has ever been — albeit because he wound up introducing the show. Turns out the first choice, Orson Welles, wanted too much money.
Despite what “Twilight Zone” came to represent, Serling became disenchanted with TV, saying in a speech years later, “I can tell you that drama, at least in television, must walk tiptoe and in agony lest it offend some cereal buyer from a given state below the Mason-Dixon.” He also chafed at how the show was edited for syndication, excising key scenes to squeeze in more ads, until the episodes “looked like a long, protracted commercial separated by fragmentary moments of indistinct drama.”
Serling also experienced a lack of creative control over his next anthology, “Night Gallery,” which had its moments, while lacking the kind of consistency that makes “Twilight Zone” an unqualified classic.
A chain smoker, Serling was only 50 when he died in 1975. One can only imagine what his fertile imagination might have conjured had he lived and worked today, with the greater latitude the cable universe could have afforded him.
Yet for all his sci-fi prescience, his deft touch in concocting unexpected little twists, Serling was dead wrong when it came to analyzing the durability of his own work. Even though “The Twilight Zone” had already begun airing in reruns that will seemingly be with us until the monsters really do land on Maple Street, the writer maintained he had “spewed out everything I had to say, none of which has been particularly monumental, nothing that will stand the test of time.”In an industry where practically every writer, without much prodding, can hum the opening bars of “The Twilight Zone” theme and cite favorite episodes, it’s fair to say that’s one test Serling passed with flying colors.