Oct. 22, 2010: Searching for peace in ‘The Twilight Zone’ by Brenton Phillips

October 22, 2010 by

On Dec. 25, 1944, a regiment of American paratroopers trudged out of the mountains after 30 days of fighting in The Philippines. Suddenly the line halted and the soldiers braced for a sniper or machine gun nest. A whispered message made its way down the line: “It’s Christmas.”

The grimy troops, unshaven and hungry after a month in action, had forgotten the American Christmas that was — literally and figuratively — thousands of miles away. For them, for a moment at least, peace on earth dulled the sharp edge of combat.

Years later, one of those soldiers wrote,  “I continued to lift my feet one after the other, and suddenly I wasn’t aware of the cold rain or mud. I gave no thought to the sickening ache deep inside the gut that had been with me for so many days. Someone had just transformed the world. Those two words reminded me that people still lived, and that we did, too.”

The paratrooper who wrote those words was a short guy with an electric grin who talked through his teeth. By 1960 he had become an Emmy-winning creator of live television shows and “The Twilight Zone.”

That Christmas Day in 1944 was also Rod Serling’s 20th birthday.

The degrading stress the young Serling endured in the Pacific found different manifestations when he returned home to a different world — the dog-eat-dog maneuvering for money and position, the battering, stress-filled concrete jungle of bosses, meetings, deadlines, the morass of modern madness W. H. Auden labeled “The Age of Anxiety.”

Serling pounded out this angst on a typewriter. He called for mercy and understanding for the people not only on the brink of the abyss, but also for those just having it hard, like characters in his teleplays “Patterns” and “Requiem for a Heavyweight.”  And he continued that call in “The Twilight Zone.”  He searched for his own better angel.

Many people describe the general mood of “The Twilight Zone” with adjectives such as eerie, creepy, spooky, uncanny, etc.  All true, of course—but these adjectives ignore what the best episodes explore: Everyman and Everywoman’s daily search for peace. Serling’s most convincing characters grapple to escape anxiety — and frequently lose.

(This running theme of losing is a credit to Serling, who understood that the canned happy endings of both comedies and dramas of the time often rang false, often had little to do with reality; his modern parables often serve as unsentimental warnings, not just mere mindless entertainment in the “vast wasteland” of television.)

Although “The Twilight Zone” has become synonymous with the strange, most of Serling’s characters are fairly typical. They are common people, average Joes and Janes on the nondescript streets of Atomic America. A meek bank teller who wants only to have “time enough at last” to read his beloved books, hampered by a harpy of a wife and a society of “tongue-cluckers.”  (Ironically, he finds peace only after a nuclear nightmare, a fleeting peace shattered when his glasses are shattered.)  The business executive who escapes the metropolitan rat race, returning to his boyhood home and discovering he’s not — and never again will be — that little boy playing in a perpetual summertime paradise. A pool player is obsessed with becoming the best, only to find that the price of being best is unbearably tedious.

But just when “The Twilight Zone” world seems hopelessly bleak, Serling and his other writers give us glimpses of Everypeople not in the twilight before darkness but in the twilight before dawn. A “nervous man in a four-dollar room” who makes a living as a two-bit thief battles his better angel and victoriously walks out of his cheap room and his cheap self, we hope, forever. A depressed teacher at the end of his career realizes his efforts really did positively shape his students. An “obsolete man” dies with peace and dignity despite a totalitarian government’s efforts to dehumanize him.

Rod Serling believed in peace, forgiveness, redemption and mercy. A half century after “The Twilight Zone” first enthralled — and reflected — us on TV, it still reminds us (sometimes not so gently) of those wounded among us who have “crossed over” into twilight zones and beyond in the midnight. And, if nothing else, we should be beacons to them in their distressed darkness.

Brenton Phillips chairs the English-Communications Department at Cloud County Community College.

Comments

One Response to “Oct. 22, 2010: Searching for peace in ‘The Twilight Zone’ by Brenton Phillips”

  1. Paul Coy on April 13th, 2019 2:21 am

    WhenI was a boy, I use to watch this every Friday night without fail. I loved it then, I love it now. Mr. Serling was right on with his beliefs about the common man and woman, the same thing holds true today, at least for most of us.

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