Thursday, 20 December 2012

Hollywood Babble On & On #976: Zoned Out?

It's interesting that a TV series born from frustration with network television management is now being considered for revival, by frustrated network management.

If that sentence doesn't make any sense, I'll explain. It all starts with the announcement that CBS Studios has hired director/producer Bryan Singer to spearhead a third (or maybe 4th) revival of the classic sci-fi TV series The Twilight Zone.

The original series was created by writer Rod Serling in 1959, and as I said before, it was born from his frustration with network television management. 

Back in the early 1950s Serling was famous for writing heavy psychological dramas for television like Patterns and Requiem For A Heavyweight that tackled weighty topics, won awards, and brought in great ratings. However, the taste of success soured when he started production of his teleplay A Town Has Turned To Dust. The original script was inspired by the brutal murder of a 14 year old African American by racists who were offended by him whistling at a white woman. By the time the network, the censors, and the sponsors got through with it though there was absolutely nothing left of Serling's original work or intent.

Serling then had the bright idea that he could tackle controversial and weighty topics and avoid the dreaded meddle detector if he covered them with a cloak of science fiction and fantasy.
Hence The Twilight Zone was born. It followed the then popular anthology format which featured a new story with a new cast in every episode.

Serling wrote the bulk of the scripts for the series with significant contributions by legendary writers like Charles Beaumont, Ray Bradbury, Richard Matheson, William F. Nolan and others.

The original show ran from 1959 to 1964, and quickly became a classic, and pop culture touchstone.

It's influence inspired a cinematic revival in the early 1980s, directed by blockbuster makers like Stephen Spielberg, Joe Dante and John Landis. The movie got mixed reviews, due to its uneven content, and more than enough notoriety for the helicopter accident that killed several cast members being directed by John Landis.

CBS revived the show in 1985, had its own golden moments, but only lasted two seasons on the network, and then completed a third season as a Canadian made syndicated series.

The CW Network, co-owned by CBS then tried to revive the show in 2003, with Forest Whittaker acting as the on camera narrator, but that only lasted a season with lackluster ratings even by CW standards.

Which brings us to not only the current TV revival headed by Bryan Singer, but there's also another Twilight Zone feature film in the works.

Which brings me to the simple fact that I'm not all that excited about bringing back the Twilight Zone either as a series, or as a movie.

I watched reruns of the original series when I was a kid, I even remember enjoying episodes of the 1980s revival. But I just can't get into the new versions.


There are two big reasons...

1. No Rod Serling: Serling not only wrote the most episodes of the original series, he also provided the other episodes a sort of guiding vision couched in his deeply moralistic world-view. This gave the original series a thematic and tonal consistency that a lot of other anthology shows, including the 80s revival lacked. I don't see Singer as having that sort of guiding vision, nor do I think he's going to stick around to provide it if the show goes to series.

2. Very Little Short Fiction Culture:  When Serling created the original show there was a vibrant short fiction scene, especially in the burgeoning fields of science fiction and fantasy. There were dozens of genre magazines and hundreds of working writers, and Serling was an avid reader of many of them, and either bought and adapted stories he found in those publications, or hired the writers themselves.

Nowadays most of the short fiction magazines are gone, and while there are many "e-zines" on-line, they just don't have the influence they once have, and I'll bet dollars to donuts that you would be hard pressed to find anyone working in TV nowadays who is a regular reader of those publications. Also, it's unlikely any network TV show would be that open to new material from outsiders regardless of the quality of said material. The usual pattern is to hire a bunch of the usual suspects, look at what was done in the past, and try to do it again and hopefully slap in a "twist ending" a'la M. Night Shyamalan.

Now how can they make this work?

First thing first is to acknowledge that story is king. The plots have to be interesting, the characters need to be intriguing, and there must be something new and novel.

My suggestion is for the show to do what Serling did, but for the digital age.

Cruise the e-zine scene, look for good stories, new  writers, and set up what's called an "open door" system.

It's not a new idea, back in the golden age of British TV sketch comedy, shows from the Two Ronnies to Not The Nine O'Clock News used to accept scripts from anyone who submitted material that followed their guidelines.

There should be a way to do that for the Twilight Zone without being swamped by the goofs and the nutters. Set up some rigid guidelines, including detailed explanations of script format, guidelines for content, and strictly followed procedures for submission. They would be surprised just how such procedures can weed out the nonsense.  If good ones are discovered, pay them guild minimum, and take some comfort in the fact that you got a good script, and helped a writer get started in television.

Of course the odds of that happening are pretty slim. It's safer to just do an episode where Death takes the day off and hope folks think it's clever. 


  1. Wondering, would the "send in the scripts" idea violate WGA union rules or agreements with the studios?

  2. The WGA would probably shit a brick even though it could lead to more dues paying members.

  3. "The usual pattern is to hire a bunch of the usual suspects, look at what was done in the past, and try to do it again and hopefully slap in a "twist ending" a'la M. Night Shyamalan."

    The 1990s "Outer Limits" in a nutshell.