Monday, February 16, 2015

Rod Serling & The Postmodern Condition

Our earliest years form the foundation of not only what we think about, but more importantly, how we think. It is evident that how we think is shaped by the culture from which we emerge and the unique situations that we experience. William James likened our minds to clay on the potter's wheel; each of us uniquely formed by the pressures of the hands of culture and experience. The television media environment of the 1940s through today provides a unique ecology to understanding how we think, feel, and interact with the world.

As a child I was fascinated by the television programs that my parents' generation came of age with. In particular, I was captivated by Rod Serling's Twilight Zone from the 1950s and the 1960s. My father, after returning home from working the night shift at a local steel mill,  would record the 1980s re-broadcasts of the show which appeared on WPIX 11 from New York City. The next day I would absorb the previous night's program, waiting for the trademark Serling twist that would come at the end -the kick that brought home the message -things aren't what they appear to be.

Serling the soldier. (
I started reading philosophy when I was 15 years old. A high school teacher named Terry Male had turned me on to Plato's Parable of the Cave -my first encounter with thinking about thinking. The themes of the cave came comfortably, I felt as if I was reading about something that I had taken for granted, namely that appearances can be different from reality. I recall being aware that the philosophy I was reading was very similar to the reruns my father had recorded for me years earlier. It turns out that I am not alone in this; many of the thinkers I meet who were born in the 1970s were influenced by Serling's Twilight Zone.

Throughout graduate school I would entertain myself by finding an episode (there were 156 of them) that illustrated a theoretical concept that I was studying. Some of the episodes are better than others, and not all were written by Rod Serling. What did become apparent to me was that the series was not merely about the supernatural, space aliens, and other dimensions -it was in fact a rich commentary on existential philosophy and humanism.
Rod Serling cut his writing teeth at Antioch College, in Ohio. Awarded a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star for serving in combat in World War II, Serling attended Antioch as an English major on the G.I. Bill. While in college Serling converted from Judaism to Unitarianism; philosophical traces of which can be found in his writing.

While in college Serling submitted radio drama scripts with mixed success. Although he received over 40 rejection letters, he did manage to sell some of his work to popular radio programs. In 1950 Serling began writing for television. Adapting his radio scripts for television, many of which had to do with the soldier's struggle during war and after, he managed to shop his scripts to some of the most popular live drama programs of the golden age, including Kraft Television Theater and Hallmark Hall of Fame. Serling and his wife moved to New York City in 1954 where he would become influenced by the Beat writers and thinkers. In 1955 his 72nd script was produced by Kraft Television Theater, a script that would change his life. The drama was called Patterns. Serling followed up Patterns in 1956 with a knock-out script that won him a Peabody Award and an Emmy called Requiem for a Heavyweight.

In 1958 Serling took on the problem of American racism and bigotry in a Playhouse 90 teledrama called A Town Has Turned to Dust. The controversial drama met with considerable sponsor and executive censorship, which Serling successfully fought for broadcast. However, the experience brought corporate censorship to the forefront of Serling's concerns. He endeavored to create a program that would address civil rights issues, existentialism, and the residue of McCarthyism. Serling sought to write popular television dramas that provoked audiences to think rather than be merely entertained.
In The Time Element (1958), Serling premiered what would become his trademark psychological teledrama. He had proposed the script for a new series he called Twilight Zone, but instead it was presented on The Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse, introduced by Desi Arnaz. Not unlike Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five (1969), The Time Element deals with the psychological consequences of war, a theme that would recur in Twilight Zone.

In Twilight Zone we find Serling addressing the issues of death, mortality, choice, and existence that are at the heart of the human experience. Cloaked beneath the facade of space aliens, supernatural forces, or science fiction we find the weighty issues of postwar America, issues of civil rights, Red Scare McCarthyism, and the question of technology in the modern world. What Serling managed to do in Twilight Zone was to introduce the conversation of the postmodern condition into the livingrooms of Americans who might otherwise be silent about the social conditions which American society was facing.

To the typical adolescent or adult of the 1950s and 1960s Twilight Zone was fantasy, Sci-Fi thriller, or purely a half-hour horror show. But for the close reader of the television text we find Serling addressing something much deeper than our fear of the outer limits; he was introducing a generation of children into the world of continental philosophy, existentialism, and Critical Theory. Serling was not telling us tales of science fiction and horror, he was showing us how to think in ways that questioned what we know as reality. The "twilight zone" is the world of the phenomenal experience, the fleshing out of that place in which the fiction is the reality.