OPINION: After 50 years, ‘Twilight Zone’ stays current

I overheard a colleague the other day explaining to someone why she always books an aisle seat when flying as opposed to a window seat.
“Not since that ‘Twilight Zone’ episode,” she explained. “It still scares the hell out of me.”
And, of course, we all knew exactly which episode she was referring to. In the episode “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” actor William Shatner, in his pre-Capt. Kirk days, plays a man recently released from a hospital after a nervous breakdown. On his flight home, he looks out of his window seat on the plane and sees a “gremlin” attempting to disable the plane’s engine. But when he informs the other passengers and flight attendants and they look out, there’s nothing there.
The episode works not because of the monster on the wing but because of the empathy we feel for the character. We know the monster is real, we saw it too. But because of the man’s previous mental condition, no one on the plane will believe him. It’s a predicament most of us has experienced, knowing we’re right but, because of our past or because the so-called experts say otherwise or simply because we’re a child, no one will listen. It’s frustration to the extreme.
And that’s why “The Twilight Zone,” Rod Serling’s masterpiece of television storytelling, still resonates with audiences today.
Serling and the other remarkable writers on the show always dealt with universal themes, things most if not all of us could relate to.
Sure he dressed them up as monsters, aliens, ghosts, time travelers, etc., mostly to get issues like war and racism past the sensitive censors in an age when “I Love Lucy” and “Leave It To Beaver” were the standard TV fare, but we always got the point.
The show deftly handled topics like love (“The Lonely”), loss (“Long Distance Call”), how easily we can turn on each other (“The Monsters are Due on Maple Street”), being careful what we wish for (“The Pool Game”), aging (“Kick the Can”) and death (“Nothing in the Dark”), even when death appears as a young Robert Redford.
The stories’ presentations were just as innovative. In “The Invaders,” the main character never speaks a word of dialogue as in “Once Upon a Time,” shot as a silent film starring legendary silent film actor Buster Keaton in one of the few comedic episodes of the series.
It was a groundbreaking anthology of great storytelling unmatched since which is why we still watch it today.
Sure we may watch reruns of Lucy or the Beav for nostalgia but we still watch “The Twilight Zone” because it spoke to truths we all knew and experienced, and still do.
This Friday marks the 50th anniversary of the first episode of “The Twilight Zone,” which first aired on Oct. 2, 1959.
I have no doubt that, 50 years from now, it will still be as relevant and as absorbing as when it first was broadcast. How many of today’s television shows can we say that about?

Marty Russell writes a Wednesday column for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at 222 Farley Hall, University MS 38677 or by e-mail at marusse1@olemiss.edu.

Marty Russell

Click video to hear audio