Review by Tony Albarella
October of 2009 marks the fifth decade since Rod Serling’s celebrated black-and-white fables first cast their magic across the world’s television screens. In anticipation of this event comes a new book in which Douglas Brode, with assistance from Serling’s widow and literary caretaker, Carol, presents a look back at the groundbreaking series and the man who brought it to life.
The book’s formula is hardly original, even within the realm of Twilight Zone tomes; it is an amalgam of Serling biography (SERLING: THE RISE AND TWILIGHT OF TELEVISION’S LAST ANGRY MAN, ROD SERLING: THE DREAMS AND NIGHTMARES OF LIFE IN THE TWILIGHT ZONE), episode synopsis (THE TWILIGHT ZONE COMPANION), thematic categorization (A CRITICAL HISTORY OF TELEVISION’S THE TWILIGHT ZONE, 1959-1964) and profound literary/psychological analysis (IN THE ZONE: THE TWILIGHT WORLD OF ROD SERLING). Yet this newcomer pulls these elements together and presents them in a concise narrative that should appeal to casual and fervent fans alike.
The most prominent – in terms of both noteworthiness and volume – aspect of this book is Brode’s episode critiques. They reference examples of the rich literary history that Serling culled in fashioning his fantasy masterpieces and present intellectual commentary on Twilight Zone’s thematic treatments. The essays are cleanly organized by category, interwoven with plot descriptions (a benefit for readers who may not be familiar with every episode covered), and contain brief insights into Rod Serling’s character, courtesy of Carol Serling. These features help Brode succeed where author Peter Wolfe failed; in the aforementioned IN THE ZONE, Wolfe made equally salient points but buried them in a fragmented, free-association abstract that had all the charm and style of an arcane textbook.
Here, Brode mines comparable territory but does so in manner that is accessible and structured. His grasp of classic literature is impressive; citations infer that Serling drew inspiration from a diverse group of authors and philosophers that includes Aristotle, Dante, Camus, Chekhov, Cooper, Darwin, Dostoevsky, Hugo, Huxley, Freud, Goethe, Kafka, Longfellow, Poe, Marx, Nietzsche, Orwell, Proust, Shakespeare, Twain, Wordsworth and Yeats.
Brode’s conclusions are highly subjective, and readers can expect – as did this reviewer – to concur wholeheartedly with some and to disagree strongly with others. But his opinions are well-reasoned and thought-provoking, and such exposition provides quite a fitting tribute to Serling, whose work often invites interpretation.
Factual and/or typographical errors are a bit of a minus; the manuscript could have benefited from another proofreading pass or a once-over by someone well-versed in Zone lore. Nor is this release, as original TZ writer George Clayton Johnson states on the jacket blurb, “…the definitive book on The Twilight Zone…” – by Brode’s own admission, “…this is not an encyclopedia with an entry on every episode” and is designed to “…emphasize the positive by recalling the best.”
These quibbles aside, ROD SERLING AND THE TWILIGHT ZONE: THE 50TH ANNIVERSARY TRIBUTE is a provocative read for viewers who appreciate the illuminative power of television. It is not designed to be strictly a biography, an episode guide, a collection of trivia, a photo book, or a reference tome – these niches have already been filled. Rather, it is a critical study that seeks to define The Twilight Zone’s lasting cultural appeal; a fiftieth birthday present to a series that is ageless, and a most appropriate Golden Anniversary homage to the show and its creator.