Sunday, October 06, 2002

'Twilight Zone' misses Serling

        Two words why UPN's revival of The Twilight Zone probably won't succeed: Rod Serling.

        The prolific TV writer, who got his start in 1950 on WLW-AM and WLWT-TV, also was the reason the CBS and syndication revivals were doomed in 1985 to 1988.

        They lacked his genius, his vision, his brilliant storytelling skills, his soul and his presence as host.

        “Rod's writing was critical, absolutely critical, to The Twilight Zone. It was his conception that we all worked with,” says Del Reisman, who worked on The Twilight Zone during its original run on CBS (1959-65).

        “He had a very, very distinct rhythm of speech, a very distinct concept going on all the time. Rod was a great storyteller 1/2hellip 3/4 Rod shaped The Twilight Zone.”

        “Rod had a unique vision,” says writer Earl Hamner, another former WLW-AM writer (1948-50) who did eight Twilight Zone scripts long before creating The Waltons. “What magic Rod had, he instilled in us (writers).”

        Serling created TV's greatest anthology series in 1959, after a successful stretch writing live TV dramas for Playhouse 90, Hallmark Hall of Fame, Lux Video Theater, Kraft Television Theater and Studio One. He had moved from Cincinnati to New York to write live TV dramas after quitting his only staff-writing job, at WLW (1950-51).

        Serling wrote 90 of the 156 original Twilight Zones. His scripts often were filled with metaphors for social problems and discrimination, or tales of traveling or immortality. All had an ironic twist.

        “Rod originally created The Twilight Zone after a series of (productions) on Playhouse 90, when he realized that he could tell socially relevant stories in a science-fiction-fantasy way, that he could not do in straight drama for television,” says Mr. Reisman, a story editor for Playhouse 90 in the 1950s and a former West Coast president for the Writers Guild of America.

        “Rod was very concerned about humanity, and tried to address them in his work,” said Mr. Hamner, who will publish a book, The Twilight Zone Scripts of Earl Hamner, in December.

        Serling's deft touch was missing from UPN's The Twilight Zone pilot on Sept. 18 with new host Forest Whitaker. The series opened with a story about parents in an exclusive suburban community who had their unruly teens killed and ground into mulch.

        “I was just appalled,” said Mr. Hamner, who turned off the TV midway through UPN's 60-minute debut.

        UPN's second telecast (Sept. 25), opposite The West Wing season premiere, ranked No. 98 for the week. It drew 3.5 million viewers - down 900,000 (20 percent) from the first week - with a 2.2 rating and 3 percent share of the audience.

        Anthologies tough to sell

        UPN's The Twilight Zone faces other significant challenges without Serling, who died during heart surgery at age 50 in 1975.

        TV anthology series have not been as vast as space or as timeless as infinity since CBS canceled The Twilight Zone in 1965. The last attempt was Fox's short-lived Night Visions two years ago.

        The Twilight Zone worked in the late 1950s because viewers were accustomed to watching self-contained stories with different characters each week on those Golden Age of TV live dramas like Playhouse 90, Studio One, Desilu Playhouse, Armstrong Circle Theatre and the U.S. Steel Hour.

        TV series were “beginning to take over, beginning to dominate during the time of The Twilight Zone,” Mr. Reisman says. “People tend to fall in love with characters, and look forward to seeing them every week.”

        The world has changed in other ways in 40 years. There is no Cold War, no Soviet threat, no obsession with nuclear annihilation - all frequent themes in Serling's scripts. His black-and-white “dimension of imagination” did not include cell phones, personal computers, satellite dishes, moon missions, worldwide 24-hour news networks, global tracking systems or the Internet.

        While today's producers have more technology, Serling had more time. The original show ran 26 minutes. Today a half-hour TV show has been whittled down to 21 minutes.

        Those extra minutes allowed Serling to develop subplots and add layers to characters. “You were able to therefore flesh it out a little bit more. With 20 or 21 minutes, they can't do too much of that. They pretty much have to do a straight line,” Mr. Reisman says.

        Recycled but refreshed

        Another advantage Serling had was a 10-year stash of scripts he continually recycled. Some of his network TV dramas were rewrites of his Cincinnati shows.

        The Twilight Zone: The Time Element, the series pilot that aired on CBS' Westinghouse-Desilu Playhouse on Nov. 24, 1958, was a rewrite of a script that first aired on The Storm, his WKRC-TV live drama series (1951-53), and later as a radio drama on WLW-AM's It Happens to You.

        Requiem for a Heavyweight, his 1956 Emmy-winning live drama starring Jack Palance, first aired on The Storm as The Twilight Rounds, says Michael Sanders, the media services director at the University of Cincinnati Raymond Walters College who has been researching a book about Serling's Cincinnati work.

        Mr. Finchley Versus the Bomb, broadcast on NBC's Lux Video Theater in 1954, was adapted from scripts on The Storm and radio's It Happens to You, Mr. Sanders says.

        And with no disrespect to Mr. Whitaker, a fine actor, UPN's The Twilight Zone also lacks Serling's compelling on-screen presence.

        “When he's not there,” Mr. Reisman says, “it's like there's a hole in the film.”

        A hole as vast as space, and as timeless as infinity, for some fans of The Twilight Zone.

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