Heading into the 1960s, viewers of The Twilight Zone were so perplexed by the new series that they were left with the only option open to them at the time: Write their local newspaper to ask what the hell was happening on their television sets.
“There have been so many inquiries about the bizarre Twilight Zone stories that TV Week asked the author and producer, Rod Serling, to explain what he is attempting to do,” wrote the editors of the Chicago Tribune’s entertainment section in 1959. This was leading into a column provided by Serling, who made a valiant effort at the time not to coddle viewers. That isn’t to say his efforts were appreciated.
Serling was television’s golden boy in the 1950s. Having written acclaimed features like Requiem for a Heavyweight and Patterns, he was out to prove that television could function as a serious artistic medium and not just a way to sell soup. Despite his Emmy success, Serling chose to step away from the prestigious world of 90-minute teleplays to launch his own project. Of course, people weren’t exactly ready for the idea.
“I tried to sell this idea three years ago, and I was booted out,” Serling told reporters a week before The Twilight Zone’s premiere in October 1959. The show’s intended pilot had aired the year prior as a one-hour production for the Desilu Playhouse. The reviews were good enough to earn Twilight Zone a chance at a proper series run.
“It’s a carefully planned series. And the quality we’re after is a kind of marriage between film and live TV,” Serling said when describing his most ambitious project prior to its premiere. He would have his actors rehearse well in advance of filming. And he wanted all of his writers on set. At the time, this was a unique approach to a TV series. But audiences and critics were even more unprepared for what they witnessed on their screens in the fall of 1959.
“If you’ve seen either of the first two episodes of the new Twilight Zone, you’re probably wondering what the deuce it’s all about. … It’s one of a scant few TV series which isn’t a copy of something else,” wrote TV critic Bill Fiset.
In an effort to get the show off the ground, Serling toured, took part in countless interviews, and took every opportunity he had to promote The Twilight Zone. Remember the viewers who wrote into the Chicago Tribune? Well, Serling responded with a column to ease their apprehensions. And perhaps pique their interest even more.
“Because imagination is a soaring thing that leaves the feet behind, it soars out into space while the body is fettered to the earth. It reaches out to touch stars while man still gropes with slide rules and charts, planning the trip already made in the mind,” he wrote. “The Twilight Zone is a collection of stories of imagination, the unusual, the bizarre, told in terms of reality.”
But reality was also something with which Serling had to contend. As the major creative force behind The Twilight Zone, he faced the same challenges as everyone else trying to introduce something new and profound to the world.
First there was the show’s Friday night competition — ABC’s The Detectives. This cops and robbers series had star power in the form of Hollywood leading man Robert Taylor. Then there was television’s reluctance toward original scripts. Serling was outspoken against small-screen adaptations of well-worn stage and theatrical releases, saying, “Imitation becomes an art.”
This was also a time of wildly different standards in terms of what was acceptable to show on TV. Several months prior to The Twilight Zone’s premiere, audiences responded negatively to a “very special episode” of Lassie in which she gave birth to puppies. This earned Lassie the moniker of “a sex show.”
Serling was able to navigate these sensibilities with The Twilight Zone’s first season, only running into two real objections. The first involved him successfully arguing that one of his characters outwitting Death was not “irreligious.”
Serling lost the second battle and was not allowed to show a British sailor enjoying a cup of tea. Not when Twilight Zone’s big sponsor is in the coffee business. Unfortunately, this was far from Serling’s last battle with censorship.
A month after its premiere, The Twilight Zone was pulling in 20 million viewers each Friday night, which was considered “borderline” ratings at the time. Critics raved about the show, but most were uncertain if a wider audience would appreciate what Serling was hoping to achieve.
L.A. critic Hal Humphrey put it best, writing, “Luckily for TV viewers, Rod Serling still hopes to prove that we are not a pack of wide-eyed morons.”
Serling continued to take every opportunity to promote his work, undeterred by the shaky public reception of The Twilight Zone. Filling in for vacationing radio and TV editor Allen Rich, Serling used the opportunity to offer up his own personal feelings about the state of the television industry and his place in it.
“But it remains a fact that television with all its faults and foibles, with its rigged quizzes, with its painful imitations, with its propensity for filling up gigantic blocks of time with carbon copies of what went before and what follows, it is nonetheless a medium of promise, of creativity and of exciting entertainment,” Serling wrote.
Serling went on to add that The Twilight Zone was going to prove that television can be thought-provoking and meaningful, without being too artsy, obtuse, or pretentious. He promised viewers that his show would meet them all at eye level, but it would never talk down and never condescend.
By the summer of 1960, rumors surfaced that Serling was on the cusp of losing his role as the host of his own show. Then there were the reports of sponsors pulling out. Despite these rumblings, General Foods renewed their support for the second season, and Colgate Palmolive stepped in to replace Kleenex as the second advertiser.
And on top of that, Serling would be appearing at both the beginning and end of season two episodes. Of course, winning an Emmy helps. The Twilight Zone earned back-to-back wins for Outstanding Writing Achievement in a Drama in 1960 and 1961.
Serling maintained his sense of humor through the various ratings duels and spats with advertisers. In June 1960, he used an opportunity to fill in for TV columnist Hal Humphrey to pen a meta take on his creative process and struggles in the business.
“June 3 — Phone call from agent in New York. One of the sponsors on my Twilight Zone has definitely canceled for next season. Other sponsor very shaky at the moment. Think I should do a piece for Humphrey on what tasteless clods sponsors are. Will bring in television censorship and sponsorial interferences.
“June 4 — Phone call from agent in New York. One sponsor definitely decided to renew Twilight Zone for next season. New additional sponsor also found. Show set for next season.
“June 5 — Think I will do a piece on the absolute necessity of having sponsors on the scene. Perhaps a few anecdotes on what pleasant and humane people they really are.”
A year after its premiere, and the show that would go on to have a seismic influence on television, film, and popular culture as a whole would finally do the unthinkable — The Twilight Zone had slipped past The Detectives by 10 points in the ratings. The bounds of imagination were truly being pushed beyond that which is known to man. A dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity.