Review of The Twilight Zone (TV Milestones)

Review of The Twilight Zone

Dominick Grace

Barry Keith Grant. The Twilight Zone. Wayne State UP, 2020. TV Milestones. Paperback. 132 pg. $19.99. ISBN 9780814345788. Ebook. ISBN 9780814345795.

The Wayne State University Press has published nearly 40 volumes in the TV Milestones series; surprisingly, it has taken on The Twilight Zone, one of the most celebrated TV shows ever made (so much so that it has been rebooted three times, with limited success, as well as adapted into a feature film) and arguably the seminal show to make the fantastic legitimate adult fare on TV, only in 2020. Barry Keith Grant’s volume is as compact as the other entries in this series, and it is a quick and easy read. Non-academics should find this a perfectly accessible introduction/primer. However, the book is also thoroughly researched, well-grounded in the scholarly tradition associated with the show, and insightful in its own right. Anyone interested in The Twilight Zone, whether as a fan or scholar (or both) will find this book valuable.

Bookended between an introduction and a conclusion waggishly entitled “Zoning In” and “Zoning Out” are three chapters exploring, as Grant outlines his plan in the introduction, “the interrelated questions of authorship, genre, style, and ideology in the context of The Twilight Zone”. (14) Throughout the book, Grant balances relatively deep dives into key episodes with quick summaries of linked episodes. As a result, he manages to be comprehensive without being superficial.

The first chapter, “’Once Upon a Time’: The Twilight Zone and Genre,” focuses on “the place of The Twilight Zone within the various modes of the fantastic, showing how it combined them with other generic traditions to offer social criticism cast as moral fables”, (17) but crucially also explores in some detail how the show works as a hybrid of genres, folding in, notably, elements of film noir, as well as other genres (e.g. the then-popular on TV Western; several episodes of the series are explicitly Westerns or at least are set in the West).

Chapter Two, “’The Prime Mover’: The Twilight Zone and Authorship,” addresses the extent to which the show represents a unified vision. As Grant notes, the show is indelibly associated with Rod Serling, who created the show, oversaw the production (for the first few seasons, anyway), wrote a significant percentage of the episodes, and, most significantly perhaps, hosted the show, stamping his personality on each episode and himself becoming a TV icon as a result (so much so that he is folded into the final episode of the first season of the latest reboot). While Grant acknowledges the complexities of auteurist criticism, he makes a compelling case for Serling’s voice and characteristic concerns as the dominant elements of the series. 

Chapter Three, “’What’s in the Box’: The Twilight Zone and the Real World,” is perhaps the book’s most interesting chapter, delving as it does into The Twilight Zone’s hallmark social commentary. Grant carefully contextualizes the show historically, showing how it responds to current concerns and anxieties. He also deftly documents its own tensions, arguing that the conflicting condemnation of collective action as dangerous (the show’s famous “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” [1.22, March 4, 1960] being perhaps the paradigmatic example) weighed against the show’s consistent condemnation of selfishness, greed, and other dangerous manifestations of individualism constitutes the “thematic tension at the heart of the show” and “places it squarely within the debates that have informed American culture and political thought from the nation’s beginning”. (98)

Also central to Grant’s argument is his recognition of the tension between art and commerce, a tension he recognizes as built in to Serling’s own conflicted view of television as, on the one hand, a commercial medium reliant on formula and beholden to sponsors but, on the other, a popular medium that could be used artfully to engage in social commentary. Grant notes that The Twilight Zone “reveals the tensions between artistic ambition and commercial capitulation at a pivotal point in the history of the medium”, (100) but that Serling was largely successful (with some instances of unsuccessful episodes scrupulously noted): “With The Twilight Zone, Rod Serling joined the ranks of such otherwise very different American artists as Walt Whitman, Frank Capra, and Frederick Wiseman, all of whom have sought in their work to find ways to integrate the individual within the great democratic project of the nation”. (99)

This book is a valuable addition to Twilight Zone scholarship, acknowledging the work of previous scholars while also advancing the study of the show. Its clear and accessible style makes it ideal for undergraduate students, perhaps especially in media courses, but its depth and insight make it valuable for advanced scholars as well. I would recommend it for any library interested in remaining current with studies of the fantastic across media.

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SFRA Review is the flagship publication of the Science Fiction Research Association since 1971.

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