Syfy’s ‘Twilight Zone’ July 4 marathon: It’s our America

WASHINGTON — Apple pie, fireworks … and the Fifth Dimension?

While it might be difficult to fathom, Independence Day and the 1960s television hit “The Twilight Zone” have become virtually synonymous in the eyes of the show’s multigenerational fandom.

For two decades now, the cable network Syfy has been host to an annual July 4 “Twilight Zone marathon, and barring rare and widely condemned scheduling snafus — like the year Syfy decided to run 20 hours of the “Greatest American Hero” over the holiday instead — this regular event has been elevated to tradition, a ritual even.

One could argue, however, that beyond a Fourth of July staple, “The Twilight Zone is as red, white and blue as the annual BBQ and parades, and this is why: The show, which ran for just five seasons from 1960-1964, is, at the very least, a reflection of our nation and people at a crossroads, between a World War and a New Frontier, the conformist 1950s and a counterculture waiting to explode, the comfort of peacetime and the fear of an atomic age. It’s both a history of our mid-20th century culture, and an X-Ray of humanity.

It is us. 

Aside from pure horror, science fiction and fun — who doesn’t love the campy young William Shatner in “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” or the pre-“Kojak Telly Savalas in “Living Doll” ? — the real zeitgeist of the era comes through every one of the show’s 156 episodes. There is true pathos here, and meaning, thanks to superb writers (among them, creator Rod Serling, Charles Beaumont, Richard Matheson), and actors who acted their guts out with every line.

Serling, with trademark cigarette and smirk, served as a memorable guide whose introductions to each human vignette ranged from ham-handed to moralistic, and always slyly existential. A World War II paratrooper and demolitions specialist who earned a Purple Heart and Bronze Star in the Pacific operations, Serling is a stand-in for his generation and a country on the precipice: he warns of the “signposts ahead,” and there are many.

Among them, five prevailing themes one recognizes time and again over the course of five seasons: nostalgia for the past, conformism and the loss of identity, man’s journey into space, nuclear war and the degradation of humanity.

And we watch, 50 years later, because the tangle of human foibles and dreams, obsessions and premonitions, still speak to us today.

As a nation at war since 9/11, do we not fear a military brinkmanship that would bring about an end of days, so eerily imagined in several episodes, whether directly (“Probe 7 Over and Out,” “Third from the Sun,” or “Two“), or metaphorically (“Where is Everybody?“, “Midnight Sun)? As a veteran himself, Serling seemed determined to understand how one side makes the other inhuman in order to annihilate, so jarringly painted in “A Quality of Mercy,” and the once banned-from-syndication, “The Encounter,” each exploring the American-Japanese hatred and guilt that animated both sides during and after World War II, not even 20 years before.

After more than 10 years at war in the Middle East, how conditioned are we today to our own prejudices, our fears of “the enemy,” here, and abroad?

In Serling’s post-War time, an era of rapid technological advancement and consumerism archly depicted in today’s “Mad Men,” led in part to a yearning for simplicity, a scaling back of the drive for material successes that seemed less fulfilling with every passing year. “A Stop in Willoughby” could have been a mantra for a generation of men in Gray Flannel Suits. The same goes for “Walking Distance,” when a man momentarily leaves the rat race for a return to his hometown (based on Serling’s own), and childhood.

In many cases, themes overlap in powerful ways, like in the popular “Time Enough at Last,” starring Burgess Meredith as a man scorned for reading books and poetry his unsympathetic wife calls “doggerel,” hinting at not only a rigid conformism, but a mainstream anti-intellectualism in society that Ray Bradbury eloquently foreshadowed in his own book,  Farehnheit 451. After a nuclear blast leaves Henry Bemis the last man on earth, it is the books that become both a source of hope and pain. Meredith went on to play the doomed librarian in the equally prophetic, “The Obsolete Man,” too.

Rod Serling pauses for a cigarette and coffee between scenes during filming of "The Twilight Zone" in this 1961 photo. (AP PHOTO)
Rod Serling pauses for a cigarette and coffee between scenes during filming of “The Twilight Zone” in this 1961 photo. (AP PHOTO)

We see this again, in “The Shelter,” a reflection of a real world in which President Kennedy led both the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion and a more successful Cuban Missile Crisis showdown in the course of two years (1961-62). People all over the country were building bomb shelters for impending doom. But what would happen if only one neighbor had a shelter when the bombs were flying? This episode guesses at what we’re all like inside when real fear grips even the most civilized suburban construct. It boasts one of the most memorial exchanges in the series. After Bill Stockton’s shelter is destroyed in senseless panic, a neighbor apologizes:

“Oh, we’ll pay for all the damages, Bill,” he says.

Stockton replies: “Damages? I wonder … if any of us has any idea what those ‘damages’ really are. Maybe one of them was finding out what we’re really like when we’re ‘normal.’ The kind of people we are, just underneath the skin — and I mean all of us — a lot of naked, wild animals who put such a price on staying alive that they’ll claw their own neighbors to death just for the privilege! We were spared a bomb tonight, but I wonder … if we weren’t destroyed even without it.”

It’s a pessimistic view for sure, much like “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street,” when neighbor turns on neighbor in a fit of controlled paranoia and chaos. Group think, mob mentality, these were the cautionary “signposts” of the era, but do they not still apply today?

Beyond that, we live in a society today that says it values individualism, but rewards those who look the same, and for that there is a multibillion dollar plastic surgery industry that thrives on the notion that beauty in fact is not in the “Eye of the Beholder.” In this regard, “Number 12 Looks Just Like You” could’ve been written today.

“The Twilight Zone” peddles in human weakness: greed, ego, superstition, vanity, ignorance. Sometimes its hapless characters transcend, other times, they succumb, usually after one terrible lapse in judgment. We know these people — we see them in the office, in school, during family unions, and oftentimes, in the mirror. We know, watching these episodes 50 years later, they were always there.

In the attached gallery, submitted for your approval, is a modest sampling of how Serling and his writers told the story of a generation, which we argue still resonates this Independence Day, in “The Twilight Zone.”

 (“The Twilight Zone” marathon can be seen on Syfy, beginning at 8 a.m. on Saturday, July 4 with “Little Girl Lost,” and running through 3 a.m. on July 5)

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