Reviewed by George Basler
Binghamton’s own Rod Serling is the subject of a new book by Mark Dawidziak, television critic for the Cleveland (Ohio) Plain Dealer.
The book, Everything I Need to Know I Learned in the Twilight Zone, was published by Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press that specializes in popular trade fiction and non-fiction books.
Dawidziak is a true fan. As he writes in an early chapter: “Some writers seem dated because of themes and settings. Some seem dated because of style and vernacular. Very few remain of their time, yet timeless. Very few leave behind stories that speak to us as forcefully as they did when first written. Very few transcend eras and fashions. Rod Serling is in that select company.”
Not surprisingly, given these comments, Dawidziak’s book is a love letter to Serling. The tone is lighthearted, and it’s a very quick read.
The first part of the book is a good, pithy recap of Serling’s early life and career. Binghamton is well represented as his hometown. “He remembered it fondly, and that must be recognized as an exercise in understatement. To understand what Binghamton meant to Rod Serling, emphasize the home part of hometown,” Dawidziak writes.
The author characterizes Serling in his pre-Twilight Zone notoriety as being one of the “angry young men” and most successful writers of the golden age of live television drama in the 1950s. This is a part of Serling’s career that too often gets overlooked in the emphasis on his Twilight Zone days. Dawidziak gives his early plays their due.
But the central part of his book, as is obvious from the title, is The Twilight Zone over which Serling had complete creative control after selling the idea to the powers-to-be at CBS television. He would end up writing 92 of its 156 episodes over a five-year period, an astonishing output.
The book focuses on how Serling used the science fiction/fantasy format to get messages about prejudice, fear mongering, greed and other societal ills past the heavy hand of network censors and skittish sponsors. As he once explained: “An alien can say things a Democrat or Republican can’t.”
Dwidziak takes a novel approach. He uses the Twilight Zone morality tales by Serling and his fellow writers to support 50 life lessons, such as “don’t live in the past” and “if something looks too good to be true, it probably is.”
With his tongue firmly in his cheek, Dawidziak calls his book “a kind of fifth dimension self-help book.”
To be honest, unless you’re a Twilight Zone fan, Dawidziak’s book may provide more information about the show than you would ever want to know. But I enjoyed it. Then again, I am a big fan. When I was a teenager, The Twilight Zone was must-see television. The plots and twist endings kept me tuning in week after week.
As I flipped through the pages, Dawidziak’s book brought back some nice memories and gave me an even greater appreciation of Serling’s brilliance. The fact that I could check the book out of the Broome County Public Library for free was another plus.
One thing that impressed me the most is the fact that a book publishing company would think that it could make money off a book about a black-and white-television series that originally aired more than 50 years ago.
Given how quickly pop culture icons disappear from public consciousness, that’s pretty darn amazing.
But maybe I shouldn’t be surprised. In 2013 the Writers Guild of America polled its members to come up with a list of the 100 best-written shows in television history. The Twilight Zone came in number three, just behind The Sopranos and Seinfeld.
“When you handicap the top three and adjust for short Hollywood attention span, that is practically saying The Twilight Zone is in a dimension all of its own, way beyond the number 1 spot,” Dawidziak emphasizes.
His book, which also features a forward by Serling’s daughter, Anne Serling, is a worthy contribution to keeping Serling’s legacy alive. And it’s a rich legacy. As Dawidziak writes: “Lurking in almost every episode of The Twilight Zone is at least one guiding rule, one life lesson, one stirring reminder of a basic right or wrong taught to us as children. There are lessons for individuals. There are lessons for our society. There are lessons for our planet.”
Everything I Need to Know I Learned in the Twilight Zone is on the shelves of the Broome County Public Library, 185 Court St., Binghamton. Its retail sale price is $26.99.