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How The Twilight Zone Can Make You a Better Person
by Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy
Five years ago TV critic Mark Dawidziak watched every episode of The Twilight Zone with his teenage daughter, and in every episode he noticed important life lessons. One example was the episode “Escape Clause,” about a deal with the devil, which prompted him to warn his daughter about always reading contracts carefully before signing them.
“I started thinking about the housing crisis, and all these people who had signed contracts not knowing what the ramifications of those contracts would be, and all the trouble it got us into,” Dawidziak says in Episode 246 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast.
That thinking eventually led to his new book Everything I Need to Know I Learned in the Twilight Zone, which contains 50 life lessons drawn from classic Twilight Zone episodes. Dawidziak says it’s no accident that the Twilight Zone contains so many valuable lessons — the show’s creator, Rod Serling, consciously infused everything he wrote with an uncompromising moral vision.
“There’s a concern with racism and prejudice and bigotry that runs through all his work,” Dawidziak says. “And an awareness of what we need to be — the tolerance we need — to survive as a people, as a society, as a nation, and as a planet.”
Dawidziak isn’t alone in using The Twilight Zone to teach ethics. He often hears from teachers who show episodes to their students.
“They use it to teach and to instill discussion among the students, and it gets them going in ways that other things don’t,” he says. “That’s the enduring power of storytelling to teach a lesson, or teach a moral.”
But the Twilight Zone’s most enduring legacy might be its impact on TV writers such as David Chase (The Sopranos), Matt Weiner (Mad Men), and Vince Gilligan (Breaking Bad), who all credit Serling as an influence.
“[Television] has become what the American theater was in the 1950s, when writers like Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams were writing the plays that illuminated who were are and what we are as a society,” Dawidziak says. “Cable dramas have taken over that.”
Listen to our complete interview with Mark Dawidziak in Episode 246 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.
Mark Dawidziak on pop culture amnesia:
“One of the things that breaks my heart is that I have seen, since I started teaching these classes — every semester, two classes each semester, since 2009 — I have seen things recede and disappear from the pop culture consciousness. There are still a few things — thank goodness — that we still share, and we still all know. The Wizard of Oz. You can use a Wizard of Oz reference. Star Wars. Star Wars is a perfect example. You can say, ‘May the Force be with you,’ and have a pretty good shot at hitting most people in the room. But among black and white TV shows, there are only two shows that continue to jump [generations]. … I Love Lucy and The Twilight Zone are the only two shows that the majority of my students still know.”
Mark Dawidziak on Rod Serling:
“He was the first guy to realize that if you put something in the trappings of fantasy, or science fiction, or horror, or whatever you want to call the genre — and The Twilight Zone is kind of its own genre — but if you dress it up in those, the sponsors won’t care. All they’re going to see are the aliens and the monsters and the spaceships and things like that. They’re not going to see the message. Gene Roddenberry took this lesson from Rod. He said Rod taught him how to do this. You put it on a spaceship, send it out to the farthest reaches of the galaxy, and you can talk about whatever you want. You can talk about racism, you can talk about war, you can talk about prejudice, you can do whatever you want and nobody’s going to raise an eyebrow over it.”
Mark Dawidziak on Richard Matheson:
“One of the things I really wanted to know was if he’d ever seen the wonderful episode of Third Rock From the Sun where William Shatner was the guest star as The Big Giant Head, and they have to go meet him. His plane has been routed in the wrong direction — they’re aliens and he is their superior. And of course John Lithgow starred in the remake of ‘Nightmare at 20,000 Feet’ in the Twilight Zone movie. So in the episode Shatner comes off the plane and Lithgow goes up to greet him and says, ‘How was the flight?’ And Shatner says, ‘It was fine, but you know, halfway through I thought I saw something out on the wing,’ and Lithgow goes, ‘The same thing happened to me!’ … I asked [Matheson] if he’d seen it and he hadn’t, and he was so delighted with the knowledge of that moment in Third Rock. And it does speak also to the resonance of that episode, that it shows up in a sitcom so many years later, and the assumption is that everybody will get the joke.”
Mark Dawidziak on “Time Enough at Last”:
“We’re all sitting around and we fell into talking about The Twilight Zone. And everybody sort of went, ‘Yeah yeah yeah, ‘Time Enough at Last,’ the broken glasses, the broken glasses!’ And I kept quiet, I just was silent, but after a while the silence got a little loud, and somebody said, ‘Don’t you like it?’ And I said, ‘No, I like it enormously, but I do have a problem with it.’ And I said, ‘Look, in the years since The Twilight Zone, language skills have gone down. Books are in danger, libraries are in danger. That episode makes it a crime that that guy wants to read, and I think that’s a pretty terrible message, actually, if you stop and think about it.’ And they all kind of stopped short, they all kind of went, ‘But…,’ and they didn’t really have an answer.”