Sunday, January 17, 2016

Season Three

“Your Next Stop, the Twilight Zone!”

The Twilight Zone entered its third season at what was probably the height of its popularity. By this point the show had established itself as both a commercial and creative success, scoring points with viewers, critics, and the CBS front office. On the surface, the transition from Season Two to Season Three seemed a smooth one. But for his part, Rod Serling was beginning to feel stretched too thin, both physically and creatively. Between being the on-screen host, showrunner, and primary writer, fatigue was beginning to catch up with him. He also felt that the quality of his writing was slipping. “I’ve written so much I’m woozy,” he told an interviewer in 1961. “If only I could take off for about six months and replenish the well.” Serling would not get that opportunity to replenish the well until the show ended, leaving its creator exhausted and further disillusioned with the medium he help legitimize as an art form. Of course, Serling would come back strong a few years later with Night Gallery, an underrated anthology series that would present its own unique production problems for the talented dramatist. Not all was as bad as Serling intimated anyhow and he was able to craft some of the most enduring material from the series during the third season, including the adaptations "Five Characters in Search of an Exit," "To Serve Man," and "It's a Good Life," as well as the original teleplays "Deaths-Head Revisited," "The Midnight Sun," and "The Dummy."
In addition to his current responsibilities, the new season of the show would also see Serling promoting products on camera. The American Tobacco Company was brought in as a sponsor and Serling became contractually obligated to plug products for the company at the end of every episode they sponsored, which alternated with the sponsor of the previous season, General Foods. It was another transition on a show that seemed to always be in flux, despite the exemplary job being done by producer Buck Hougton to keep the production running at a consistently high level. Rod Serling went from a voice off screen to a host on-screen between the first and second seasons. There was also the unsuccessful experiment of recording six episodes of the second season on videotape. The third season would see little of these types of alterations outside of Serling's new obligation to the series sponsor. The show again changed its opening sequence, as it would do one more time before the end of its run. It also began to list the title, writer, producer, and director at the beginning of every episode, a much needed change.

 Writer George Clayton Johnson began selling his original teleplays to the series with the second season's "A Penny For Your Thoughts" and "The Prime Mover" (written with Charles Beaumont, credited only to Beaumont) after sustaining himself chiefly as a contributor of story material through the first and second seasons. Johnson would produce his finest scripts for the third season with the classic episodes "Nothing in the Dark," "A Game of Pool," and "Kick the Can." Richard Matheson also began adapting his own short stories into teleplays with "Little Girl Lost," based on his 1953 story first published in the October-November issue of Amazing Stories. Adapting his own previously published material was something Matheson resisted during the first and second seasons, only going so far as to allow Rod Serling to adapt two of his short stories. Matheson would quickly warm to the idea and adapt more of his previously published short fiction in the fourth and fifth seasons, including the classic episodes "Death Ship," "Mute," "Night Call," and "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet," but would also continue to a steady output of original material, including "Once Upon a Time" and "Young Man's Fancy" from the third season.

On the other hand, Charles Beaumont returned to crafting original teleplays for the third season after spending the second season working with other writers (OCee Ritch, George Clayton Johnson) or adapting his previously published short fiction ("The Howling Man" and "Shadow Play"). These original efforts include the excellent "Person or Persons Unknown" and the disappointing "The Fugitive." Beaumont would continue his excellent adaptations of his influential body of short fiction as well with "The Jungle" from the third season, a story that first saw light in the December 1954 issue of If: Worlds of Science Fiction

The third season episode "The Hunt" marked the first appearance of writer Earl Hamner, Jr. Hamner would continue as a regular contributor to the series right up until the final broadcast episode, "The Bewitchin' Pool." Hamner also contributed the unusual Serling-esque morality play, "A Piano in the House," to the third season. Also making his debut on the series was director Lamont Johnson, who would direct many of the finest episodes of the third season. It was fortunate for the series that a director like Johnson could step in after the departure of Douglas Heyes, who was one of the most consistent directors of quality episodes in the show's entire production run. 
By the end of the third season, the show would lose another key figure with the departure of producer Buck Houghton. When the show struggled to secure corporate sponsorship at the end of the third season, Houghton found himself dangerously close to unemployment and took a new job. Although the show did secure sponsorship for another season, as mid-season replacement and as an hour-long program, Houghton’s departure signaled the beginning of the end, for the consistency and creative quality would never be the same. 
The season following would be one of transition and change, but for now the show was still going strong as it began the longest (37 episodes) of its five seasons with writer/director Montgomery Pittman's post-apocalyptic love story "Two," starring Charles Bronson and Elizabeth Montgomery.

Rod Serling’s Introduction Narration to Season Three:

“You’re traveling through another dimension. A dimension not only of sight and sound, but of mind. A journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination. Your next stop, the Twilight Zone.”

--Brian Durant & Jordan Prejean


  1. Your use of the term "showrunner" makes me wonder when that term came into use and what exactly it means. I feel like I've only heard it in the last 5 to 10 years and I'm never clear on its meaning, other than one person trying to portray himself/herself as a sort of auteur of a series. Shonda Rimes comes to mind.

    1. As Jordan points out below, Jack, you are absolutely right about the origin of the word "showrunner." It is only about thirty years old and I don't recall seeing it widely used until about ten years ago. J.J. Abrams, Greg Daniels, and Matthew Weiner are the first names that come to mind when I think of this word. Someone who does much more than just write or produce a series. Serling's title at the beginning of Season Three was still "Executive Producer for Cayuga Productions" but I felt that he did far more than most executive producers since he was involved in nearly every aspect of the show (writing, hosting, casting, producing, buying and approving scripts and source material, marketing, and much more). So he is like an early example of modern showrunners. There is a really cool documentary called SHOWRUNNERS: THE ART OF RUNNING A TV SHOW, released in 2014 and directed by Des Doyle. It's really informative and worth checking out.

  2. A quick search result shows that showrunner is defined as "the person who has overall creative authority and management responsibility for a television program." Rod Serling certainly fits the bill for the Zone. It looks like it was first used in the mid-1980s (1984) and has seen steadily increased use since then, particularly in last few years.