Award-winning author Christopher Conlon returns to the Vortex with a review of a new Twilight Zone book hitting shelves at the end of February. Chris is the author of numerous novels and short stories as well as an accomplished editor. As an editor he's gifted Zone fans with Filet of Sohl: The Classic Scripts and Stories of Jerry Sohl, The Twilight Zone Scripts of Jerry Sohl, and He Is Legend: An Anthology Celebrating Richard Matheson. Chris has also written "Southern California Sorcerers," the definitive account of "The Group," the Southern California based writers who wrote so many influential novels, short stories, films, and television programs during the 1950s and 1960s, including the bulk of Twilight Zone episodes. Chris's most recent book is Rossum's Universal Replicas: Karel Capek's "R.U.R." Reimagined, a fresh take on a pioneering work of artificial intelligence and the fate of humankind. Chris can be found at his homepage.
Dawidziak, Mark. Everything I Need to Know I Learned in the Twilight Zone. New York: Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press, 2017.
Of all the series from the early black-and-white era of American television, few have been more popular—not to mention analyzed, memorialized, and tributized—than The Twilight Zone. As author Mark Dawidziak points out in his new book, Everything I Need to Know I Learned in the Twilight Zone, Serling’s seminal program keeps “making the jump” from generation to generation in a way that only a single other series from that period, I Love Lucy, has done. “My students no longer know bus driver Ralph Kramden, deputy Barney Fife, or comedy writer Rob Petrie,” states Dawidziak. “But they still have spent some time with the Ricardos and in Serling’s ‘middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition.’” The continuing relevance of Rod Serling’s brainchild has led to a seemingly endless outpouring of tributes of all kinds, from books to movies to TV shows, a radio series, comic books, websites, blogs…somehow Twilight Zone just goes on and on, and pretty much everybody, it sometimes seems, wants to tell us all about it.
Into this crowded field of TZ tributes now comes Mark Dawidziak’s tome, subtitled “A Fifth-Dimension Guide to Life.” Taking its approach from the world of self-help books, the idea is to discuss various TZ episodes through the “life lessons” they teach, thus guiding us in our daily lives (“Submitted for Your Improvement,” in Dawidziak’s clever phrase). The tone throughout the book is light—clearly we’re not to take these lessons too seriously—and overall the effect is of a kind of easy breeziness. It’s not difficult to keep turning the pages, though for a lightweight project like this, 300+ pages seems a good deal more than anyone could possibly need.
Initially the book is rather fun. It’s divided into fifty distinct “Lessons,” and it’s entertaining to try to figure out from the Table of Contents which episodes the author might connect to which lessons. (The episodes are identified only within the text itself.) See if you can guess which episode(s) these “lessons” refer to (answers appear at the end of this review).
a)-When nobody else believes in you, keep believing in yourself
b)-That which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger
c)- Share with others
d)- Nobody said life was fair
e)-Divided we fall (two episodes)
Despite this relatively promising start, though, Everything I Need to Know I Learned in the Twilight Zone quickly begins to run out of steam upon arrival at the actual episode discussions. The problem is perhaps inimical to the nature of this project: all the author can do in each lesson is reiterate what is already clear from the title of the lesson itself. Thus in “Beauty truly is in…” we are treated to a summary “Eye of the Beholder,” a few brief quotes from actress Donna Douglas, and a couple of pages explaining how the story fits the “Beauty truly is in…” homily—which must surely be obvious to anyone who has simply watched the episode. It’s certainly true, as Dawidziak argues, that “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,” but when it comes to Serling’s approach to these “lessons,” few have ever accused him of subtlety. As a result, Dawidziak’s discussions tend to merely rehash and belabor the obvious.
Reading through these many pages it’s possible to wonder who the intended audience is for this book. One might guess it’s for relative newcomers to the series, given the shallowness of the analyses, but no: plot-reveals abound here, as the author acknowledges in his early chapter, “One Giant Spoiler Alert.” A TZ neophyte, then, would only be annoyed by these spoiler-rich discussions. Yet for knowledgeable fans of the show, this book has little to recommend it.
Editing is lax here, as well. Most of these discussions would be better at half their present length, and even the homilies are too wordy: surely “When nobody believes in you, keep believing in yourself” should read simply “Believe in yourself,” while another lesson, “You’re only truly old when you decide you’re old” should certainly read “You’re as old as you feel.” The occasional odd misinterpretation also hinders this book, as when, discussing the ending of “Kick the Can,” Dawidziak claims: “[I]t’s too late for Ben, at least for this night and this summer. Maybe, if the screams of playing children become a lure rather than an annoyance to Ben, there will be another chance to grab the magic…another chance to play kick the can.” But nothing in the episode supports this. Everything we see leads to the conclusion that, while the newly-young Charlie and his friends will play Kick the Can in their youthful heaven forever, Ben has missed his chance; while the magical children are now immortal, he will die old, bitter, and alone. It’s Ben’s fate that lends “Kick the Can” its painful poignancy; Dawidziak’s odd misreading only robs the episode of its meaning.
Finally, a word about the celebrity names attached to this book. On the back cover the publisher has proudly proclaimed the presence within the text of what are billed as “mini-essays” from the likes of Robert Redford and others, but if readers hope for a serious reflection from Mr. Redford on his episode (“Nothing in the Dark”)—memories of the shoot, say, thoughts about the story itself, how the episode affected his career—they are doomed to disappointment. The star’s “mini-essay” is exactly one sentence long. Even then, Redford beats out George Clayton Johnson, whose mini-essay is precisely five words long, and the words don’t even comprise a complete sentence. The ultimate prize for “mini,” however, is taken by writer James Grady, whose “essay” runs exactly one word. (In the interest of avoiding spoilers, that word shall not be revealed here.)
Alas, despite Dawidziak’s obvious love of TZ, Everything I Need to Know I Learned in the Twilight Zone serves only as evidence that the possibilities of TZ tributes are now most likely exhausted.
ANSWERS: a) “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”; b) “Steel”; c) “I Shot an Arrow Into the Air”; d) “Time Enough at Last”; e) “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street” and “The Shelter.”
Everything I Need to Know I Learned in the Twilight Zone by Mark Dawidziak is available on February 28, 2017.