On this day forty-two years ago the television industry lost one of its creators and the American audience lost its voice. From its inception Rod Serling was television’s moral compass. Whether exploring the social and political landscape of the time or penning touching stories of unlikely heroes, Serling was always concerned with our well-being. He may be the most humanitarian writer to ever work in the field of television. That the world lost him in 1975 at the mere age of fifty is a loss felt by anyone who has ever seen or read a Rod Serling script.
The Twilight Zone was different from other fantasy and science fiction shows of the time. For one, it looked different. It didn’t possess the awkward ornamentation found in shows like The Outer Limits or Star Trek. It looked more like a film noir, lots of shadows and interesting camera angles. The acting was also usually a notch above other programs, with actors delivering genuinely moving performances which made it easy to care about the characters, or despise them, whichever the case. But the writing was what really set the show apart. This was Serling’s greatest contribution to the show. On The Twilight Zone the writer was the star. He was given no restrictions and his work was rarely changed without his consent. Few shows, then or now, allow for that level of creative freedom.
Each writer brought their own personality to the show. Serling’s episodes usually fell into one of two categories: stories with a social conscience dealing with the uglier aspects of humanity—prejudice, war, greed—and stories that showed us that perhaps humanity is not yet lost, that there is greatness and compassion in the world if we are simply willing to work for it. He wrote about the downtrodden of the world, the forgotten, the misrepresented, the tragic, and he gave them as much integrity as he would any other character.
Serling’s harshest critic was always himself. He often claimed that he had written nothing that would be remembered a hundred years from now. He was wrong, of course. He is still, forty-two years after his death, one of the most distinguished television writers in the history of the medium. In an era that saw the birth of the game show and the popularization of mindless situational comedies and derivative police dramas, Serling attempted to hold a place for intellectual material on television. He brought the fiction that had influenced him as a young writer—fantasies, westerns, the supernatural—into the same arena as serious dramatic television. His efforts eventually helped to bridge the gap between dramatic literature and fantasy, something he is rarely given credit for. He created a show that has inspired countless writers-this author included-to pick up a pen and say something constructive. This is Rod Serling's legacy, and it is one that will unquestionably be around a hundred years from now.