Monday, April 16, 2018

An Introduction to the Fourth Season


Twilight Zone: Season Four (1963)
Rod Serling in a promotional
image from the fourth season.

“You unlock this door with the key of imagination. Beyond it is another dimension, a dimension of sound, a dimension of sight, a dimension of mind. You’re moving into a land of both shadow and substance, of things and ideas. You’ve just crossed over into – The Twilight Zone.” 

            Any long-running television series experiences a certain amount of flux when transitioning from one season to the next. Until this point The Twilight Zone was fortunate in that it suffered little foundational change among its production crew or the creative team assembled around series creator Rod Serling. The relatively smooth transitions between the first three seasons resulted in sustained critical success and high creative quality. Everything which followed the third season, however, was characterized by attrition, turnover, and uneven creative quality. There was still quality material to be seen in the show’s final two seasons but consistent quality became a thing of the past.
            The Twilight Zone previously experienced an expected amount of transitional challenges before the rough period between seasons three and four. The basic parameters for survival placed upon the series by CBS were that the ratings not dip too low and that the show maintained sponsorship in a timely manner. Though never a ratings winner, the series enjoyed a loyal following which kept it in the top portion of the middle pack. The one area in which the series struggled was in maintaining a sponsor. While many other series enjoyed consistent sponsorship for years, The Twilight Zone inexplicably found itself scrambling to acquire sponsorship at the end of each season. As such, the series frequently dodged cancellation at the eleventh hour. At the end of the third season, however, this recurrent problem finally resulted in a (temporary) series cancellation.
            In the late spring of 1962 The Twilight Zone found itself without a sponsor. In the midst of scrambling to acquire the necessary sponsorship to produce a fourth season, the series was abruptly removed from the CBS production schedule, replaced by a new comedy series, Fair Exchange. The heretofore invisible specter of CBS executive James T. Aubrey (1918-1994) descended upon Rod Serling’s award-wining fantasy series with the decisive action for which his reign over the network would later be characterized. Aubrey assumed the role of President of CBS in December, 1959 and relinquished it in 1965. Thus, his control over the network spanned nearly the entirety of The Twilight Zone’s broadcast run. Aubrey disdained dramatic anthology programs and was peeved by the fact that Serling’s production was virtually untouchable as long as it remained within those two aforementioned parameters. Aubrey was convinced that television audiences desired simple stories told with recurrent characters. Inane sitcoms, many produced on bizarre or ludicrous narrative foundations, became the principal product offered by CBS during Aubrey’s reign, a reign characterized by a ratings domination not seen before or since.
Time has largely proven Aubrey correct in his assessment of the television viewing audience, but the implementation of Aubrey’s simplified style of repetitive programming, characterized by his two most successful programs, Gilligan’s Island and The Beverly Hillbillies, came with enormous creative and intellectual cost to the medium. The viewer seeking intelligent, creative, or edifying programming was quietly running out of options.
            One of Aubrey’s first courses of action upon assuming the role of President at CBS was to axe the dramatic anthology series Playhouse 90 at the end of that series’s fourth season in 1960. Despite solid ratings and a shelf of Emmy, Golden Globe, and Peabody Awards, Playhouse 90 was ground under the wheels of Aubrey’s vision for the future of CBS programming. At the end of its third season, and again despite solid ratings and a shelf full of Emmy, Golden Globe, and Hugo Awards, The Twilight Zone suffered the same fate. Though the series would return due to the immediate failing of the series Aubrey chose to replace The Twilight Zone, the inopportune timing of the cancelation fundamentally disrupted the creative course of the series, resulting in a continued period of transition from which the series would never recover.
            Aubrey replaced The Twilight Zone with the insipid and ironically titled hour-long sitcom Fair Exchange. The series starred Eddie Foy and Victor Maddern as army buddies who allow their teenage daughters to switch households. With the return of Twilight Zone in January, 1963, Fair Exchange finished out its short broadcast run at a different time and in truncated form until March, 1963. As the fate of Fair Exchange became apparent, Aubrey was forced to ask Rod Serling to return and produce another season of The Twilight Zone.  
            Numerous changes were required to bring the series back as a mid-season replacement in 1963. The name of the series was changed to simply Twilight Zone and it was scheduled in a Thursday night slot which Serling surmised lost the series a considerable amount of its younger viewership. Ironically, this marked the time in which Twilight Zone marketing material, particularly Twilight Zone books, shifted marketing efforts toward younger readers (viewers). A more fundamental change was that Twilight Zone now had to fill an hour-long slot in the CBS schedule.
Twilight Zone’s new hour-long format was met with hostility by a number of current and prior creatives involved in production as well as most of the series viewership. The attitude toward the fourth season is little different today and the hour-long episodes still struggle for acceptance among viewers of the series. Most syndication packages do not include the fourth season episodes and popular streaming services such as Netflix avoid offering the fourth season altogether, although Hulu is a notable exception to this. Only recently during the SyFy channel’s annual Twilight Zone marathon and on the smartly programmed retrospective channel MeTV can the fourth season episodes be seen outside of the many Twilight Zone home video packages.
The initial and continued backlash against the hour-long format is almost entirely the result of the fact that, for better or worse, Twilight Zone is a series characterized and judged by its twist endings. The hour-long format made it very difficult, if not impossible, for the series to construct effective twist endings. Realizing this, the writers on the series generally did not attempt to replicate the story format of the half-hour shows but instead adapted the series to the traditional four-act drama successfully exhibited for years on prestige dramatic programs. The widespread rejection of the fourth season is more the pity since it allowed the show’s principal writers, many of whom were novelists and thus suited to the longer format, to create stories with greater levels of characterization and greater narrative complexity without the burden of relying upon a twist in the tale.
The fourth season boasted some of the finest offerings from the principle writers of the series, such episodes as Richard Matheson’s “Death Ship,” Charles Beaumont’s “Miniature,” Earl Hamner’s “Jess-Belle,” and Jerry Shol’s “The New Exhibit,” the latter ghost-written under Beaumont’s byline. One wonders whether these dramas had been presented on a different program (such as The Alfred Hitchcock Hour or The Outer Limits) would their qualities be better recognized today. In many ways, the Twilight Zone label was a burden on the hour-long episodes due to viewer expectations engineered by episodes from the prior three seasons. Not unreasonably, and despite the change in format, viewers expected more of the same. Series creator Rod Serling, who wrote many memorable dramas for the live anthology programs a decade earlier, had the most trouble adapting to the longer format. Episodes such as “The Thirty Fathom Grave,” “No Time Like the Past,” and “The Parallel” feel very much like padded half-hour episodes, a quality Serling himself acknowledge in later interviews. Serling did, however, create an enduring episode in “On Thursday We Leave for Home” and interesting material in “He’s Alive,” the underrated comedic episode “The Bard,” and with “Of Late I Think of Cliffordville,” his adaptation of Malcolm Jameson’s story “Blind Alley.”  
            Many creators associated with the series have gone on record dismissing the achievements of the fourth season. Serling ironically stated that viewers “could watch fifteen minutes without knowing whether they were in a Twilight Zone or Desliu Playhouse.” The Twilight Zone essentially began as an episode of Desilu Playhouse when Serling’s “The Time Element” was produced on that program in 1958. Though he had not directed a Twilight Zone episode since “The Invaders” during the second season, Douglas Heyes refused to return to the series to direct an hour-long segment. Ironically, Heyes left The Twilight Zone in part to direct hour-long segments of NBC’s similar series, Thriller, hosted by Boris Karloff. When asked by interviewers, Richard Matheson, who contributed two scripts to the fourth season, one very good, one not-very-good, repeatedly lamented the failings of the hour-long format.  
The half-hour format did have at least one inherent advantage in terms of production. The short shooting schedule required for each episode meant that the same production crew could handle virtually every episode of the series. With the expansion to an hour-long format, and an eight day production schedule per episode, it was impossible to maintain this level of consistency. New crew members were brought in to alternate with the regular production crew retained by the series. The most significant change was that Emmy Award-winning cinematographer George T. Clemens was only able to film half of the hour-long segments. At Clemens suggestion, veteran cinematographer Robert W. Pittack was brought in to film the remaining segments. Pittack previously substituted for Clemens on the third season episode “Person or Persons Unknown” and would remain with the series into the fifth season, photographing such episodes as the sumptuous “Night Call” and the fan-favorite “Living Doll.” Other new crew members included Associate Producer Murray Golden, Assistant to the Producer John Conwell, Assistant Directors Ray de Camp and John Bloss, Art Directors John J. Thompson, Paul Groesse, and Edward Carfagno, Editors Edward Curtiss, Richard W. Farrell, Eda Warren, Everett Dodd, and Al Clark, and Set Directors Frank R. McElvy and Don Greenwood, Jr.
New writers also appeared on the series, the most significant of which was the invisible arrival of Jerry Sohl (1913-2002). Sohl was a novelist and occasional short story writer of both science fiction and mainstream material. His teleplays saw production on such series as Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Outer Limits, and Star Trek, among others. Sohl was a fringe member of the Southern California Group and a close friend of Twilight Zone writers Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont. By the spring of the 1963, Charles Beaumont began exhibiting the symptoms of the early-onset Alzheimer’s disease which ended his writing career and took his life in 1967 at the age of 38. Though Beaumont produced some of his finest material for the fourth season, including the episodes “In His Image,” “Miniature,” and “Passage on the Lady Anne,” he was unable to complete many of the writing assignments to which he had previously committed. Several of Beaumont’s friends stepped in to complete Beaumont’s assignments, finishing work on magazine articles, screenplays, and teleplays. These writers often worked for no credit and no compensation in order that the money from the assignments benefit Beaumont’s family. Jerry Sohl arrived on Twilight Zone with “The New Exhibit” and continued by writing two fifth season episodes, “Living Doll” and “Queen of the Nile,” all under Beaumont’s name. There is still some dispute about how much, if any, collaboration occurred between Beaumont and Sohl on these Twilight Zone episodes, but it is reasonable to assume that Sohl wrote the entire scripts from ideas developed with Beaumont. His “Queen of the Nile” is a virtual remake of Beaumont’s first season episode “Long Live Walter Jameson.”
The fourth season also produced writer John Furia, Jr’s disappointing comedy episode, “I Dream of Genie,” and a new version of Reginald Rose’s 1955 Studio One drama “The Incredible World of Horace Ford,” complete with a new ending written especially for its appearance on Twilight Zone.  

            There were indications that Rod Serling was ready to quietly end the series after the third season. The continuous effort required to produce the anthology series took an enormous toll on Serling, resulting in physical and creative exhaustion. As Serling stated in a short essay, "My Beliefs About the Real Twilight Zone," published after the series ended: "Doing a television series involves a back-breaking, frustrating schedule. Doing a dramatic series has a special difficult quality all its own. You have your own problem doing a show like this as often as you do them but to try to create qualitative, consistently good shows each week for five years is next to impossible." 
            Serling not only hosted the series and wrote the vast majority of the scripts but also assisted in script approval, casting, and various other aspects of day-to-day production. At the news of the series cancellation, Serling accepted a one-year teaching residency at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, instructing undergraduates in Mass Media and Dramatic Writing courses. When news of the series renewal reached him, Serling was unwilling to abandon his teaching residency and return to California to oversee production on another season of Twilight Zone. Serling remained remotely involved, continuing to write scripts and approve the additional scripts required to round out the season. Serling also took a step back from writing Twilight Zone tie-in material, a task he performed during the first three seasons, producing paperback Twilight Zone collections for Bantam Books. To capitalize on a new marketing strategy which targeted younger readers, Twilight Zone moved over to the parent company of Bantam Books, the hardcover publisher Grosset & Dunlap, with a goal to issue new illustrated hardcover Twilight Zone books. Serling had not the time to write the material and veteran pulp fiction author Walter B. Gibson (The Shadow) was brought in to adapt a number of Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone scripts into short stories as well as create new stories for the books. These volumes were published as Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone (1963) and Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone Revisited (1964). The books were later issued in paperback and in an omnibus hardcover edition.  
            An equally enormous problem for the continued production was the departure of producer Buck Hougton, a largely unsung player who ensured the efficiency of production which characterized the first three seasons of the series. Houghton could not afford to wait the several months required to renew the series at CBS and, largely on the advice of industry colleagues, moved on to a role as producer of The Richard Boone Show, taking a handful of Twilight Zone production crew members along with him. 
            With Serling in Ohio and Buck Houghton gone, CBS brought in veteran producer and director Herbert Hirschman (1914-1985) to oversee production on the fourth season. Hirschman began his career as a script reader at RKO and moved into television in 1951 directing episodes of the anthology series The Web. Hirschman brought a wealth of experience to Twilight Zone learned over many years directing episodes of anthology series such as Studio One and Playhouse 90, as well as in various television production roles since 1955. Hirschman previously crossed Rod Serling’s path when Hirschman was the Associate Producer on the Playhouse 90 production of Rod Serling’s “Velvet Alley.” Hirschman’s directing career ended on Earl Hamner’s long-running autobiographical television series The Waltons.
            The multifaceted talents of Hirschman served the series well in Serling’s temporary absence. Hirschman’s creative drive resulted in the design and construction of the visual montage which opens the fourth and fifth seasons. This opening sequence is likely the most famous of the season openings and is one which was retained and updated for Twilight Zone: The Movie and served to inspire the opening segments of both Twilight Zone revival television series. Hirschman’s experience as a director also allowed him to shoot any necessary retakes which would otherwise have required the episode’s director to return to the set several days after principal production. Hirschman also directed all of Rod Serling’s season four hosting segments. Since Serling was based in Ohio during 1963, his infrequent returns to Los Angeles meant that Hirschman and cinematographer George T. Clemens had to shoot Serling’s hosting segments, including the preview segments, in batches of four or five at a time and against only a plain gray background. Some of these hosting segments were filmed weeks before production began on the episode in question. This was a method previously used by Alfred Hitchcock on his series, though the Hitchcock segments were far more creative.
            Hirschman understood that with the format change the deck was stacked against him and he was determined to produce quality hour-long material worthy of the Twilight Zone name. As such, Hirschman could be demanding in terms of quality and often let Rod Serling know that the scripts the series creator was turning in could be improved. Serling, who was teaching full-time, writing the screenplay for Seven Days in May, and writing teleplays for Twilight Zone did not always respond well to Hirschman’s goading, resulting in more than a few arguments between the two men. Whether this less than congenial working relationship resulted in Hirschman’s quick exit from the series remains unknown but after only twelve fourth season episodes, Hirschman departed the production. A transitional episode, “No Time Like the Past,” was overseen by Associate Producer Murray Golden.
            Veteran producer Bert Granet (1910-2002) was brought in to complete production on the fourth season. Granet’s relationship with Serling was more amicable, going back to 1958 when Granet served as producer on the Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse overseeing production on Rod Serling’s “The Time Element.” Granet began his career writing screenplays in the 1930s before moving into film production in 1944 with Bride by Mistake. Granet moved into television production in 1955 with The Loretta Young Show and served as producer on such series as The Walter Winchell File and Kraft Mystery Theater. Granet remained with the series well into the fifth season, overseeing production on such well-regarded episodes as “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” and “The Masks,” before giving way to the show’s final producer William Froug, a move which virtually ensured the end of the series.
            For now, however, Twilight Zone was embarking upon a new path with a shortened name, a longer format, a new time slot, new producers, and with its creator two thousand miles away. Longtime contributor Charles Beaumont, soon the victim of a tragic decline, would start the new season with a compelling adaptation of his short story “In His Image.”

-JP


Grateful acknowledgement is made to Marc Scott Zicree for information contained in The Twilight Zone Companion. 

Notes: 
-An added feature for the individual credits of each episode is the listing of character names along with the names of the actors/actresses.
-Another new feature is a short episode preview shown along with Rod Serling's preview segments.

5 comments:

  1. While strong episodes exist in the much-derided season four -- "The Parallel," "On Thursday We Leave For Home," "Miniature," "In His Image -- I can see why Netflix omits it: it doesn't quite exude the classic "TZ" feel. Even season five, which is arguably worse than four, at least has more of the "TZ" spirit that we've come to know and love. Season four feels more like imitation than the genuine article.

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    1. The chaos which resulted from the cancellation of the series after the third season pretty much buried the show's creative consistency. The hour-long format presented some real challenges, none more so than going against the established Twilight Zone half-hour format with the twist endings. I certainly wouldn't ask a new viewer to start with season four but for the longtime fan there are some gems worth revisiting.

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  2. Alfred Hitchcock Presents ran five years on CBS as a half-hour, then was moved to NBC for two more seasons in that format.
    In 1962, Hitchcock and MCA moved the franchise back to CBS - and it was CBS who decided to expand the show to a hour, starting that fall, on Thursday nights.
    In midseason, CBS moved the Hitchcock Hour to Friday night, replacing Fair Exchange after 17 episodes (I'll ascribe the '27' in your post to a misprint). That's when the expanded Twilight Zone came on Thursdays, displacing The Nurses to the former Hitchcock spot in the next hour.
    Exact details about who had the ideas for expanding Hitchcock and Twilight Zone are lost to history (" ... defeat is an orphan ...").

    All that said, there is one other matter I feel ought to be mentioned here:

    James Aubrey's status as one of the great villains of television history will not be disputed here.
    One little thing, though:
    Jim Aubrey hated Gilligan's Island (and its creator Sherwood Schwartz).
    He hated it so much that he prevailed upon his pal/silent producing partner/mob connection Keefe Brasselle to produce a knock-off called The Baileys Of Balboa, which flopped in about the time it took me to type this sentence.
    This in its turn led directly to Aubrey's losing the top spot at CBS - and that's another story ...
    Anyway, my point was that Jim Aubrey is probably doing astral flips at seeing Gilligan's Island called one of his "triumphs".
    (And very likely Sherwood Schwartz, aka "Robin Hood's Rabbi", feels the same ...)

    All of the above aside, pretty good entry. Looking forward to more.

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  3. Thanks for the interesting post, which generated some interesting discussion. I'm looking forward to reading about season four!

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    1. Stick with us because there are some hidden gems in the fourth season, including some episodes which I believe would be considered classics were they part of a different program.

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