The Twilight Zone Marathon: A History of a Holiday Tradition

Feature Arlen Schumer
12/31/2015 at 7:53PM

You have crossed over into a dimension of perfect TV. The annual Twilight Zone New Year's Eve Marathon is here. We look at how it all began.

It's a New Year’s Eve tradition that has outlasted Dick Clark, and like the ball dropping in Times Square, as eagerly anticipated...by Twilight Zone fans, that is! 

The New Year’s Eve Twilight Zone Marathon on Syfy (where it has been running the past couple of years after several decades on regional syndicated stations), kicks off at 7 pm EST/PST on December 30th and runs until January 3rd at noon. This year, they're showing all 156 half-hour episodes of series creator Rod Serling’s sci-fi/fantasy/horror/surreal magnum opus (that originally aired on CBS over five seasons, from 1959 through ’64), in chronological order! That should satisfy even the most persnickety Twilight Zone aficionado.

That’s because Twilight Zone fans tend to break down the series’ 156 episodes into “good ones” and “bad ones,” the inevitable wheat/chaff ratio resulting from churning out any weekly television series (and an anthology one at that), a format Serling honed during the 1950’s “Golden Age” of live, 90-minute TV drama, and then perfected with the filmed, half-hour Twilight Zone episodes. But eventually the pressure to create original, quality half-hour anthology drama burned Serling out, and Twilight Zone started showing cracks in its Emmy Award-winning (two for Serling and his writers, one for George Clemens, TZ’s cinematographer, the Gregg Toland to Serling’s Orson Welles) patina, and fairly early on (Serling’s 1960 second-season opener, “King Nine Will Not Return,” is essentially a rewrite of his own pilot episode of a year before, maybe the best pilot episode in television history, “Where is Everybody?”).

By the last season (Fall ’63), the series was repeating itself with alarming regularity (writer and future creator of The Waltons Earl Hamner’s “Stopover in a Quiet Town” is his own take on “Where...”), and the TZ gimmick of surprising, ironic twist endings and O. Henry-like comeuppances had worn thin and predictable (the anthology series, at least in its weekly, half-hour form, didn’t survive beyond Twilight Zone either).

Serling, who wrote a whopping 89 of the series’ 156 episodes (science-fiction luminaries like the recently-passed Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont scripted a bulk of the others), wrote some of the greatest (number one for years on TZ fan polls, the eerie “Eye of The Beholder,” or as you might know it colloquially, “the pig faces episode”) and some of the worst (pick any last-season episode, like “The Fear”—the only thing it has in common with its title is how frighteningly talky it is, the downside of Serling’s habit of dictating his scripts on a tape recorder).

And while there seems to be a general consensus amongst Twilight Zone fans on the “good ones”— Burgess Meredith breaking his glasses in the malevolent universe of “Time Enough at Last” to the “It’s a cook book!” punch line ending of “To Serve Man” (a dark horse episode that has emerged in recent years to top “Beholder” and “Time” in many a poll, probably due to its basic plot being lifted twenty years later for the sci-fi television series V, both the ’83 original and its 2009 “reimagining”)—there’s less agreement on the bottom 156. One man’s great episode (say, “Twenty-Two,” the hospital morgue episode with the immortal line, “Room for one more”) is another’s worst (“But the acting by the female lead is too shrill!”).

One thing both camps agree on is that the series’ actors were a Who’s Who of Hollywood big and small-screen stars-to-be, like (in alphabetical order) Charles Bronson, Carol Burnett, James Coburn, Robert Duvall, Buddy Ebsen, Peter Falk, Anne Francis, James Franciscus, Dennis Hopper, Jack Klugman, Martin Landau, Lee Marvin, Patrick Macnee, Roddy McDowall, Martin Milner, Elizabeth Montgomery, Billy Mumy, Leonard Nimoy, Warren Oates, Sydney Pollack, Donald Pleasance, Robert Redford, Burt Reynolds, Don Rickles, Cliff Robertson, Telly Savalas, William Shatner, Inger Stevens, Dean Stockwell, Lee Van Cleef, Dennis Weaver, and Dick York! Collectively, they make watching the Twilight Zone Marathon also a sidegame, “Guess the Twilight Zone Actor’s Future Movie or TV Series.”

So there’s something for everyone in The Twilight Zone Marathon. If you don’t like one episode, drink another cup of egg nog, take a nap, go out for a smoke, come back in a half-hour—a “good one” might come on next. 

The origins of The New Year’s Eve Twilight Zone marathon are in bit of a twilight zone of their own; no one knows which regional TV station syndicating Twilight Zone reruns started them - New York’s WPIX (Channel 11) or Los Angeles’ KTLA?—or whether they even began on that holiday at all. "The first one we did was on Thanksgiving in 1980," said KTLA program director Mark Sonnenberg in a 1991 article in the LA Times. In a 1981 cover story, “The Great Twilight Zone Revival: Why Rod Serling’s TV Classic Lives On,” Alternative Media magazine noted that this first Thanksgiving marathon, only eight hours long, received a 16% share.

“The July 4th marathon started in 1983,” Sonnenberg continued. “It's become a Southern California tradition, right up there with your other Fourth of July activities: barbecues, picnics and fireworks... people can turn on their TV sets and do their different activities and check out the marathon." Back on the East Coast, New York’s local station WPIX Channel 11, which had been syndicating The Twilight Zone since the early ‘70s (weeknights at midnight, right after The Honeymooners), started running their Twilight Zone marathons around the same time, and were perhaps the first station to run it on New Year’s Eve.

But just as the New Year can bring both excitement and anxiety, so can the Twilight Zone Marathon. For all its many televised pleasures, the marathon also induces spasms of severe cringing from serious Twilight Zone watchers, those who own the series pristine on DVD, or see them complete on Netflix, and bemoan the unmerciful editing of the episodes to make room for more and more commercials. Entire scenes are now being lifted from the body of each episode, which, in a twist as ironic as any Twilight Zone episode, mirrors exactly what Serling decried most about network television in his time: the gross intrusion of advertising that gave the “vast wasteland” (infamously coined by FCC Chairman Newton Minow) its name.

Commenting on commercials during a 1959 interview, Serling carped, “How in God’s name can you sustain a theatrical mood when every twelve minutes the thrust of the drama is stopped and onto the screen gallop twelve dancing rabbits with toilet paper?” Typically prescient of him to predict the Energizer Bunny, but if Serling’s watching what they’ve done to his brainchild from the great Twilight Zone beyond, you can bet the former Angry Young Man of Television is an angry old one.

Yet you gotta love The Twilight Zone Marathon no matter how chopped up they are, and no matter where you rank on the Twilight Zone totem pole of trivia and/or knowledge, because these Hall of Fame television episodes—these gems of storytelling substance and economy, saying more philosophically and metaphysically in 23 minutes than other shows muster in an entire season—these works of video art one might give to the aliens as representative of the best television earthmen ever made—are simply, as writer Hamner told Marc Zicree, author of the definitive episode guide, The Twilight Zone Companion (full disclosure: I designed the cover), “...great stories well told.”

They were of their time, and, if the increasing number of Twilight Zone blogs featuring reviews by thirty-somethings new to the show is any indication, along with the ongoing popularity of the New Year’s Eve and July 4th marathons (it seems the Thanksgiving iteration was short-lived)—which have done the heavy lifting of transmitting The Twilight Zone to a new generation, the children of the Baby Boomers who grew up on the show—Serling and Co.’s recurring themes of identity loss, science and superstition, the individual versus The State, and, to quote one of Serling’s closing voiceover narrations, “...the strange and wondrous mysticism that is a simple act of living,” have proven timeless and immortal.

“I watched the Twilight Zone marathons with my mom, who always told the story of how my grandparents spent a day with Rod Serling,” said TV producer (Ghost Adventures on Travel Channel) Eric Paulen, 46. “When I got married, my wife loved watching them too. The coolest thing is that now our daughters, 14 and 11 years old, have fallen in love with the series as well.”

Rod Serling would be proud.

ARLEN SCHUMER wrote and designed Visions From The Twilight Zone, the only coffee table art book about the series, wrote and designed the Paley Center for New Media’s website for the 50th Anniversary of the series in 2009, and continues to present a multimedia show based on the book to universities and cultural institutions around the country, most recently at Ithaca University’s 2013 Rod Serling Conference in Los Angeles.

* This article originally appeared on December 30th, 2013. It has been updated slightly to reflect this year's marathon schedule. *

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