“In His Absence” by Anne Serling
It feels nothing short of staggering that The Twilight Zone is about to celebrate its 60th anniversary. And no one would have been more surprised (or humbled) than my father.
The show has been in constant syndication all of these decades with marathons on the Syfy Channel twice a year, a 1983 Twilight Zone movie, and a U.S. postal stamp. There have also been numerous stage productions, books and graphic novels, action figures, calendars, cards, video games, T-shirts, hats, bobbleheads, lunch boxes, a pinball machine, and even a theme park attraction—to name a few. There have been three remakes of the show; the most recent being Jordan Peele’s on CBS All Access.
Writing was what my father believed in, what he was passionate about, what he thought had a chance to save society. In 1968, when the country was in the midst of the divisiveness and turmoil of the civil rights and anti-war movements that were tearing it apart, my dad ended a speech at the Library of Congress in Washington by saying, “So long as men and women write what they want, then all of the other freedoms—all of them—will remain intact. And it is then that writing becomes an act of conscience, a weapon of truth, an article of faith.”
My father felt that radio, television, and film ought to be “vehicles of social criticism” and that writers “should menace the public’s conscience.” In the early days he had to constantly battle sponsor and network censorship—those who didn’t want to be associated with anything that might be perceived as offensive. He felt that “the greatest evil of our time was prejudice” and he tried to address this in much of his work, but his plots were often changed and watered down. Even a character’s race and religion were altered so as not to offend a certain demographic. He often spoke out against these restrictions and said, “I think that it’s criminal that we are not permitted to make dramatic note of social evils that exist, of controversial themes as they are inherent in our society. “
My father was interviewed for the last time shortly before his death in 1975. He was quoted as saying that he felt his writing was “momentarily adequate.” And, when asked what he wanted people to say about him a hundred years from then, he responded, “I don’t care that they’re not able to quote any single line that I’ve written. But just that they can say, ‘Oh, he was a writer.’ That’s sufficiently an honored position for me.”
Fast-forward decades after his death and TV Guide wrote, “Serling’s legacy continues to grow. His television and cinematic works have reached cult status—enlivening a new interest in one of the great early writers of American television.”
My dad also said in that final interview, “I’d like to write something that my peers, my colleagues, my fellow writers would find a source of respect. I think I’d rather win, for example, a Writer’s Guild award than almost anything on earth.”
Thirty-eight years later, in 2013, the Writer’s Guild voted The Twilight Zone as one of the three best television shows ever written. “No show in the history of television has lingered in the imagination quite like Rod Serling’s anthology series, which could function both as a science fiction chiller and an issues-driven examination of human behavior and moral complexities, with climactic twists.”
When I am asked why I think my dad is still remembered after all these years, I think the answer is fairly simple. He dealt with the human condition, and while times change, people (sadly) don’t. We are still battling so many of the same issues my dad was so vocal, disheartened, and enraged about. The same things he battled 60 years ago—racism, mob mentality, scapegoating, paranoia, isolation—are still here. Our current politics have exacerbated these divisive issues, leaving many to agree that we are quite literally living in The Twilight Zone. And to that, my dad would be deeply saddened and, I imagine, nothing short of apoplectic. He believed we could do better.
On July 7, 1975, memorial services were held for my father in California and Upstate New York. On the West Coast, my father’s close friend, Dick Berg, said in his eulogy: “Where his peers may have anguished over the creative process, Rod woke up every day saying, ‘Let me tell you a story.’ This was his badge, his thrust, his passkey into our lives. He was eternally the new boy on the block trying to join in our games. And he penetrated the circle by regaling us with those many fragments of his Jewish imagination… intellectual stories, fantastic stories, hilarious stories, stories of social content, even one-liners about man’s lunacy. However, they were always seen through his prism, becoming never less than his stories. And because he came to us with love… seeking our love… we invariably let him tell us a story. And how much richer we are for it.”
Anne Serling is the author of AS I KNEW HIM: My Dad Rod Serling, which won the The Killer Nashville Silver Falchion Award for best memoir/ Biography in 2015. The adaptations she wrote of two of her father’s teleplays appear in the anthology The Twilight Zone: The Original Stories. Currently she is at work on a novel: AFTERSHOCKS.