Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Introduction to Season 4

When The Twilight Zone wrapped up its third season in the spring of 1962, it found itself without a sponsor (maybe the existing sponsors weren't exactly thrilled with the show’s mediocre ratings and jumped ship); consequently, CBS didn't include the show in its fall 1962 schedule.  Things would eventually get resolved over the next several months, but the delay meant that the show wouldn't return to the air until mid-season,  allowing for only half the usual number of episodes.  But the reduced quantity was a minor concern when weighed against the massive changes wrought upon the show before its return. 

The most obvious difference, aside from the new opening title sequence (detailed yesterday, here), is the somewhat jarring switch to an hour-long format.  Serling had originally conceived The Twilight Zone as an hour show but bowed to CBS’s original wishes; this late change indicates that the network must have changed its mind (probably hoping a bigger show would equate to bigger ratings).  Another notable change is the loss of producer Buck Houghton, who had moved onto other pursuits during the show’s six-month limbo. Houghton’s initial replacement was Herbert Hirschman who, according to a 8/20/1962 letter to Serling, may have been responsible for changing the name of the series to, simply, Twilight Zone (minus the word The; thanks to Martin Grams’ exhaustively-researched The Twilight Zone: Opening the Door to a Television Classic for this interesting tidbit). The show would ultimately go through three different producers during its final two years on the air, a sure sign that the series was no longer the well-oiled machine it had been for its first three years.

Rod Serling was still around, but he was much less involved on the production end, as he had taken a teaching job at Antioch College when the show’s future had suddenly become clouded with uncertainty.  Serling retained his title as executive producer and continued hosting and narrating, but it’s worth noting that he only wrote seven of season four’s eighteen episodes (one of which was an adaptation of an existing short story by somebody else).  Since his writing had slipped so dramatically in terms of both quality and originality during season three, this was actually a blessing.  I hate saying that, but goddamn it, it’s true: Serling’s scripts were, for the most part, the weakest of the fourth season.  Meanwhile, Charles Beaumont and Richard Matheson really shined during season four, each contributing episodes that sit comfortably among my top 20 favorites.

There are a few cosmetic changes to note.  First and foremost, Serling’s on-camera appearances were no longer shot in tandem with each episode’s production (seasons two and three often found him on set, sharing the same scenery as the actors, sometimes in quite clever ways); rather, his season four narrations were shot in front of a plain gray background.  Further, his “next week” previews would now be augmented with episode clips.

For its first three seasons, each episode would begin with the opening title sequence, then pan down from a starry sky to the opening scene.  Now, the transition would be handled with a simple dissolve.  This extended to the end of the episode: instead of a return to the starry sky via an upward pan, a simple fade to black was employed. Finally, each episode’s end credits would no longer feature a unique still to distinguish it; rather, a simple starry sky was used behind the text.

Considering all the changes, season four ultimately feels like a different show.  However, I must note that, in my oh-so-humble opinion, season four is by and large decent.  There are a few mediocre entries, but nothing approaching past atrocities like “Mr. Bevis,” “Mr. Dingle, the Strong,” and “Four O’clock” (season five will have its share of horrific misfires too, but we’ll get to those in due time).  All told, season four is an odd experiment that didn't exactly succeed, but almost certainly didn't fail.


Ken said...

Interesting take on Season 4. I've heard some fans say they were the worst of the whole series. I didn't even know there were hours until I bought the Companion, and then I was wondering how in the world I was going to watch them, until KTLA started showing them during the marathons, so eventually I got to see them all. Like every season, I've got some I like, and some I don't. I've always wondered if the hours would have worked better if they were cut down into half hours. Somebody should try that!

Joel Benedict Henderson said...

Funny enough... the one regular sponsor TZ had in Season 3 (Ligget & Meyers) eventually does come back late in Season 4.