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  • Writer's pictureJim Bessman

'The Twilight Zone' transcends generations

Surprise Vacation's "Twilight Zone"-inspired video for "Surprise Vacation"

It happens every time, but even then, the response last week on Facebook and Twitter (where Syfy’s annual New Year’s Twilight Zone Marathon was trending) was heavy and constant—remarkable in that the original 1959-1964 156-episode TV series ended over 50 years ago.

But thanks to the imaginative plots and quality of the scripts, the truly iconic stature of its creator and onscreen host/narrator Rod Serling, and the many still-recognizable stars who appeared in it, The Twilight Zone still resonates with the baby boom generation that grew up with it, as well as the succeeding generations that have also fallen under its spell.

From the latter audience, Ben Merlis provides a unique point-of-view. The 39-year-old musician/writer, whose forthcoming book about Cold Chillin’ Records and the Juice Crew (due next year from BMG Books) documents the hip-hop label home of artists including Biz Markie and Big Daddy Kane, stars in his Los Angeles punk band Surprise Vacation’s Twilight Zone-patterned video for its namesake single “Surprise Vacation“: The black-and-white clip intentionally resembles the 1960 episode “I Shot an Arrow into the Air,” in which a manned spaceship apparently crashes into an unknown asteroid.

“For a guy born in 1978, the fact that the series was made so long ago--and in black-and-white--adds to the creepiness of the episodes,” says Merlis. “It’s like looking through the attic of an old house: That layer of creepiness didn’t exist when the show was new because most TVs were black-and-white then. But in that respect, time has been kind to The Twilight Zone, since it enhances the experience of watching them now.”

While “always aware” of the series and having watched it a bit as a youngster when a local L.A. station ran Twilight Zone marathons on Thanksgiving Day, Merlis only recently immersed himself in the show.

“My friend got the DVDs when they came out and I was overwhelmed by how many episodes there were,” he says. “Then Netflix started streaming them, but they didn’t have Season 4, when it went to hour-long episodes--but some of those were available on Hulu. So I just started watching a couple episodes that I vaguely remembered from when I was a kid, and then binge-watched the rest of them.”

Among Merlis’s favorites are “Living Doll,” the famous episode where Telly Savalas is tormented by the vengeful “Talky Tina“ doll; “Time Enough at Last,” another famous episode, where bibliophile Burgess Meredith survives a nuclear bomb and temporarily enjoys the opportunity to read without disturbance; “The Brain Center at Whipple’s,“ with Richard Deacon starring as a manufacturer who replaces his workforce with machines, only to be replaced himself; and “Execution,” in which Russell Johnson plays an inventor whose time machine brings back a murderous outlaw from the late 1800s.

Noting that Johnson is best known as Professor Roy Hinkley on Gilligan’s Island, Merlis, like Twilight Zone fans of all ages, marvels how so many actors on the series went on to star on other TV shows and movies. And he cites his favorite episode, 1961’s “The Shelter,” as an example of the series’ contemporary relevance, as well as the upstanding character of its creator Rod Serling.

Written by Serling, “The Shelter” concerns a fallout shelter and the hysteria unleashed among neighbors when a nuclear attack is mistakenly suspected.

“You can tell it was written by someone who was an antiwar humanitarian and really progressive,” says Merlis. He further points to “The Brain Center at Whipple’s“ as an example of another type of Twilight Zone episode that also still holds true today.

“I wouldn’t say every episode is good,” Merlis concludes, “but the good ones more than make up for the duds, and some work better than ever.”



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