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TV History: The Twilight Zone

by Christine Becker

This clip was uploaded for an assignment in Christine Becker's FTT 30461: History of Television class at the University of Notre Dame in Spring 2019. Check the commentary dropdown menu for a student's analysis of the clip.

Television emulating film

by Joseph Blakey

In the late 1950’s, television had already seen hit programs capture the nation like I Love Lucy and Father Knows Best. Among these kinds of programs was the anthology genre, in which TV writers can create standalone stories for the screen within half an hour. The pinnacle of these programs was Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone. Originally conceived as a way to address controversial social issues through the guise of science fiction and supernaturalism, The Twilight Zone brought in with each new episode, a new premise, a new issue to tackle and a new twist that would surprise the audience. One of the most overlooked episodes in this series is the season 1 episode The Sixteen-Millimeter Screen. While not including extra-terrestrials and not providing subtle commentary on McCarthyism per say, this episode deals with the effect celebrity culture has on mental health and relies heavily on the performances of its actors. While not the most iconic Twilight Zone episode, The Sixteen Millimeter Shrine represents 1950s television in that it tackles issues while pushing out of a conventional storytelling structure, leans more on its actors and it addresses television’s relationship to the film medium and it takes inspiration from said medium.

In the episode, Barbara Jean is an aging former actress and relic of the Golden Age of Hollywood. Despite decades passing since her last film, she still lives in the past and insists that she is the young A-list star that she was in her prime. As the episode continues, she progresses further and further into delusion as she alienates her maid, her agent, a casting director and even a former partner star before finally disappearing into the TV screen she worships and creating an imaginary world for herself within it.

The television episode aesthetically resembles a lot of noir films from the earlier decades. The entire episode uses only two locations, the office of a casting director and the mansion in which the Barbara resides. As for the actual scenes, the dialogue consists mainly of scenes between Barbara and her agent, her only tangible connection to the real world. Overall, this shows a conventional setup for an unconventional story. While the story and supernatural elements aren’t typical, the sets and actors for the most part are what you would expect from 1950’s television.

The episode also takes a lot of inspiration from contemporary American films, chiefly Billy Wilder’s noir classic Sunset Boulevard. Both revolve around an prima donna film star past her glory days trying to recapture her past film career, Barbara Jean in The Twilight Zone and Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. Both characters seclude themselves within massive mansions with projector screens of old films. However, they both explore their characters in different ways unique to their medium. With a two-hour runtime, Billy Wilder takes time to allow the audience to fall deeper and deeper into Norma’s psyche. Her choices throughout the film have consequences, and they ripple out across the film.

Unfortunately, with only a twenty-five minute run-time, The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine does not have time to delve into Barbara’s delusion in a complex way. Instead, it uses science fiction and fantasy elements unique to the series. Television historian Lynn Spiegel writes, “The perfect view in the cinema was intended to evoke a state of forgetfulness - to make the spectator feel somehow absent from the space of reception and thus more fully immersed in the fantasmatic illusion of presence rendered by the scene itself. But in the discourses on television, the perfect view was meant to produce a different kind of spectatorial fantasy. Implicit in these discourses was the notion that the television text should address its spectator as an audience member - as someone present on the scene of action.” (Installing the Television Set, 24). Rod Serling differentiates this episode from Sunset Boulevard through the use of an omniscient narrator who addresses the episode’s events to the audience through the lens of supernaturalism.

The episode in its entirety, shares many characteristics with noir, drama and melodrama films and takes direct inspiration from said films. By bringing these elements into the television medium and adhering to the anthology genre, this episode allows The Twilight Zone series as a whole to elevate television as a medium into what can be considered to be high art. Television historian Horace Newcomb writes, “The cliched master narrative of the American fifties - bland, controlled, complacent, commercial - has probably been related more forcefully to television than to any other aspect of expressive culture. This is so because television is seen not merely as reflecting this view or even as solely engendering these characteristics. Rather, the history of the medium itself in this decade is considered emblematic of all the fifties stands for.” (Meaningful Difference in 1950s Television, 105). On the cusp of a new decade, The Twilight Zone shows the nation what television can be, and indeed, what it will become.

Excerpt from THE TWILIGHT ZONE, "The 16-Millimeter Shrine"

The final scenes from THE TWILIGHT ZONE, "The 16-Millimeter Shrine"

from THE TWILIGHT ZONE (1959)
Creator: Rod Serling
Distributor: Netflix
Posted by Christine Becker
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