Maureen DowdI knew I should have been out eating charred meat or watching a bad Michael Bay movie.

But I couldn’t help myself. Every July Fourth weekend, I get sucked into the spooky little dimension of “The Twilight Zone.” As the annual Syfy marathon proves, Rod Serling’s hypnotic show is as relevant as ever.

Opinion By Maureen Dowd
NY Times 7-5-2011

If Anthony Weiner had watched it, he might have been more aware of how swiftly, and chillingly, our technology can turn on us. Prosecutors and reporters, dumbfounded by dramatic reversals in the cases of tabloid villains D.S.K. and Casey Anthony, might do well to keep in mind Serling’s postmodern mantra: Nothing is what it seems. 

Agnes Moorehead may seem to be a lonely farmwoman under attack by scary little robots, but after she kills them and takes an ax to their spaceship, it turns out that she’s the scary Amazon alien and the little men were U.S. astronauts from Earth. 

Ensorcelled once more by that inimitable, smoke-filled Serling voice, which is reassuring and unnerving at once, I wondered how the ingenious TV writer would have used social media and search engines in his plots. Given the way Serling treated time travel, space odysseys, robots and aliens, the 21st-century technology giants would probably have been ominous in one narrative and benign in another. (Just like in life.)

No doubt some characters would have been saved and others destroyed by Twitter, Facebook and Google. 

“When you look at ‘Twilight Zone’ episodes, everything is ambivalent,” said Serling’s friend Doug Brode, who, along with Serling’s widow, Carol, wrote “Rod Serling and ‘The Twilight Zone:’ The 50th Anniversary Tribute,” published in 2009. “Rod had an open mind to the good, the bad and the in-between of technology. He was a guarded optimist until the Kennedy assassination. After that, his work reflected his sense of hopelessness.” 

He said that Serling’s father, a middle-class grocer, lost his business in the Depression, so Rod had an early lesson in reversals. Serling also had a devastating experience while serving in World War II. During a lull at the Battle of Leyte Gulf in the Pacific, he was standing with his arm around a good friend and they were having their picture taken. At that moment, an Air Force plane dropped a box of extra ammunition that landed on Serling’s friend and flattened him so fatally that he couldn’t even be seen under the box. 

“Many ‘Zone’ episodes are about that split-second of fate where somebody arbitrarily gets spared or, absurdly, does not,” Brode said. 

Serling himself lived a reversal, going from a trailer park after the war and 40 rejection slips in a row to having a big Hollywood house and a pool. But he grew disdainful of Babylon’s corrupting materialism and moved back to a cottage on Cayuga Lake in upstate New York. Serling fought furiously against censorship and ads, asking how you could write meaningful drama when it was interrupted every 15 minutes by “12 dancing rabbits with toilet paper?” 

In one “Twilight Zone,” an inept screenwriter conjures up Shakespeare to help him. The Bard produces a dazzling screenplay but then storms out when the sponsor demands a lot of revisions. 

Did Serling, who had a searing sense of social and racial justice, believe in God? 

“Not Charlton Heston sitting on a cloud with the Ten Commandments, but absolutely, as a force in the universe, he did,” Brode said. “Nearly 35 years ago, George Lucas told me that the whole concept of the Force comes from Rod Serling.” 

It’s impossible not to watch a stretch of the endlessly inventive Serling and not notice how many of his plots have been ripped off for movies, and how ahead of his time he was. In a popular new Samsung ad, a young woman jumps up from the lunch table and begins screaming because the tarantula screensaver on her colleague’s 4G phone is so lifelike; another guy at the table takes off his shoe and smashes it. 

There’s a “Twilight Zone” episode where a Western gunfighter time travels forward and goes into a bar, where he sees a TV with a cowboy coming toward him. Thinking it’s real, he pulls out his pistol and shoots the screen. 

Looking at this summer’s lame crop of movies and previews you can appreciate Serling’s upbraiding of the entertainment industry for “our mediocrity, our imitativeness, our commercialism and, all too frequently, our deadening and deadly lack of creativity and courage.” 

“The Twilight Zone” was never gangbusters in the ratings, and Serling — who smoked on screen — died at 50 from the ravages of six packs a day. He felt like a sellout and failure. He had sold syndication rights for his show to CBS for a few million, thinking he had not written anything of lasting value. 

Sadly, he gave himself a trick ending. He died never realizing how influential he would be. 

“Everything today is Rod Serling,” said Brode. “Everything.”