Rod Serling’s background sheds light on his intentions as a writer and the content of his series The Twilight Zone. He was a veteran of World War II, and was injured during battle. According to his biography, after having been awarded the purple heart, he returned home traumatized from the war. His writing was influenced by his experiences during the war, and he became a war activist. His later work contained anti-war themes. He began writing for radio shows but soon branched out into television. His controversial scripts were heavily revised, which later influenced his themes of censorship. His biography claims, “in 1959 Serling turned from realism to the sci-fi fantasy genre, with the iconic series The Twilight Zone.”
The science fiction aspect of the series allowed for a better opportunity of criticism. The series’ effectiveness was due to the content existing in another world. While the themes Rod Serling was most passionate about were too heavy for reality, as evidenced by the constant struggles with censorship, The Twilight Zone allowed the themes to exist separately from our society. He was able to cover important topics of censorship, racism, fascism, and war because of the location of his scenes. In The Twilight Zone, satire is directly related to place.
The content of his episodes, while not humorous, qualify as satire due to their critical nature of contemporary issues. In an episode that aired in 1960, in the middle of the civil rights era, Rod Serling provided heavy commentary on segregation. The episode was titled “Eye of the Beholder,” the title itself getting its name from the idiom that pervades that beauty is subjective. In the episode, a woman is in a hospital with her face totally bandaged. Discussions reveal that she is receiving her final treatment to make her beautiful, and if it is unsuccessful, she will be banished from society, either to be euthanized or sent to a community of similar people. The doctor posits in private that beauty is only skin deep, and does not reflect the true character of a human. He is reprimanded for his progressive thoughts, and when trying to console the woman he uses euphemisms to claim that the ugly people are congregated, and she will feel better with people of her kind. The woman reads through the euphemism and pronounces that they are segregated. In 1960, the word segregation carried a lot of weight, and it is surprising that Rod Serling was allowed to be so progressive on television. Additionally, the episode echoes themes of the Nazis and the purification of a race. A dictator is seen on the televisions in the hospital claiming that their society must conform to the norm, and cut out those who are different like a cancerous growth.
The subtext of the episode is clearly criticism of racism and Nazis, but it is the way in which it is presented that provides the most effective device for satire. The episode plays on the expectations of the audience in order to shock them. This shock allows for the serious contemplation of the way that the episode was different from what they had expected. The episode talks about beauty and ugliness, and faces so hideous that children run screaming upon first sight. The audience envisions a pretty clear image of what is beautiful, but at the turn of the episode it is revealed that what was deemed beautiful would be considered a hideous monstrosity in our world, and what was deemed hideous would be considered beautiful on Earth. The Twilight Zone, inherently a place other than our world, must be fundamentally different. In locating the differences of these two places lies the criticism and satire. In the world of “Eye of the Beholder,” fascism had succeeded and the result was a society based segregation and euthanasia. The idea that these themes exist in the Twilight Zone means that they should not exist on Earth.