REVIEW: ‘Everything I Need to Know I Learned in the Twilight Zone’

Everything I Need to Know I learned in the Twilight Zone
(Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press)

I’m given to sources of inspiration. More than often, pop culture provides us places where we can not only gain a degree of inspiration but also valuable insight into appreciating the many different situations that life presents to us. All we need is something like… a signpost, up ahead, and we can find that inspiration in… the Twilight Zone.

Everything I Need to Know I learned in the Twilight Zone is one of those pop-culture road maps to helping make sense of this crazy thing called life. Written by long-time television critic Mark Dawidziak, this is a book that not only pays homage to one of television’s most successful and well-recognized creators, but it also shows how influential how Rod Serling’s original and pioneering television show was and how applicable it can be to many life situations.

The book begins fairly simplistically with the first three sections of the book talking about Mark’s rationale for writing this book, a brief biography of Rod Serling and then finally, a brief inventory of what is included for the reader’s study and entertainment. In short, it’s a fairly easy introduction that gives the reader a sense of Dawidziak’s tone. It is welcoming, comfortable and downright familiar. If you think about it, isn’t that the type of tone that you’d want to hear from someone giving you life advice?

Author and critic Mark Dawidziak (via

Dawidziak portrays Serling to be an unexpected humanist. When you consider the stereotype of a typical Hollywood producer/writer, Dawidziak shows us various surprising versions of Rod Serling throughout his life that contradict that image. He shows us the extroverted child, the successful student, the World War Two veteran and, finally, the successful writer. The underlying message in this presentation is to convey the sense that if there was anyone who had a life-improving perspective to share, it would be someone who has a demonstrated a sense of progression in his own life.

But it’s the familiarity that really comes across in this book. Though we haven’t personally met Serling, the reader gets that sense of the personal association through Dawidziak’s writing. The foreword by Serling’s daughter, Ann, also reinforces an intimate connection to Serling and by the end of this section, we are ready to receive whatever advice the Twilight Zone can offer.

The advice comes in the form of epiphanic reveals; realizations and connections made by Dawidziak that aptly correspond to the variety of obstacles one must overcome in life or valuable situations to take advantage of. With a list of fifty lessons to choose from, there is surely enough wisdom to fit every occasion.

For example: Lesson One, titled “Always Keep Your Heart Open to the Magic that Comes Your Way,” is derived from the first season episode “The Big Tall Wish” where aging prize-fighter, Bolie Jackson (played by Ivan Dixon) breaks his hand before his come-back fight. Saved by the power of a loving child’s wish, Jackson’s defeat is transformed to victory. The child later convinces Bolie it was because of the magic. Though Jackson’s initial instinct is to deny this power, eventually he comes to want to believe in it.

From the ‘Twilight Zone’ episode “The Big Tall Wish” (CBS)

Isn’t that a perspective? After all, how many times do we deny ourselves the fruits of success because of self-imposed limitations? We look at people who succeed and simply attribute it to talent, yet it is common to underrate the fact that the initiative to try comes before the recognition of talent. We need to believe in the magic of ourselves before we convince ourselves that success cannot happen. Lesson learned … and what a valuable one it is.

Personally, though, my particular favourite is the lesson from two episodes titled “The Shelter” and “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street”. The lesson from these episodes is epistled “Divided we Fall and it resonates on various levels. The upshot of the latter episode is about how easy is it to divide a group of people if you remove the basic comforts and expectations that are ingrained in society. The removal of power from a single neighbourhood immediately plunges a group of suburban dwellers into chaos which confirms the suspicions of observing aliens who have now learned of humanity’s weakness.

The former episode is one also set in suburban society and only one family has taken the precaution of building a safety shelter. When the government announces a UFO threat and advises families to take to their shelters, it is only Doctor Stockton and his family who have such an escape. As such, the Stocktons have to contest with the fears, prejudices and misgivings of their disadvantaged neighbours, meaning that the ugliness of humanity, along with its weaknesses, are also displayed from all to see.

The lesson is clear to see: the valuable strength of friends’ loyalty is a treasure beyond compare and the betrayal of that loyalty is a scar to be avoided. Humanity is capable of such greatness, but the fidelity and strength of our togetherness is only marred by the desire to split that unity and seek individual comfort. When we are united in a common goal, we are capable of strength. When we are divided, we are weak and we fail. It is a valuable thing to heed.

Rod Serling (via Wikimedia Commons)

What is also poignant about this book is the insertion of worthwhile supplementary observations from prominent celebrities who have seen these things in action. People like Mel Brooks, Robert Redford, Brannon Braga, and Lost in Space’s Jonathan Harris all contribute their own follow-ups to these lessons which adds the piquant and real-life confirmation that these lessons from The Twilight Zone are not just real, but have had a reflective and lasting connections in their own lives. This carries an inherent sense of “I-told-you-so” that skirts the boundary of annoyance and lands in the endearing zone of welcome realization.

Of course, the skills of accomplished writers like Richard Matheson, Charles Beaumont, George Clayton Johnson and Earl Hamner, Jr., were not to be understated. All contributed to bringing vibrant life experiences into their scripts. Their collective work was an array of parables that were sophisticated in design yet simply delivered for a mass media audience to understand.

This underlines the reverence for the medium that is also ever-present in this book. The Twilight Zone was a product of a time when television was in its infancy. It broke the mould of the expected style of storytelling and ushered in a new age of thoughtful and reflective television. More producer-writers began to take their cues from Serling and American television saw other shows in the same vein, like The Outer Limits, Kolchak: The Night Stalker and of course, my own particular brand of fandom: Star Trek. While the subject matter might have been of extreme fantasy, the themes prodded and stimulated the audience into considering their own sense of values or progression. After all, isn’t true art supposed to act as a mirror to society?

Inspiration can come in many forms. The Twilight Zone’s iconic status in pop culture makes it an unexpected sourcebook of advice to life’s many issues but a welcome one. Everything I Need to Know I Learned in the Twilight Zone reminds us of a time when television was a wonder for the ages; it was something to marvel at and think about. It shouldn’t be a surprise that within its 156 episodes there had to be valuable life insight from the various accomplished writers that Rod Serling attracted to his vision that could be interpreted and understood. Mark Dawidziak’s book not only prompts us to remember this feature but also to remember that we are to seek a higher meaning in this show that we could apply to our own lives.

The Twilight Zone may have been a television show, but does that lessen the value of the underlying philosophy in its message? No, and Mark Dawidziak has emphasized that value for us.

This is a delightful book to read. If you are a fan, then the value is truly reinforced. If not, then you have the joy of discovering this show and its underlying message for the first time – and what a wonderful thing that is; to see this show as a new watcher but with the added knowledge that it has something more valuable than just quality entertainment to offer you. Make sure you pay attention to the signposts up ahead …

About Captain John K. Kirk

Captain John K. Kirk
John Kirk is an English and History teacher and librarian in Toronto, Canada. In addition to the traditional curriculum, John tries to teach his students to make sense of geek culture. And with the name "J. Kirk," it's hard for him to not inject "Star Trek" into his lessons. Comics, RPGs and the usual fanboy gear make up his classroom resources.

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