N.Y. Times columnist Maureen Dowd has tapped out a post-4th-of-July Twilight Zone riff on Rod Serling…without mentioning that recent Mike Fleming Deadline story about a Serling biopic from screenwriter Stanley Weiser (W, Wall Street). And yet Dowd mentions “Rod Serling and the Twilight Zone” (2009), a 50th anniversary tribute book co-edited by Carol Serling, who will produce the Serling biopic along with Andrew Meieran.

The Twilight Zone, Dowd notes, “was never gangbusters” in the ratings. Then why did CBS keep it going for five seasons? (The original series ran from October 2, 1959 to June 19, 1964.) Presumably the ratings were good enough for renewal although Kennedy-era viewers weren’t exactly watching en masse, cheering each episode and waiting with bated breath for the next. The real adulation didn’t kick in until the ’80s and the second Twilight Zone series, which ran from September 27, 1985 to April 15, 1989. Lasting, legendary stuff is rarely celebrated when it first appears. Classic status almost always develops years or decades later.

This sounds snarky but it seems a bit dated now to talk about 4th of July Twilight Zone marathons on the tube, as Dowd does. There’s only one way to watch the old episodes now, and that’s by popping in the five Buray discs containing the original five seasons, and watching them on a 50″ flat screen. The detail and clarity are realms and worlds beyond anything seen by even the guys in the processing labs who developed the original footage. (I actually haven’t watched and am not likely to watch seasons #4 and #5, which saw a steep fall-off in quality.).

I’m also a little confused by that friend-squashed-during-World-War-II story that Dowd passes along. “During a lull at the Battle of Leyte Gulf in the Pacific,” she writes, “[Serling] 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.” Serling’s arm was around the guy — presumably around his shoulders — and he himself didn’t get hit by the box? That can’t be right. Update: I wrote Weiser about this, and he answered that Serling “was standing nearby…not next to him. An exaggeration, I think.”

“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,” Dowd observes.

Twilight Zone book co-author Doug Brode tells Dowd that “everything today is Rod Serling…everything. Nearly 35 years ago, George Lucas told me that the whole concept of the Force comes from Rod Serling.

“Looking at this summer’s lame crop of movies and previews,” she concludes, “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.'”

Yes, Johnny Depp — he was talking about you.

[Here are part 2 and part 3 of the 1959 Mike Wallace interview with Serling — part 1 is YouTube’d above.]