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The brilliant simplicity of The Twilight Zone

A new remake hosted by Jordan Peele shows how the sci-fi series gets at our deepest primal fears.

The Twilight Zone
Jordan Peele serves as the narrator for the new version of The Twilight Zone.
CBS All Access

The list of sitcoms that remain immediately and readily available from the 1950s — the earliest days of American television — isn’t long, but at least it’s a list. I Love Lucy, The Honeymooners, The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, Leave It to Beaver, and The Phil Silvers Show are all series that you can still find fairly easily in syndicated reruns or on DVD (or sometimes even on streaming), should you be so inclined.

The list of dramas, though, is basically composed of just one series: The Twilight Zone, which debuted in 1959. Rod Serling’s sci-fi/fantasy/horror anthology ran for five seasons, always barely escaping cancellation, only to become an American institution and perhaps the single most famous TV show ever made. (For my money, the title belongs to The Twilight Zone or Lucy.)

The 1950s were widely considered the golden age of TV drama for years, but many of the programs that contributed to that reputation have been lost to the mists of time, because they weren’t properly preserved. Still other significant series, like the Western Gunsmoke, faded from view as cultural tastes shifted. But The Twilight Zone has endured.

The Twilight Zone has run (and run and run and run) continuously since it debuted, somewhere on the TV dial. (It’s also currently available on all major streaming services.) The show’s critical acclaim and influence is unparalleled, and its spooky, black-and-white charms hold up shockingly well for something that is literally turning 60 this fall.

What’s more, every generation eventually gets its own spin on the series. The 1980s saw both a movie — with segments directed by Steven Spielberg and George Miller, among others — and a three-season reboot. In 2002, the defunct UPN network launched another reboot (it only lasted a season).

And now The Twilight Zone is back for the streaming age, in a new version produced for CBS All Access and hosted and executive-produced by Jordan Peele. (So far, he hasn’t written or directed any of the new episodes, of which I’ve seen the first four.) The new series is hit or miss, but also spooky, moody, and reflective of our current cultural climate.

Which is to say it might be the perfect reboot of this time-honored concept. Like the original, not everything the new Twilight Zone tries will work, but it just might get under your skin.

What to expect when you find yourself in The Twilight Zone

The Twilight Zone
Expect to meet a strange man who narrates your ironic fate, for one.
CBS via Getty Images

Let’s start with the basics: The Twilight Zone is an anthology series — meaning every episode tells a new story featuring new characters. But they all take place in the titular region, a place where wishes are granted at a terrible cost, where monsters are plentiful, and where moral lessons are doled out by the bushel. The only permanent occupant of the Twilight Zone is a narrator who appears near the start and at the end of every episode to offer a few musings about its tale.

The show’s first narrator was Rod Serling, the creator of the series, who is still credited as its sole creator for the 2019 version. This speaks to the sturdiness of Serling’s original conception for the show: Typically, when a TV series is updated for a new era, the people doing the updating get “developed by” credits, while the original creators get “based on the series created by” credits. But Serling’s idea requires so little modernizing that he remains the credited creator.

Serling was a socially conscious writer and a genius at plotting. His time in the trenches on the other anthology dramas of the 1950s gave him a strong sense of how to craft a single-episode story that would pack a powerful punch. His most notable pre-Twilight Zone script was “Requiem for a Heavyweight,” the story of a washed-up boxer produced in 1956 for Playhouse 90, perhaps the most acclaimed drama of the era.

The reputation he’d garnered from “Requiem” and other scripts gave Serling the calling card he needed to get his own series on the air. After producing a pilot called “The Time Element,” which aired as part of the Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse (it was introduced by Desi Arnaz, creating an unusual crossover point between the two most famous shows of the period and making Arnaz sort of an unofficial one-off Twilight Zone narrator), CBS gave him a shot at turning “The Time Element” into a full show. Serling called the new series The Twilight Zone.

The term “the twilight zone” was borrowed from astronomy — it’s the slim sliver of the planet’s surface that hovers between day and night, where stars are particularly visible. (Or, on planets that don’t rotate on their axis, it’s the slim, temperate band between the side of the planet facing toward the eternal scorching heat of that planet’s star and the eternal frigid darkness of the night.) But Serling would transform this concept into a place where fables happened as a matter of course and where ironic twists cropped up like dandelions.

The motivation behind the idea was simple: Sterling wanted to write about the politically fraught issues of his time, like Cold War paranoia and racism, like capitalist greed and how easy it is to turn anybody who’s not an “us” into a subhuman “them.” But American television, which had been seen as a gizmo that might bring high culture and serious political discussion to the masses for much of the 1950s, was increasingly seen as a place for “low culture” during the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. (When The Twilight Zone debuted, Newton Minow’s famous, largely misunderstood 1961 speech comparing television to a “vast wasteland” was just a couple of years away.)

The idea that TV was marred by some sort of lost potential is a bit unfair to the terrific shows that were made during this period — but it speaks directly to why Serling created The Twilight Zone. Network executives were worried about turning off kids or some adult portion of the audience that wasn’t interested in intellectually challenging material, and they grew steadily more skittish about the kinds of more mature storytelling Serling specialized in. But by cloaking his ideas in allegory, Serling could tell stories about humanity’s worst impulses while making those stories about “Martians.”

Now, Serling’s allegories were rarely all that hard to parse. They were very much didactic, moral fables, in which viewers were expected to learn a lesson at the end (usually imparted by the narrator, sometimes in more heavy-handed terms than others). And it wasn’t as if literary sci-fi hadn’t already been dressing stories about the real world in metaphor and symbolism for decades.

But the idea of television turning to genre storytelling as means of creating metaphors for larger issues began with The Twilight Zone, and the show’s remarkably high batting average (with most episodes being at least pretty good) garnered it a cult audience from the first.

The show’s running time also accidentally ended up being a boon. Where “The Time Element” was a dense, very slow hour, The Twilight Zone switched to half-hour episodes when Serling expanded it into a full show. That gave it just enough time to introduce a weird concept, play out a few scenarios that could occur within that concept, and then get out — usually with an ironic twist. (The switch to a half-hour format was largely based on which time slots CBS had available, though running at half an hour did allow The Twilight Zone to air after Desilu Playhouse, where “The Time Element” debuted.)

At an hour, the concept of each episode would have to be repeated so many times or evolve in such a way that it would’ve been much harder to tell the sorts of simple fables The Twilight Zone ultimately became known for. (While the show’s fourth season — the one season of hour-long episodes — is better than its fifth, it is much more scattershot than the first three.) At a half-hour, it could get in and out with laser-focused precision.

Throughout its run, The Twilight Zone’s quality stayed relatively high even when it had an off episode, thanks to the relative consistency of three of the best TV writers in history: Of the show’s 156 total episodes, 127 were written by either Serling, Charles Beaumont, or Richard Matheson, with Serling alone accounting for 92 of them. And its pared-down but unmistakable visual style, all close-ups and canted angles, added to the sense of paranoia.

The Twilight Zone was never highly rated, and it struggled to attract sponsors throughout all five seasons. But once it reached syndication and began airing every day on local stations in the 1960s, it proved the perfect candidate for the rerun format. Every episode was completely self-contained, making the show easy to dive into. And the combination of monsters and Martians (for the kids) and sophisticated storytelling (for their parents) made it a perennial favorite.

But what made The Twilight Zone an ever-renewable TV resource isn’t what Serling thought of as its topicality. It was that the show’s metaphors were so elastic as to apply to every era of human history.

The Twilight Zone’s appeal to multiple generations stems from how easily its stories can be applied to any moment in time

The Twilight Zone
Who hasn’t worried about their plane being crashed by a monster on the wing?
CBS via Getty Images

Let’s look at one of The Twilight Zone’s most famous, most analyzed episodes — “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” — to trace how the series’ themes have remained relevant right up until the present day.

“Maple Street” originally aired on March 4, 1960, the 22nd episode of the 36-episode first season. It was scripted by Serling and directed by Ronald Winston. In 1960, it would have been read as a tale of Cold War paranoia, but its story is so stripped down as to express something more fundamental.

The episode sees the citizens of Maple Street grow alarmed when a shadow passes overhead, accompanied by a loud roar. When the street’s power goes out a few minutes later, a handful of rumors about monsters from outer space begin to spiral out of control. Soon, the citizens are accusing each other of being aliens and fomenting unrest. By the end, one man has died, another has been attacked, and the lights in the houses on the block are flickering on and off, leading to further rioting as the residents accuse each other of being aliens.

The episode’s twist is a simple one: There really are aliens. They really are responsible for cutting the power. But they’re counting on the humans to do the rest. The aliens’ theory is that if you mess with the comfort and convenience of average Americans, they’ll descend into chaos in record time. And ... well ... history has shown us that they aren’t exactly wrong.

What makes “Maple Street” so potent is that deep down, it feels so right in a way that only fairy tales and fables really can. It uses a very simple story and moral to illustrate some deep and vexing truth about humanity: that when push comes to shove, we will sacrifice almost anybody else on the altar of our own comfort and a false sense of security.

That’s a message that never loses relevance. “Maple Street” is a story about anti-communist paranoia by function of when it was written, but it took on a different feel in the immediate wake of 9/11 and the signing of the Patriot Act. And it’s taken on an even different sheen in the current era of conspiracy theories and political arguments over climate change, as every new report suggests we have less and less time to adapt. But if adapting means we must give up some degree of material comfort — forget about it.

And if The Twilight Zone eventually exists in some post-apocalyptic future, “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” will one day be about how easy it is to demonize the people in the climate dome over the ridge, as opposed to all the good people in our own climate dome right here.

But the episode resists easy moral didacticism, too, because it’s not simply about man’s inhumanity to man, or about how easy it is to stoke paranoia with the faintest of rumors. It is about those things, but it’s also about how easily a friend can become an enemy the instant you strip away the thinnest veneer of civilization. And it draws on a long-established history: The idea that very little separates men from beasts is one of the oldest in fiction.

Many of the best Twilight Zone episodes separate their morals from the genre elements even further. You might be able to find a moral about the thin line between those whose opinions we inherently respect and those whose opinions we inherently distrust in the marvelously nerve-rattling “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” (season five, episode three; scripted by Matheson and directed by Richard Donner). But why would you try, when you can just enjoy a very scary story about a man who sees a monster on an airplane’s wing, a monster that’s trying to make sure his journey ends in a crash?

The Twilight Zone is a study in contrasts, and one that almost always works on multiple levels simultaneously. But the secret to its success is its overall simplicity. The best episodes play off something primal — like a monster lurking in the dark, or the idea that we are just a few steps away from utterly destroying ourselves — then cover it up with smart, economical storytelling and just a hint of social commentary. The worst episodes usually forget that primal element in favor of on-the-nose moralizing (like the season one anti-gambling lecture “The Fever”). But even the bad installments are usually fun to watch on some level.

So how do the 2019 episodes fare?

The Twilight Zone
Adam Scott stars in “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet,” the new series’ spin on a particularly terrifying airplane journey.
CBS All Access

With all that said, how does the 2019 Twilight Zone stack up so far? With only four installments sent out to critics for review, it’s hard to offer a complete assessment of the 10-episode first season. But I’m feeling at least somewhat positive about what’s to come, based on what I’ve seen. The new episodes capture the spirit of the original series, while offering up a spin that isn’t needlessly slavish.

Still, they’re not perfect. The biggest problem is that all four of the episodes CBS All Access sent out for review are longer than 30 minutes. The shortest (and best) one is just 36 minutes — it’s the cheekily titled “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet” (this time, it’s 10,000 feet higher!), an episode that has little to do with “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” save for the airplane setting and a few Easter eggs. But other episodes approach the 60-minute mark, with one cresting 53 minutes. None of the four episodes are awful, but they frequently fall into the same trap as hour-long Twilight Zones, which too often exhaust a clever premise midway through because there simply aren’t enough different ways to exploit it.

That said, it is promising that the new show’s running times vary so widely. The 1985 revamp sometimes featured up to three stories in a single hour, with some being very short. If this new Twilight Zone is successful in season one, perhaps its producers will feel emboldened to tell stories of all different lengths in future seasons. There’s no reason a great Twilight Zone tale couldn’t be told in 10 minutes, or in 100, if that’s what it needs.

Jordan Peele’s involvement in the new Twilight Zone is minimal, compared to his placement within the show’s promotional materials. But he makes an appropriate narrator, alternately wry and solemn, in the fashion of Serling’s spin on a strange man who arrives from outside of time and space to comment on the action.

The new series’ main executive producer is X-Files veteran Glen Morgan (who also penned two of the four episodes sent to critics), and he’s having a great time offering modern spins on vintage Twilight Zone ideas, like alien invasions and men who cause disaster by refusing to listen to anybody but themselves. While none of the new episodes is a straight remake of older episodes, they’re all heavily informed by the series’ past.

Indeed, what’s most notable about this new series is how careful it is to pay homage to the original without going into a full-tilt recreation of it. The season’s third episode, “Replay” (itself a spin on a basic idea introduced in the 2002 reboot), follows a black mother and son on their way to his first day of college. The pair keeps getting stopped by the same white cop, no matter which route they take. But mom is armed with a camcorder that lets her record and rewind reality, painstakingly trying other options in hopes of finding a safe route.

It’s a solid sci-fi tale, but it’s also a resonant story about parents longing to make the world safe for their children and how that idea has different ramifications for black parents seeking a safe space for their black sons. In other words, it contains those vital primal themes that are so baked into the original Twilight Zone’s best episodes.

And where I was afraid this new Twilight Zone would try as hard as it could to coast on the success of Netflix’s Black Mirror, it manages to find some middle ground between the typically cynical, technology-obsessed Black Mirror and the original Twilight Zone. The stories have been updated for the modern era in theme and content (sometimes people swear, which is honestly a little jarring), but the visuals continue to suggest more than depict.

Most striking, however, is how Morgan and the show’s writers and directors have remembered (and honored) the fact that The Twilight Zone’s underlying thesis is slightly kinder than Black Mirror’s. The world of Black Mirror is full of stupid jerks, and you’re the biggest one of all. The Twilight Zone is also full of stupid jerks, but on the right night, if you stumble into the right place, between light and dark, you might find yourself inching toward a better understanding of yourself and your fellow humans.

And if you don’t, you’ll at least know why you’ve plummeted out of your comfortable, secure life and right into something straight out of ... The Twilight Zone.

All five seasons of the original Twilight Zone are available on all major streaming services. The new Twilight Zone is streaming on CBS All Access, with the first two episodes available now and new episodes debuting every Monday. And seriously, I hate to say it, because I hate subscribing to more streaming services even though I literally get paid to keep up with the explosion of streaming services, but CBS All Access is really becoming a great bang for your buck.