If anyone can match Rod Serling’s seminal speculative fiction, Jordan Peele is the one to do it.
As we approach Jordan Peele’s The Twilight Zone reboot, a couple of inevitable questions come up: What made the show so special in its original run, and what do Peele and his team need to do to recapture the spirit of Rod Serling’s opus without just copying it?
There’s a lot to be excited about regarding the new Twilight Zone. With his brand new hit Us, 2017’s Get Out, and even some of the stranger Key & Peele skits, Peele has proven that he has the kind of incisive mind that can look at social situations and pick out what makes them weird and potentially uncomfortable. This is exactly the kind of talent you need to revisit TV’s classic creepshow for the thinking man.
When The Twilight Zone premiered, the television landscape was a very different place. Generally speaking, primetime television wasn’t meant to make neurons fire. It was visual comfort food as far as the eye could see – sensible chuckles and mild anxiety that would be resolved in no longer than 23 or 50 minutes, plus commercials. Then comes The Twilight Zone, a show that had people shivering and, 60 year later, still has the capacity to leave the viewer uneasy.
In fact, The Twilight Zone of 1959 looks more like today’s prestige TV than it does the shows it aired alongside.
Even though Twilight Zone didn’t have any kind of continuity from episode to episode, it managed to have more compassion for its characters in a half-hour program than many shows can muster in an entire season. It cared about the characters as people and it cared about the problems they lived through. Oftentimes, the show was about someone seeing a problem no one else could, or being the victim of something otherwise invisible. But these people weren’t crazy. We were almost always seeing things from their point of view.
In “Person or Persons Unknown,” a character named David Gurney wakes up from a night of partying to find that no one in his life recognizes him. The story gives us enough clues to believe him in a world where no one else does. “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” showed us the gremlin that only William Shatner’s character Robert Wilson seemed to be able to see. And without fail, the show believed these people when no one else would.
Creator Rod Serling never shied away from getting political either. Serling served in World War II and had a deep hatred of fascism and racism. One of the very best episodes from the series’ original run, “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street,” acted as an indictment of McCarthyism. At that time in American history, people were being encouraged to spy on and report on the actions of their neighbors as a way of keeping the country safe. The episode showed how well-meaning suspicion meant to protect one’s self can quickly turn into paranoia that has people nitpicking on tiny quirks and deviations from conformity.
“He’s Alive” also feels more relevant than ever. In this episode a struggling extreme right-wing politician gets some pointers from a mysterious figure shrouded in shadow. The figure offers the man advice on how to gain a following and respect, using tricks familiar to observers of modern politics. The episode shows how someone can be radicalized long before we had a word for that, and how that radicalization affects the people around them.
Even with technology, compassion was always at the core of The Twilight Zone. Serling understood the potential pitfalls of technology, but he didn’t fear it. Here, we can compare “The Brain Center at Whipple’s” and “I Sing the Body Electric.” “The Brain Center” told the story of a man obsessed with automation, converting his factory until he himself was automated out and replaced by a robot. “The Body Electric,” about a robot grandma meanwhile, put a basic trust in technology to do what it was built to do, and made it okay to build an emotional connection with that technology.
Serling’s social awareness often combined with a depiction of finding terror in everyday objects, turning cars, planes, and jukeboxes against us. But even through that, the show kept an optimistic tone, which is something that sets it apart from some modern anthology series like, say, Black Mirror. Instead of going the “look how terrible technology is” route, Serling’s Twilight Zone usually had a more considered message: “It doesn’t have to be like this.” The show asks for compassion, asks us to believe victims, and asks us to look for similarities instead of differences amongst ourselves. The best of The Twilight Zone pleaded with us to be thoughtful about how we behave, even as it warned us about the dangers that are lurking out there.
We need a show like this more than ever. Not just because of what it talks about, but because of how it talks about these issues – and how it asks us to think about them. The Twilight Zone was asking us to think critically about our world over half a century ago. We might be even more divided now than we were in 1959, so if we ever needed a Twilight Zone revival, now is the time.
The Twilight Zone premieres on CBS All Access on Monday, April 1 – that’s April Fool’s Day!