How 'The Twilight Zone' (2019) Keeps Tradition Alive
There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge.
This is the dimension of imagination.
It is an area which we call The Twilight Zone.
Rod Serling’s surreal anthology series has cemented itself a place forever within the societal zeitgeist. For sixty years those familiar heightened guitar twangs from composer Marius Constant have signified not only a sense of unease but intrigue that lasts long after the credits close. The Twilight Zone is merely a host for oddities that found themselves shunned away from regular scheduled programming. It sought to make viewers question their very existence and forced them to endure uncomfortable truths whilst delegating its own collection of moral lessons that accompanied its strange twists and turns. If ever a show were to personify ‘The Other’ it would surely be The Twilight Zone.
And modern television owes it pretty much everything. I’m not just talking about the current trend of anthological programming like Black Mirror and Inside No.9, I mean in terms of general storytelling and genre acceptance. Science Fiction has always been a storytellers’ best tool for making comments on modern society, but it had yet to fully translate to television. Rod Serling originally started the show after becoming frustrated with the censorship of the networks and pined for a more controversial way to present his often-bleak world views. The censorship board care less about controversy when it happens in a fictional world, and thus the show was born and in theory each new instalment would rattle off a strategically placed missile of social or economical commentary.
Of course, that’s just in theory. As with any show the quality varied and for every ‘The After Hours’ there were one or two ‘The Bard’s’. Occasionally the goal of trying to enforce a twist would come at the loss of complete storytelling, but this unknown mixture only added to the show’s appeal. You never knew whether you were in for an instant classic or a strange oddity you’d never want to re-watch. Today’s audiences have become so self-entitled that the moment a Black Mirror episode doesn’t live up to their standards they can take to the internet and spout vitriolic hate speech to a mass of people with the same opinion. In a continued golden age of television we’ve become greedy, and in hindsight that might make genuinely good television slowly begin to disappear because we have nothing of a lower standard to compare it to (but that’s a whole other ordeal for another time).
In 2019 CBS All Access released their latest incarnation of The Twilight Zone, the fourth revival of the show so far. Horror/Comedy superstar Jordan Peele (Get Out, Us) was brought on board as a developer and even signed on to take over Serling’s role as each episode’s Narrator – the guide if you will into the titular zone. Unfortunately the UK only recently got access to the show, but as I’ve been going through the ten episodes I’ve been pleasantly surprised with the success the show has in bringing back the same vibe as the original program. Because with other similarly-inclined shows like the ones mentioned previously ruling the television platform, is there space for The Twilight Zone to exist as its own entity outside of comparisons between others of its kind?
It’s a daunting question and one I was keen to find out. This latest revival features many of the trademarks of current anthology trends, big-name actors for instalments and film-like production values that we now can’t live without but never feels like it’s trying to be them. In short, yes some of the episodes are strangely withheld and slightly forgettable but there’s some excellent work tucked away in there too. The creative freedom hasn’t been sacrificed and every episode feels like the vision of the writer or director instead of a committee of people, and I think Rod Serling would be proud of that.
*Spoilers ahead for the reboot’s first two episodes ‘The Comedian’ and ‘Nightmare at 30,000 Feet’*
Let’s look at two episodes in particular and see how they continue the overall themes and message of the show. ‘The Comedian’ written by Alex Rubens and Directed by Owen Harris stars Kumail Nanjiani (The Big Sick) as a struggling stand-up comedian who is granted the gift/curse of having all of his jokes about people he knows achieve huge laughs from any crowd. However, every subject of his jokes is then erased from existence and he cannot use them again. It’s an old-fashioned tale of ‘be careful what you wish for’ that the show has done numerous times before, and even takes inspiration from a previous episode of the show ‘Take my Life…Please!’ from 1985.
Kumail’s struggling comic Samir is forced to decide how much he wants to risk in order to achieve fame and success as a comedian, and you can probably guess several of the story beats already. He even has a supportive but slightly suspicious girlfriend that leaves her open for prime erasing leading most viewers to believe they know the eventual end-all twist of the episode. But…it doesn’t matter. Whether it’s nostalgia for having the show back or being extra forgiving, I took more interest in the journey to the climax rather than the destination. Samir’s slow realisation that he has this power and how it changes the world around him steers things in another direction and adds some much-needed weight to the story. For example, by erasing his romantic competition - his girlfriend’s old tutor that taught her to become a lawyer - Samir’s girlfriend is now struggling to make ends meet and their relationship is frayed because of this newfound tension. Many of the show’s episodes build to a point where the protagonist has to make either a selfish or selfless choice after they realise the depths of their actions and whilst it’s not new it’s still solid.
The critical reception to this newest incarnation hasn’t helped. Reviews have ranged from mediocre to disappointing, but it’s interesting to note that many of the clichés and tropes these critics are criticising The Twilight Zone for were invented by the show itself, at least on television anyway. Hell ‘I Shot an Arrow into the Air’ would even go on to become one of the biggest twists in cinema history when Serling would write the initial screenplay for Planet of the Apes. It’s why we all recognise certain episode plots even if we’ve never seen them. Like the ‘To Serve Man’ plot twist or the fact that if anyone says ‘there’s something on the side of the plane’ we automatically think it’s a gremlin. The analogy for a fear of flying in 1963’s ‘Nightmare at 20,000 Feet’ would go on to inspire a modern retelling for the reboot too, with the similarly-titled ‘Nightmare at 30,000 Feet’.
Written by Marco Ramirez and Directed by Greg Yaitanes, the retelling features PTDS-suffering journalist Justin Sanderson (Adam Scott) who discovers a leftover mp3 player in his seat on a plane. Out of curiosity he finds that the player is midway through a real-life mystery podcast that’s discussing the mysterious disappearance of a plane – the very same plane he’s on. By replacing a physical monster with the promise of insidious information creates a less urgent but more psychological hurdle for the episode to concur. Of course you have to bypass the fact that Justin would be fine if he just listened to the whole podcast immediately instead of stopping and starting for narrative reasons, but that’s no fun. Instead, much like ‘The Comedian’ the journey to an inevitable conclusion is the focus here (as well as another twist that’s just chucked on at the end for good measure).
Both episodes were released simultaneously as a double bill. They are an issuing statement for the series’ return. ‘The Comedian’ features a selfless tale of destruction as Samir chooses to erase himself in order to put right what he’s made wrong, whilst Justin is beaten to death by his fellow passengers who he’s spent trying to save purely because it’s his actions that cause the plane to crash. Parodies of The Twilight Zone tend to take aim at its sometimes-arduous twists and apparent desperation to surprise (Futurama’s ‘The Scary Door’ is a particular highlight) but this isn’t what makes the show special. Instead it’s the way these twists all form together in aid of a moral or warning, whether it works or not.
The newest batch of ten episodes features all the highs and lows I’ve come to expect from any of the show’s revivals. Instalments like ‘Replay’ play to the strengths of modern metaphors and how they can continue to make solitary dramatic outings like this standout in the current television landscape, whilst the likes of ‘The Wunderkind’ playfully poke fun at a childish setup and push it to breaking point. Series closer ‘Blurryman’ also features one of my favourite concepts for an episode of anything ever, delving into the show’s past and playing with a metanarrative that has you grinning from ear to ear. Did I like all of them? Absolutely not. But there’s a respect that the show’s earnt by sticking to its source material. The Twilight Zone itself will never age because it’s not tied to our reality, so by staying traditional the show is free to exist in a timeline all its own.
So please, watch what’s in the corner of your eye and think twice before you cross the street.
There’s a car speeding and shifting between two lanes, one skims past your ear and blows its horn in disappointment, the other will slam you straight through the gates to another world.
These choices are like the flip of a coin.
Heads or tails?
One grants you salvation, but the other sends you straight to The Twilight Zone.
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