On September 18, the UPN network premieres television’s third incarnation of The Twilight Zone franchise. Rod Serling’s original ran from 1959 through 1965, drawing a cult following that endures to this day, and serving as a model for all future anthology series. It would earn two Emmys and a permanent place in popular culture and vernacular. The actors it introduced to America read like the Walk of Fame: Burt Reynolds, Robert Redford, Charles Bronson, Dennis Hopper, Robert Duvall, William Shatner. A successful, yet ultimately unsatisfying, second installment ran from 1985 to 1988.
Given this history, the L.A. Times opines that a revival of The Twilight Zone indicates merely a “desire to capitalize on recognizable formats, hoping viewers will be more inclined to give them at least a cursory look.” A UPN release declares that the new series, hosted by actor Forest Whitaker, will reach only for the modest goal of enveloping “viewers in a world of fantasy and suspense.” If that’s all it does, it will be an opportunity missed, as Serling’s shows also introduced TV audiences to powerful morality plays and social criticism, using sci-fi as but a medium.
Already an Emmy-winning screenwriter, Serling shocked critics when he resigned from CBS’s Playhouse 90 to create a science fiction series. Even today the Zone is often dismissed as nothing more than a collection of ghost stories and tall tales. This interpretation fails both literally (there were very few actual ghost stories in the oeuvre) and figuratively (the stories were never just about the ghosts). Explaining himself in TV Guide in 1959, he wrote:
“Here’s what The Twilight Zone is: it’s an anthology series, half-hour in length, that delves into the odd, the bizarre, the unexpected. Here’s what The Twilight Zone isn’t: it’s not a monster rally or a spook show. It probes into the dimension of imagination but with a concern for taste and for an adult audience…[telling] a well-told and well-filmed story.”
Nearly forty years later, the 156 episodes born of that simple yet revolutionary goal stand as some of the best acted, written and directed shows of all time. They are also some of the most conservative. Serling brought to the show a profoundly traditional understanding of human nature, and a concern for how late-20th Century sociopolitical realities, the march of science and the loss of innocence threatened American individualism, the bonds of community and humanity itself.
TO BE SURE, SERLING did spend some time on the liberal bogeymen of the Cold War, such as M.A.D. and McCarthyism. And in his post-Zone years, he would speak out against Vietnam. But unlike his television-pioneer peers like Gore Vidal and Paddy Chayevsky, many of whom readily enlisted in the New Left, Serling’s body of work came complete with searing critiques of statism, Communism and modernity. In the Zone, secular stand-ins for God inevitably pervert justice and values, and trample individual dignity. Power never fails to corrupt. In “The Little People,” an astronaut who lands on an asteroid inhabited by a race of miniature humanoids begins to deify himself — until the appearance of a figure hundreds of times larger than him. In “On Thursday We Leave for Home,” the leader of a human settlement on a remote asteroid experiences the pitfalls of even the benevolent despot. Upon receiving word that his company may safely return to Earth, he resorts to lies and deception to prevent it, as he can’t bear to live as an equal among the people he once commanded. Distrustful of science, Serling’s most effective medium is often the futuristic dystopia. In both “Eye of the Beholder” and “No. 12 Looks Just Like You,” women are forced into procedures to make them look like everyone else — another instrument of state control.
Nearly all of these, however, pale before “The Obsolete Man,” one of the most withering attacks against tyranny ever leveled on film. Burgess Meredith plays Romney Wordsworth, a scripture-quoting librarian whom the omnipotent State has deemed “obsolete.” Appearing before the nameless Chancellor, Wordsworth will repudiate neither his profession nor his beliefs, declaring, “You cannot erase God with an edict.” Unnerved, the Chancellor reads Wordsworth’s death sentence (arrived at with a surprising respect for process and procedure), admonishing him that the self-perpetuating, functionalist ethic of “the State has no use for your kind.” Wordsworth wins the game by locking the Chancellor and himself together in his room, where a bomb will explode on live television. Only when the Chancellor invokes the name of God amidst his sobbing pleas does Wordsworth free him, seconds before detonation. The Chancellor’s safety, however, is short-lived. His demonstration of human emotion has belied his position and placed his own interests above that of the State, thus rendering himself obsolete. His former comrades carry out his sentence immediately, with chilling violence.
Matching the power of these plays, however, is another set of more personal episodes, in which conservative assumptions are yet again evident. In these, Serling exposes human flaws through archetypal characters — pool hustlers, struggling jazz musicians, washed-up actresses. In his world, the lines between good and evil are stark. As Peter Wolfe points out in In the Zone: The Twilight World of Rod Serling (1997), “The lives we lead are the ones we have been building…Consistent with the faces we wear and the dreams we dream, they’re what we deserve. …People in the zone who deny their defining realities, say, by colonizing another planet or by changing identities, always come to grief.” Guilt cannot be ignored; the day of reckoning must come. A criminal whose every desire is suddenly granted by a mysterious man comes to discover that he resides in hell. Thieves who conspire to hibernate until no one remembers them awake to find that their stolen gold has been rendered worthless by the progress of science. Those who take the easy way out, squander their talents, misuse special powers, shun the righteous path or diminish human life are sure to get their due in the course of the half-hour. On the flip side, fundamentally good characters, however flawed, tend to emerge as reluctant heroes. Consistent with the stoic ethos of the 50s, those who earn their keep, maintain honor and humility, practice self-sacrifice and play fair rarely emerge worse off for their time in the Zone.
This is not to say that Serling held up the individual above all else. Quite the opposite. Like Ralph Waldo Emerson, he recognizes that “individual nomadism” bankrupts a society. In The Twilight Zone’s pilot episode, an experiment in human isolation brings hallucination and madness. Serling was concerned with the dynamics in which individuals, whether good or evil, make up communities — those keepers of history and tradition that Tocqueville so famously observed. As Serling exalts simple people, he exalts simple places — small towns and their largely decent inhabitants, where one may “slow down to a walk and live his life in full measure.” In his study Rod Serling: The Dreams and Nightmares in the Twilight Zone (1989), Joel Engel refers to this phenomenon as a “kind of geographical womb to crawl back into,” to find security and comfort in the familiar.
What happens when these bonds of community break down, when fear and self-interest overwhelm them? Serling’s answer lies in the Cold War classic “The Shelter,” in which a man, despite the ridicule of his neighbors, has constructed a bomb shelter with just enough space, food and air for his family to survive. During a party at his house, the radio warns of an imminent raid. The party disperses and his family enters the shelter, only to watch his friends force their way in amidst cries of “fairness.” The same dynamic echoes throughout “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” which concerns a suburban neighborhood’s ferociously speedy descent into a Hobbesian hell when it experiences a localized blackout along with strange mechanical malfunctions. The “Monsters” refer, of course, to the neighbors, who turn on each other in their desperate search for someone to blame. These plays demonstrate that hardship and conflict make right action that much more important. The alternative is the way of the lynch mob — a way that humankind is too willing to embrace. As informed by a Zone character “Elegy,” “Wherever there is man, there can be no peace.” Indeed, without the steadying influence of community, this worst part of human nature arises unchecked. We’re left with the alternatives of anarchy or tyranny.
THESE THEMES ARE NO LESS relevant today. As the left continues to try to enforce groupthink and balkanize society into factions, the cries increase for legislation and policies that would standardize, regulate and universalize each facet of culture and its agents. The organic communities championed by Serling are replaced by mere demographics. As the government grows to meet the demands of the mass and of “fairness,” the individual shrinks, just as it would under the yoke of a monarch or ruling class.
The Zone of the eighties was an uneven production, lacking the emotional and moral resonance of the Serling original. Repeating this shortcoming would be a terrible waste. Television audiences are starved for something more substantial than the latest “reality” fare. The recent success of M. Night Shyamalan’s films prove that audiences still crave the types of fantastic themes, twist endings and lessons in humanity that The Twilight Zone put on the map.
In an April interview with the Hollywood Reporter, UPN President Dawn Ostroff said the show is “timeless in the issues and the questions it brings up are relevant today and were relevant 30 years ago and will be relevant 30 years from now.” She’s right. A well-done Twilight Zone will be a welcome addition not only to popular culture, but also to our civil discourse. Perhaps taking a page from Serling, director Jonathan Frakes added, “It’s an adult television show.” For fans of the original show and serious people everywhere, let’s hope so. We should tune in — and demand to be challenged as Serling would have challenged us.
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