“It is difficult to produce a television documentary that is both incisive and probing when every twelve minutes one is interrupted by twelve dancing rabbits singing about toilet paper.”
Rod Serling’s time in Hollywood is an interesting thing to ponder, especially when it intersects with the politics of the time and contemporary ideas about social justice. Serling devoted himself to a career in writing after returning from World War II. A combat veteran of the Pacific, where he earned a Bronze Star, he used the G.I. Bill to go to college, and stated that writing was an outlet to work through the trauma of what he had experienced. According to Serling’s family, the trauma of his war experiences led to him being haunted with nightmares for the rest of his life.
By the time Serling was in his 30s, he was considered one of the best writers working in television, with work such as the Emmy-winning teleplay Patterns. He followed up Patterns with Emmys in successive years for Requiem For A Heavyweight and The Comedian, both of which are still considered among the highlights of live TV’s “golden age.” However, Serling was labeled an “angry man” in the industry for bristling against network censorship and commercial sponsor interference. In one work, the Ford Motor Co. objected to references to the Chrysler Building. In another, a cigarette-lighter company sponsoring the material demanded references to matches be changed. And beyond these bows to the people paying the bills, there was the apprehension in television about discussing any major issues of import. Racism, discrimination, fascism, nuclear war, and genocide were not things to be dramatized without being completely neutered of anything that could possibly offend someone somewhere, especially at a time when depicting Lassie having puppies led to letters from busybodies calling it “smut” being shown to children.
In order to talk about those things that make people uncomfortable, The Twilight Zone became a vehicle for espousing Serling’s thoughts. Where Serling was denied by CBS the ability to dramatize race relations in the American South for a television play called Noon on Doomsday—which was inspired by the murder of Emmett Till—he could talk about racism and authoritarianism if there were aliens and monsters involved, even if the monstrosities discussed were all too human.
In writing this piece, I did a fair amount of research and listened to a number of interviews with Serling, and one thing that comes through as another aspect of Serling’s personality is that he seemed to be his own harshest critic. In a lecture given to an audience at UCLA in 1971, Serling states that none of his work was all that great, feeling it has “aged like bread,” and claims that no one will remember it or him “in a hundred years.” Sixty years after The Twilight Zone premiered, both it and Serling exist as indelible elements of popular culture, and I think I can safely believe Serling was wrong about his life’s work.
From Rosie Knight at the Hollywood Reporter:
In developing the fourth iteration of the seminal science-fiction show The Twilight Zone, was a question that showrunner Simon Kinberg (Legion, The Gifted, Designated Survivor) kept coming back to: “Why now?”
“A couple of years ago that question was harder to answer than today,” Kinberg told The Hollywood Reporter. But the shift in the political landscape opened the door to The Twilight Zone and made it vital for the creators of the new version to continue the satirical legacy of the original.
On the red carpet for the series’ first PaleyFest panel, Kinberg told THR why 2019 was the perfect time for the show to return: “I think today we’re living in a world that resembles The Twilight Zone. We’re living in a world in which the social issues of [original series creator] Rod Serling’s time are just as prevalent, unfortunately, today as they were then.”
It was a sentiment shared by Kinberg’s fellow exec producer Audrey Chon (Oldboy), who’s been developing the series alongside him and executive producer (and onscreen narrator) Jordan Peele since 2016. “It felt like we needed a forum that wasn’t the news and wasn’t so serious where you can actually put ideas and stories out there that people can talk about,” said Chon. “We looked around and said, ‘What are the kinds of modern-day paranoia that we should be speaking about?'”
If there is a prevalent theme which runs through most of Serling’s work, it’s a deep belief the dignity of what it means to be a human being can only be respected through fundamental fairness and a commitment to justice. And the man believed it. During a 1966 speech about race, which could easily be about the current state of the country and world, Serling lashed out at a “white backlash” that feels sorry for itself, and then wraps its resentments in concepts of freedom and order while doing everything to marginalize others. Even in something like Planet of the Apes (1968), which Serling helped adapt from Pierre Boulle’s novel La Planète des singes, ideas about war, race, free speech, government oppression, and alienation are expounded on in what is really a two-hour Twilight Zone episode, with one of the most iconic endings in film history.
And if one was a child like me, who grew up watching Serling’s work on the local UHF station after school most days, these concepts left grooves that inform my politics to this very day.
Trying to follow this legacy has been a daunting task, with previous attempts never quite finding the magic of the black-and-white original (although, it should be noted, the 1985 revival has some really good original episodes). Enter a production team that includes Jordan Peele.
Peele’s directorial debut, Get Out, was both critically acclaimed and a box office success. Get Out and Peele’s follow-up, Us, have been described as “social thrillers” in which the horror scenario is a way for the stories to serve as damning satires of divisions of race and class as parts of American life. The powers that be at CBS, looking to revive The Twilight Zone for their CBS All Access streaming service, decided to reach out to Peele.
As the host of the series and co-executive producer, Peele slides into Serling’s role of guide and commenter on events, with the initial four episodes both covering similar territory as the previous incarnations and attempting to find their own voice. And to that end, these episodes have their hits and misses.
But there is promise.
- “The Comedian” — Samir (Kumail Nanjiani) is a comedian who can’t seem to make audiences laugh. Each night his attempts at topical jokes about “well regulated militias” and the second amendment bombs. Then Samir’s offered a chance by an established performer (Tracy Morgan) who dangles a Faustian deal to achieve tremendous success: he must sacrifice a part of himself in each set. Written by Alex Rubens, a Key & Peele contributor who also co-wrote the movie Keanu, the episode has some similarities to a Serling penned episode of Night Gallery as well as a story from the 1985 Zone revival in that both require a stand-up comedian to reveal intimate details of their life in order to get an audience’s approval. Critical reaction to the episode has been mixed to negative, but I actually enjoyed the story and thought it fit the tone of the original series.
- “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet” — A modern twist on the famous Richard Matheson story from the original Twilight Zone which was also adapted by George Miller for Twilight Zone: The Movie, “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” in which a paranoid passenger spots a gremlin on the wing of his plane. In this version, journalist Justin Sanderson (Adam Scott) realizes he’s on a doomed flight before the flight even experiences difficulties due to a podcast that seems to have information about the future. The story uses the appeal of audience participation in true crime mysteries to totally rethink the idea of who or what is the gremlin messing with the plane. One thing of note: the covers of the magazines in the newsstand at the beginning of the episode has Easter eggs from “The Comedian” and future installments of the 2019 series, implying all of the events are occurring within the same fictional universe. Also, the name of the plane’s pilot, Captain Donner, is a shout out to director Richard Donner (Superman, The Goonies, Lethal Weapon) who shot the original 1963 episode.
- ”Replay” — In probably the most directly topical episode of the first four, a mother taking her son to a historically black college is the jumping-off point into The Twilight Zone. After finding a that video recorder can rewind and alter the past, Nina (Sanaa Lathan) tries to use the device to create a better future for her teenage son (Damson Idris) after experiencing a police encounter that goes in horrific directions.
- “A Traveler” — Steven Yeun plays a prisoner who arrives at a small Alaskan jail, asking for forgiveness from Captain Lane Pendleton (Greg Kinnear). The story touches on xenophobia and the nature of tolerance, with some only exhibiting it when it’s convenient.
“I felt like it’s the greatest show of all time,” Peele says. “We were tentative to step in. There are many ways to fail at this.” The easiest way to botch a Twilight Zone reboot, Peele notes, is to not pay proper respect to writer and host Serling’s formula. The original series wasn’t just about telling short sci-fi and horror tales with final-act twists, not only about haunted dolls and invading aliens and interdimensional doorways. The episodes were frequently morality tales, and Serling pushed the envelope to make allegorical points about hot-button issues. Serling tackled racism, McCarthyism, conformity, free speech, the Holocaust and more.
“He would tell stories that explored character and a character’s tragic flaws,” Peele says. “And he would craft a custom-made nightmare for those people. He would place reveals strategically throughout an episode. And he would use the show to Trojan-horse commentary and social messaging through entertainment.”