Next to Star Trek, The Twilight Zone was CBS’s most well-established property upon which to build once it launched its streaming service CBS All Access. The original Twilight Zone series ran five seasons from 1959 to 1964, created and spearheaded by the renowned scriptwriter Rod Serling, who penned an exhausting proportion of its episodes. Despite some moderate success following the end of the series—most notably, the screenplay to Planet of the Apes—Serling didn’t see sustained acclaim after the mid-’60s. Neither did The Twilight Zone; revivals of the series in the 1980s and 2000s (along with a notoriously disastrous film) didn’t come close to the magic of the original.
There is an underlying discrepancy between Serling’s vision as articulated and actualized in the 1960s version and that of its 21st-century counterpart.Nonetheless, CBS All Access’s newest iteration of the show came with some substantial expectations, most notably due to its association with Jordan Peele, who serves as one of the executive producers and fills Serling’s shoes as the narrator. Peele was obviously an apt choice; notwithstanding his background in the comedic Key & Peele, his star truly rose when he directed the films Get Out and Us, well-regarded horror movies with Serling-esque sensibilities. Following a memorable Super Bowl promo, the network began dropping episodes of Season 1 on April 1, 2019, following its model of releasing them weekly rather than all at once. The entire second season, however, was released mid-pandemic on June 25, 2020.
Does the new Twilight Zone live up to its expectations? That depends somewhat on who you ask. Critical reactions to the two seasons have been somewhat positive, but not overwhelmingly so. The parallels to Serling’s original series are evident, such as the opening and closing narrations, the twisty storylines that often touch on social issues, and the heritage of tapping well-regarded storytellers—besides Peele, episodes are often directed by up-and-coming horror auteurs like Ana Lily Amirpour, Osgood Perkins, and Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead.
The differences are noteworthy too, however. The Twilight Zone style was distinctive. There was its trademark black-and-white format, artfully and intentionally deployed. This style consciously avoided special effects, which were difficult to achieve on a tight budget with the technology of the day, relying instead on suggestion and well-crafted dialogue. And of course, there was the running time—around 25 minutes (sans commercials), except for its penultimate fourth season, in which the show’s expansion to an hour time slot diluted much of its effectiveness.
How well Peele’s Twilight Zone stacks up with Serling’s in part hinges on one’s expectations. Does it stick too closely to the original series to be a truly innovative and necessary addition? Does it depart too widely from a tried-and-true formula? Does it fail not from following the formula but from applying it poorly? Or does it hit that sweet spot, balancing out the polarities and presenting a classic in a new mode for a new generation of viewers?
To a certain extent, one might answer, “All of the above,” from the simple fact that The Twilight Zone is an anthology show rather than a serialized storyline (albeit one with countless continuity Easter eggs). As a series in which each episode must stand alone, the nature and quality of episodes is sure to vary. This was true of Serling’s original Twilight Zone, which among its memorable installments also included any number of mediocre (or downright awful) ones. Moreover, like its predecessors, CBS All Access’s Twilight Zone operates across multiple genres; and this fact is not incidental trivia but (as I will discuss shortly) bears significantly on the worldview(s) presented to its viewers.
In many ways, I appreciate the new Twilight Zone and have found several of its individual entries powerful. I believe that (as is often true of successful shows) the second season has learned some of the lessons from flaws of the first. Even so, beyond superficial differences, there is an underlying discrepancy between Serling’s vision as articulated and actualized in the 1960s version and that of its 21st-century counterpart, one that ultimately limits its usefulness to contemporary audiences even as it strives to be more relevant: that is, its approach to the spiritual world.
Before proceeding, it is important to address the question of The Twilight Zone’s genre. The original version of the series was always a hybrid of speculative genres, and viewers never knew in any given week whether they would be getting science fiction, fantasy, or horror (only a couple episodes—“The Jeopardy Room” and “The Silence”—had no speculative element). These distinctions aren’t tangential, because different genres are predicated on different assumptions. Indeed, while bookstores might have a single “Sci-Fi/Fantasy” section, in their purest forms, the two categories are mutually exclusive. Fantasy assumes some supernatural component, while advocates of “hard science fiction” insist that plots must be extrapolated from known scientific materialism. Any supernatural element in science fiction is pushing it toward the more ambiguous “science fantasy.”
Horror, meanwhile, is distinguished more by its orientation, its desire to provoke fear. That might be done in purely materialistic terms (e.g. “slasher” horror), but more often, it skews closer to fantasy in its appropriation of the supernatural. However, unlike horror, fantasy tends toward an orientation of wonder. If fantasy and science fiction make strange bedfellows, horror and science fiction are even more unsettled, since science fiction classically was associated with an orientation of optimism, even sharing with fantasy at times a sense of wonder.
So from its very origins, Serling’s show was a peculiar mix of genres. Yet across these genres, there were some broadly unifying arcs. One was a fervent insistence on the intrinsic value of human beings. Science fiction can lose that insistence when it veers too far into transhumanism, as it has historically been prone to do. Horror can easily grow misanthropic in its emphasis on fear and despair. Fantasy, at its worst, can become disenchanted with the primary world and turn toward a gnostic rejection of creation. Yet none of these features are defining aspects of their genres, and under Serling’s direction, The Twilight Zone never lost sight of the dignity of persons. Even when—as it often did—the series critiqued its core characters (or their antagonists), I believe these critiques came from a posture of care and correction, not outright hatred.
Significantly, Serling located intrinsic human value in the image of God. This becomes evident in some of the show’s most memorable moments. In “The Obsolete Man,” Romney Wordsworth defies the authoritarian government official’s rejection of God, and Wordsworth’s own faith allows him to die sacrificially in opposition—a rare positive religious reference in dystopian fiction. In “Death’s-Head Revisited,” a former Nazi is confronted by the ghosts of the people he killed, who insist, “Your final judgment will come from God.” Simply put, Serling’s series suggested not only a supernatural realm, but a spiritual one. Yes, in the fantasy and horror segments, paranormal happenings played major plot roles. But underlying these strange events lay a more foundational stratum, one that assumed humans existed on more than a material plane.
It isn’t so clear that the new Twilight Zone builds upon such a foundation. The CBS All Access version shares with its predecessors a commitment to multiple genres and to asserting human dignity. Like Serling’s series, Peele’s edition riffs off current events for its subject matter. Both shows proceed from a desire to use the conventions of genre fiction to effect positive change in society.
But whereas Serling could contend for human worth on the basis of a shared imago Dei, a spiritual aspect that provides an inherent value to each individual, the reboot seems content to regard men and women materialistically. Human beings, Aristotle maintained, are “political animals,” and that is certainly how season one of the new Twilight Zone understood them. At times, it seemed almost like the writers were keeping a grocery list of political hot-button topics in front of them when they broke stories. Racism? Check (“Replay”). Immigration? Check (“Point of Origin”). Gun control? Check (“The Blue Scorpion”). The Trump election? Check (“The Wunderkind”).
There is nothing wrong with such attention per se; touching on incendiary issues was a key part of the original show’s legacy. But the season’s unflagging devotion to its politics grew exhausting over time, especially because too often the thematic content overwhelmed the story and characters. In the series premier, “The Comedian,” Kumail Nanjiani plays a would-be stand-up comic who can’t succeed because his desire for political commentary overwhelms the “jokes” of his routine. That episode, ironically, could stand in as an allegory for the whole first season.
The most recent Twilight Zone may on one level be just as informed by the humanities as its progenitor. Yet its posture toward the humanities is quite different.And one reason Peele’s version seems so wearying is a sense of bleakness, even despair, that pervades its storylines. That may be part of our current cultural moment, yet it was no less a part of the 1960s, an era of the Cold War and the Civil Rights movement. The twists of that Twilight Zone could be chilling—yes, even bleak—on an individual level, but the show’s arc more broadly suggested glimmers of hope. If an episode ended tragically, it frequently did so on the terms of Aristotelian and Shakespearean tragedy: with the expectation that pity and terror could transform the viewer’s life. And many episodes concluded more optimistically, with virtuous characters rewarded through struggle or apparent antagonists and villains experiencing some mode of redemption.
In some ways, the second season has improved on the first. One can catch those elusive glimmers of hope in episodes such as “A Small Town,” “Try, Try,” and some others (if you squint at them from the right angle). The commitment to tackling contemporary issues remains intact, but it is subtler and more story-oriented. If anything, the emphasis this year seems more on socioeconomic rather than directly “political” concerns—though these are intertwined (as they would have been in Aristotle’s polis).
Yet whether the focus is on homo politicus or homo economicus, the new Twilight Zone’s perspective on humanity remains reductive. Notwithstanding the apparently progressive politics underlying its premises, the show isn’t “progressive” in the historical sense—quite the contrary, episode after episode ends with the implication that human events are mostly locked in a near-endless cycle. This may be a shortcoming endemic to materialistic iterations of progressive thought: without the concept of a future supernal eschaton, all we will ever know exists on the corporeal plane of our current existence, and so the only hope for any paradise must be realized in the horizon of our own societies. Yet such a quest for an immanent utopia is doomed from the start—really human beings will burn you every time. The result is a sociopolitical mindset that vacillates wildly between extremes, from naïve optimism to bitter cynicism when those hopes are crushed.
To adapt the terminology of Charles Taylor, the new Twilight Zone may cursorily suggest an enchanted world with its deployment of the supernatural, yet on a deeper level, it betrays its commitment to the immanent frame. This commitment is manifest, among other ways, in the show’s depiction of the liberal arts. A key defining feature of Serling’s series was its frequent paeans to the humanities, and to literature in particular. It is little wonder that Romney Wordsworth of “The Obsolete Man” is a librarian, one who finds the spiritual impetus to resistance dystopia through literature; the same is true of Marilyn in the chilling “Number 12 Looks Just like You.” “The Changing of the Guard” extols the significance of an English teacher fearing he has wasted his life, while “The Bard” excoriates the ways in which contemporary media seem at odds with the production of true enduring cultural products.
The most recent Twilight Zone may on one level be just as informed by the humanities as its progenitor. Yet its posture toward the humanities is quite different. As with its use of the supernatural, the new series seems content to treat its various literary and cultural allusions as plot devices and thematic overtones, with little suggestion that they may retain real transformative power. On the one hand, its writers are clearly readers; many subtly or directly invoke classic cultural products. For instance, “Among the Untrodden” (arguably the best episode of the second season) not only derives its title from William (not Romney!) Wordsworth, it includes the obligatory English class with an instructor lecturing on Wordsworth. But while the episode certainly allows for some narrative payoff of these allusions, it never directly suggests that anyone is benefited from reading Wordsworth.
This artistic lacuna isn’t really surprising; indeed, it proceeds naturally from the show’s secular assumptions. The humanities are not, of course, exclusively the domain of Christians—indeed, culturally and historically they really belong not only to Western Civilization but to everyone. Yet that transcendent and transcultural approach to truth assumes that human beings are more than just composites of their cultural contexts and influences, that we are significant individually because we are significant metaphysically. Rod Serling’s classic Twilight Zone shared this basic assumption. Only time will tell whether its current successor can truly live out its inheritance by asserting transcendent human spiritual dignity, an enchanted antidote to our secular age.