“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.”
Beyond Space and Time
The above quote is but one of the iconic introductions spoken by Rod Serling during the title sequence of his early 1960s anthology show, The Twilight Zone, and it speaks volumes to the context of its time as well as the show’s central themes. The Twilight Zone was a remarkable show that stands the test of time. Despite being a distinctly post-war, Cold War-era product, the ideas it explored and the observations it made about humanity—and specifically, about American culture and sensibilities—have only grown more potent with time.
The Twilight Zone’s original run is my favorite TV series. As a lover of good fantasy and sci-fi, the supernatural, and horror, Serling’s anthology scratches an itch for me that nothing outside of a Ray Bradbury novel can quite reach. The series hinges on several key recurring themes: man’s sinfulness or brokenness; a trepidation about quickly advancing technology; and a dystopian bent with a hopeful, humanistic flair that always leaves the viewer with a sense that the horrors witnessed on the screen can be avoided. Thus, The Twilight Zone—despite being a thoroughly modern and specifically 20th-century product—offers a solution to many of the issues of modernity, an antidote to purely materialistic thinking and technological hubris.
Though socially progressive in many areas, the series’ underlying moral framework advocates a return to more traditional social values, and offers warnings about where certain paths may take us. (Each episode ends with a satisfying twist or climax in which the logical conclusions of all that was laid out so masterfully in the first twenty minutes finally unfold before us.) Some of these values include: a reluctance to rely on human scientific strength to reach utopia; a rejection of hyper-individualism and an emphasis on community and human relation; and finally, a firm belief in the supernatural or at least, in unknown powers above humanity, be it God, angels, or alien life forms. Though the show is mostly secular (with some incredible exceptions), its overall posture is one of human humility over and against hubris and raw power. The Twilight Zone was a reaction to the cold and lonely hypothesis of materialism that reached adulthood in the 20th century, and put forth the possibility that we aren’t “alone” in this existence, and that perhaps the supernatural not only exists, but can bleed over into our world. Indeed, it seems that the show actually hopes this is the case, rather than just suggesting the possibility.
Like many other shows of its era, The Twilight Zone benefitted from the vestiges of a Christian culture as well as a viewing audience that was still nominally Christian. The moral data it was dealing with was permeated with Chistian thinking, and so the solutions to the moral problems in the show tended to be somewhat Christian in nature. During its run, the series warned against messing with demonic forces (“Escape Clause”); called for hospitality to strangers and loving your neighbor (“The Monsters are Due on Maple Street”); urged us to not rely on our own judgment in all situations (“The Parallel”); warned against trusting entirely in human authorities and powers (“The Obsolete Man”) instead of recognizing man’s inherent flaws (“In His Image”); and finally, proclaimed a general, series-wide message that selfishness should be avoided.
As a post-war series, The Twilight Zone also reflected the fears and popular consciousness of its time, as attested by various “nuclear threat” (“The Shelter,” “Third from the Sun”) and “alien invasion” (“The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” “Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?”) episodes. At the same time, it advocated for a highly aimed humanism with moral boundaries that go beyond scientific achievement. It recognized that there’s an essential part of man which is flawed and sinful, and must be guarded against.
The Midnight Zone
In 2019, CBS aired a reboot of The Twilight Zone. It was a mixed bag. Some episodes were a touch too political, echoing the cultural tones of Reddit and Twitter as opposed to the original’s thoughtful musings. Of course, the original Twilight Zone was political, too, created explicitly by Serling in part to communicate moral parables and make social observations through science fiction. The original series could sometimes cross the line from thematic richness over to blunt parable, but it never felt like it was trying to convert or scold the audience. The reboot, however, did that with less innocence, and not nearly as deftly as Serling’s series.
The reboot was not entirely terrible though, and occasionally captured the original’s spirit with some thought-provoking and chilling stories. Jordan Peele, who produced the reboot and served as its narrator, is a master of modern film parable and a skilled horror master himself. Sadly, it seemed that little of his talent found a way to shine in the reboot. Ultimately, however, the main issue with 2019’s The Twilight Zone isn’t primarily its writing, direction, or overall emphasis; it’s the fact that it exists at all.
Contemporary film and TV have entered what I call “The Midnight Zone.” Whereas Serling described The Twilight Zone as a place beyond human understanding that’s between “light and shadow,” “science and superstition,” and “the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge,” the “Midnight Zone” has no room for such uncertainty. The stories America tells today are a far cry from the stories we told in decades and centuries past.
Many (e.g., The Atlantic, Cosmopolitan) have criticized the Hollywood of the last 10 years for being unoriginal, for being more interested in low risk/high reward “content” as opposed to innovative stories and original ideas. The stories coming out of Hollywood—those dominating the box office, anyway—are increasingly simplistic, shallow stories that serve as a vehicle for nostalgia or for a very simple message. The theaters are overrun by “legacy sequels” like the utterly terrible Jurassic World: Dominion or messy, overstuffed reboots and adaptations. This is the essence of the Midnight Zone: it’s a dark and simple place that doesn’t dare to be interesting for fear of losing its audience.
Hollywood has little patience for risk, innovation, or truthfulness, and we as the audience have a low enough view of ourselves that we don’t mind. We’re comfortable with the familiar and the well-trodden, with seeing the same intellectual properties again and again rather than something new. There are exceptions, of course, that are both original and fresh while also generating lots of box office revenue. (Some recent examples include Sam Mendes’s 1917, Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, and Jordan Peele’s own Nope.) For the most part, however, the interesting stories are being told on the periphery while the front pages of every streaming service are filled with reboots (e.g., Peacock’s Bel-Air) and spin-offs (e.g., Paramount+’s Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies). Whereas the original Twilight Zone embraced uncertainty and the mystery of the created cosmos while exploring the alcoves of human hubris, the Midnight Zone has no place for unanswered questions, shades of gray, or anything new and unknown. In the Midnight Zone, the only color is black, and the only goal is to keep the revenue coming in.
Imagination is one of the great human virtues. A people that possesses great imagination will achieve much, and will create beautiful art. A culture that lets their imagination die is one that cannot contribute to the great conversation or contribute great works that will be remembered by history. America, not long ago, was a font of imagination. Through its greatest achievement in form—the motion picture industry—America created some of the modern era’s most impactful and imaginative visual works. But as long as we are content to see the same works rehashed while living in a world without nuance—as long as we love being spoon fed comfortable “content” instead of exploring larger ideas—we will continue journeying into the blackest recesses of the Midnight Zone, and be fed remake after reboot after legacy sequel. The returns will diminish.
The reason this matters is that pop culture matters. A culture passes on its values through story, fable, parable, and myth. A culture retains an identity when it understands its values and can articulate them in artistic form. And these things only function when the people at large receive and pass on these stories. It’s not enough for a culture to survive in universities and think tanks; it has to permeate the people. It’s not enough to cling to just the classics, whether those consist of Homer or John Ford, if those classics aren’t enjoyed by your neighbors, friends, and family. It’s not enough to lament that such fine works don’t make money anymore.
Good art is good art, whether it’s seen as prestigious or not, and a good artist can communicate meaning, truth, goodness, and beauty through an epic poem read in universities or a TV serial watched by millions on Thursday evenings. Serling understood this and I believe Jordan Peele does, as well. But it’s not enough to bring back a familiar product, strip it of its soul and originality, and make a few bucks. Peele is doing in his films what should have been done in The Twilight Zone reboot.
A New Serling
“About my soul – you say I won’t miss it?”
“You won’t even know it’s gone.”
-The Twilight Zone, Escape Clause, 1959
When a culture loses its imagination, it loses more than just quality “content” or good “entertainment.” It loses a bit of its soul. We may still be waiting for the next Homer to come along and enchant America with myth, or the next Michaelangelo to come along and direct our eyes heavenward. Maybe we’re waiting for the next J.R.R. Tolkien or C.S. Lewis to come along and transpose the heart of ancient and medieval works into a contemporary frame.
But before we get another Homer, Tolkien, or Lewis, we may have to look forward to the next Rod Serling. Someone who comes along and re-enchants our world with tales of the in-between, with stories from the pit of man’s fears and musings from the summit of his knowledge. Someone who can remind us that we aren’t the solution to our own problems, and that there’s more to this world than meets the eye. Someone who reminds us to be charitable toward strangers and loving to our friends.
The next Serling would warn us of the evil within ourselves and the dangers inherent to man, and remind us of the need for understanding rather than point our fears outward toward the “other” clan across the aisle, thus making us even more suspicious than we already are. The next Serling ought to remind us of where we came from and where we can go, not simply revive someone else’s work and repackage it with smaller words and more CGI.
The next Rod Serling must be someone who reminds us that while we are capable of great evil, we are also capable of great achievement if only we rightly order ourselves, get out of our familiar and comfortable bubbles of commercial rehash, and venture out into the twilight.