The original Twilight Zone is a classic of speculative and weird fiction and a seminal work of the tv landscape. There have been several revival attempts throughout the years: a movie in 1983, another series in 1985, and the spiritual successor in The Outer Limits tv series in 1995. Each has been greeted with varying levels of critical success, but none have been as culturally impactful as the original.
The new 2019 reboot won’t be breaking that tradition.
The thing that has to be understood about the original Rod Sterling Twilight Zone is that the structure is less science fiction and more parable: science fiction, and more broadly speculative and weird fiction, is about introducing a strange or impossible element and then exploring the implications of it on societies and individuals. The Twilight Zone is not that. The Twilight Zone is a much simpler and older form of storytelling: it’s parable.
The strange or weird element of any given Twilight Zone episode isn’t there to be explored; it’s there to hammer home a message. And the thing with parables is that they’re simple almost by necessity. There’s right and wrong and the story is really just a vehicle to illustrate it. The parable of the boy who cried wolf doesn’t go into the emotional underpinnings of why a boy would consistently sound a false alarm over and over again. Did he have an abusive childhood? Was it a metaphor for trying to escape abuse and the unwillingness of society to listen? Is the wolf symbolically his abuser? The parable doesn’t care and it isn’t important to the point it’s trying to make; don’t sound false alarms or no one will pay attention to you when it’s real.
Here’s The Thing
This is one of the key problems of the new series. The classic Twilight Zone is a half hour long: just enough for setup, twist, and falling action. The new Twilight Zone is twice that length at an hour. And while that may seem like a good thing, a chance to expand and tell a more complete and complicated story, what it actually does is put the episodes in an uncomfortable limbo. The episodes needs to be either shorter so that the episode is largely about the shocking twist at the end (as all Twilight Zone episodes inevitably have), or longer so the theme and characters can be truly developed. In each episode I found myself getting bored around the thirty minute mark in each episode, waiting for the twist out of curiosity but not really invested.
It’s a strange problem to have considering the distressing amount of quality and talent involved in the new Twilight Zone. The cast is solid throughout, and the only reason certain episodes work at all is the powerful performances they put out. There’s also a nice push for racial diversity in the cast, and sometimes in the themes of a few of the episodes like Replay and The Traveler. The visuals are gorgeous and moody and the music wonderful and atmospheric and reminiscent of the discordant jangles and strings of the late and great 2013 Hannibal tv show. It’s a lot of quality to be draped on a fundamentally flawed structure.
For example, the main character’s arc in the episode Not All Men is pitiful, without enough weight to become really invested. The main character starts the episode unassertive and meek in the face of the patriarchal hierarchy of the company she works at. By the end of it she’s become more assertive and learned to stand up for herself, but it’s a cheap arc for several reasons: we never get any indication of why the character starts that way, what her life experience has been to shape her into who she is, and there’s no sacrifice or growth involved in her change which saps it of any real narrative or emotional weight.
New Twilight Zone: Not As Smart As It Thinks
Another fundamental problem with the new Twilight Zone series is that it isn’t anywhere near as smart as it thinks it is. Often the idea or message at the heart of an episode is borderline offensive in how simple it is. By trying to avoid destiny you create it? Paranoia is bad? You should care about suffering? Mind boggling. Truly. Have you seen the headlines about #metoo? So did the new Twilight Zone writers. Unfortunately, they had nothing interesting to say about the complicated gender discourse, and instead decided to simply stuff as many buzzwords as possible into Not All Men.
They’re not bad messages, but they’re simple. And in a lot of ways the problems with the new Twilight Zone are simply a product of being faithful to the original series in a world that’s passed it by. The television audience of 2019 isn’t the audience of 1959: the modern audience is more schooled and experienced with scifi and weird fiction. We’re not shocked anymore just by the appearance of a weird element like your car becoming animate and stalking you. It’s not enough. Once upon a time stories could be less complex, but the modern audience expects more complexity now, expects the different facets of a theme to be more fully explored.
New Twilight Zone: An Obsolete Structure
Another main reason that the original Twilight Zone was structured as a parable was because of Rod Sterling’s frustration with censorship. In 1959 what could be portrayed on screen, and which topics could be explored, was far less permissive than it is today. This video explains how a screenplay Rod Sterling wrote about the holocaust ended up being edited and having all mention of gas chambers cut from it because American Gas was one of the sponsors. The weird and fantastical elements of the original Twilight Zone were often used to allow the writers to talk about issues through metaphor. But today’s tv landscape is more open than that of 1959, and there’s no need to hide themes or messages behind metaphor any more. Writers can simply discuss and explore topics without veiling them.
Ultimately, the new Twilight Zone feels like an outdated show, stiff and limited and slow. Worse, it’s boring. Which, when there’s so much great and terrible speculative tv out there is really its greatest sin.
Photo Credit: IMDB