The Powerful Legacy of The Twilight Zone

“What dimension are you even in?”

Our current reality is a fractured and terrifying place, with some forces trying to recreate the exact 1950s fauxtopia that Rod Serling railed against in the original version of The Twilight Zone, while other forces are trying to drag us into what might, if we’re very lucky, turn out to be a sustainable future. We have technology and innovation that make us, essentially, gods—and once we get that pesky mortality thing beat we will be unstoppable—except, of course, that human nature is probably going to screw us over at every turn.

And that’s where the original Twilight Zone was so good: Serling knew that to reckon with human nature was to ricochet between unbearable depths and impossible heights. In order to reflect that, his show had to balance demands that humans do better, already, with shots of pure hope. He knew to lighten his moralizing with occasional pure silliness. The show keeps coming back in new formats because something in this combination speaks to people, and each new reboot spends at least some time on that foundation of social justice that Serling laid back in the 1950s.

The first iteration of The Twilight Zone was born from frustration. When Rod Serling took a chance and moved out to New York to start writing for television, he believed that TV could matter, that a writer could use the medium to tell important stories, and that it was a direct way to reach a mass audience that might not have the resources for live theater or the time for movies. And, for a few years, this worked. Those of you who have grown up on sitcom pap and formulaic procedurals were probably justifiably startled when the Golden Age of TV began to happen around you, so I can only imagine your shock when I say that television used to be considered a vehicle for serious, well-written teleplays—live broadcasts, usually about an hour long, that were original to TV and written by respected authors. Programs like Playhouse 90 and The United States Steel Hour gave a platform to dozens of young writers, and Serling soon became one of the most respected. The word he tended to use in interviews about his work was “adult” (this turned out to be a telling adjective, given how often people liked to dismiss SFF as kids stuff or childish). He wanted to tell “adult” stories about real people, and in the early years of TV it largely worked.

Teleplays could reach a mass audience to tell stories of working-class people trying to make it in an uncaring world. But after only a few years, the mission of these shows was undercut by skittish sponsors who didn’t want writers to say anything too controversial. It’s hard to sell soda and toilet paper during a poignant drama about racism or poverty, and Serling often fought with higher-ups over his scripts. A breaking point that he spoke of many times was his attempt, in 1956, to write a piece about the torture and murder of Emmett Till. The script for “Noon on Doomsday” (to be an episode of The United States Steel Hour) was finally “sanitized” beyond recognition because the executives didn’t want to offend their sponsor, the Atlanta-based Coca-Cola Company. The locale was changed to New England, the victim became an adult Jewish man, and no one watching the show would guess it had anything to do with the original crime.

Would it have fixed things for a major, majority-white television network to allow their Jewish star writer to deal directly with the racist murder of a Black child? Of course not. But an enormous audience of Black viewers (not to mention socially progressive viewers of all races) would have seen a giant corporation putting their money into telling that story rather than twisting it into a feel-good parable that had no relation to modern life.

This happened repeatedly. Serling, that particularly sad example of a writer who has been cursed with a moral compass, tilting at sponsors and censors over and over again, and winning multiple Emmys for the teleplays he wrote that were about working-class white people. Tough-minded, jaw-clenched drama of the sort white TV owners could watch, empathize with, and feel like they had been moved, without the pesky side effect of looking at society any differently when they set off to work or school or errands the next morning.

But thanks to those Emmys, Serling was able to convince CBS to make The Twilight Zone. And plenty of people thought he was nuts to go into “fantasy.” Just check out this Mike Wallace interview from 1959, where Wallace asks him if he’s gone nuts in between great gasping lungfuls of cigarette smoke, literally saying that by working on The Twilight Zone Serling has “given up on writing anything important for television.”

But Serling knew better. When Wallace calls them “potboilers,” Serling claims that the scripts are adult, and that at only a half hour he wouldn’t be able to “cop a plea” or “chop an axe”—put forward a social message. Of course that was all so much smoke, because with the shiny veneer of fantasy, and a sprinkle of aliens or time travel, The Twilight Zone could call white people on their racism. It could call the audience on their complicity towards anti-Semitism, or force them to relive the Holocaust, or pre-live the nuclear annihilation that everyone thought loomed on the horizon. (It’s probably still looming, by the way.) It could walk its viewers through the damaging effects of nostalgia, or point out the dangers of conformity. All the things that made up late ’50s-early ’60s society – The Twilight Zone could poke all of it with a stick and flip it over and look for the centipedes underneath.

Over the course of its five seasons, Serling wrote or co-wrote 92 of the show’s 156 episodes, and while always telling good tales, he used the hell out of his platform. In addition to racism, anti-Semitism, conformity, and nuclear paranoia, the show dealt with internalized misogyny, sexual harassment (before the term itself existed), class divisions, and, in general, a fear of the Other. It’s that fear of the Other than makes the show so unique, because while occasionally the Other was a shipful of Kanamits, swinging past Earth to grab some human meat like our planet was nothing more than a Taco Bell drive-thru, many of the episodes posited either that the aliens were benevolent and peace-loving, or that The Real Monster Was Man.

“The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street,” “The Shelter,” and “The Masks” are just a few of the episodes that deal with paranoia, greed, and the primal nature that lurks beneath civilization’s all-too-thin veneer. “Number 12 Looks Just Like You” is about internalized misogyny. 1960’s “The Big Tall Wish” is just a regular wish fulfillment fantasy… except the main cast are all Black characters, playing out a whimsical story that isn’t “about” race, which did not happen too often on TV in 1960.

“He’s Alive” and “Death’s-Head Revisited” both dealt with Hitler and the Holocaust at a time when that horror wasn’t often discussed on mainstream television aimed at Protestant and Catholic Americans. “Death’s-Head” even ends with Serling using his closing narration to deliver a stirring explanation of why Holocaust Centers concentration camps need to be kept up as reminders of our history:

They must remain standing because they are a monument to a moment in time when some men decided to turn the Earth into a graveyard. Into it they shoveled all of their reason, their logic, their knowledge, but worst of all, their conscience. And the moment we forget this, the moment we cease to be haunted by its remembrance, then we become the gravediggers.

Three years later, Serling penned a response to the assassination of John F Kennedy. “I Am the Night—Color Me Black” was something of an update of an earlier teleplay “A Town Has Turned to Dust,” in which he had again attempted to reckon with the murder of Emmet Till—only to find himself once more making compromise after compromise to horrified sponsors. This time Serling tweaked the racial elements by centering the story on a man, seemingly white (and played by a white actor, Terry Becker) who has killed another man and is to be executed for it. He claims it was self-defense, most of the town is against him, he is publicly hanged. When the sun doesn’t rise a Black pastor argues that the (mostly white) townspeople are being judged for their hatred.

And once again, Serling doesn’t let his viewers off the hook. His final narration is even harsher than his earlier send off in “Death’s Head”:

A sickness known as hate. Not a virus, not a microbe, not a germ—but a sickness nonetheless, highly contagious, deadly in its effects. Don’t look for it in the Twilight Zone—look for it in a mirror. Look for it before the light goes out altogether.

The urgency of the original Twilight Zone, for all that it could sometimes fall into pure cheese, was that Serling and his stable of writers usually implicated viewers. The Real Monster is Man, sure, but the key is that you are the Man. You’re not just passively watching a fun, spooky TV show. You are complicit in the society around you, and whatever is wrong with that society is a result of your own action or inaction. We all know the twists, but that sense of justice is why The Twilight Zone is still relevant, and why it’s worth revisiting.

A longer version of this essay—which includes further discussion of the 1983 Twilight Zone movie, as well as the revival series of 1985 and 2002—was published in April 2019. Read it here.

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