Rebooting the Twilight Zone — and Staying on Message
I recently started to write a conventional review of “Replay”, the third episode of the new Twilight Zone on CBS All-Access. But I soon got bogged down in a lengthy synopsis, and it just wasn’t clicking for me.
Besides, if you’re interested enough to read an article about a particular episode, you’ve likely seen that episode. No recap is needed. So let’s try something that, I hope, will work whether you’ve seen “Replay” or not. Let’s talk about … messages.
If there’s one piece of conventional wisdom we’ve all absorbed about The Twilight Zone, it’s this: It was a “message” show. TV censorship was notoriously strict in the late 1950s and early 1960s, so Serling cleverly snuck his viewpoints in via allegory.
Instead of doing a show about, say, Senator Joseph McCarthy — whose investigations into charges of Communist infiltration in the U.S. government helped fuel the notorious “red scare” of the early 1950s — Serling would write “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street”. That way, he could show us the corrosive effect of suspicion and betrayal on ordinary Americans without saying one direct word about politics.
But while there is no question that Serling wove messages into the original TZ, people seem to forget that he didn’t do it all the time. Yes, some episodes had direct, pointed messages — like “He’s Alive” and “Deaths-Head Revisited”. And the Fidel Castro look-alike in “The Mirror” left little doubt he thought the Cuban leader might soon meet a violent end.
Other episodes functioned as modern-day fables. There are indirect messages that can be detected and appreciated if you’re looking for them, but they’re not essential to a “surface” enjoyment of the story. Examples include “People are Alike All Over”, “Eye of the Beholder”, “The Old Man in the Cave”, and “The Obsolete Man”, to name just a few.
Still others had no real message at all. They were just good stories told for sheer entertainment value. Episodes such as “The Dummy”, “The After Hours”, “The Silence”, and “The Odyssey of Flight 33” (among many others I could cite) fall into this category.
Sure, some had a gentle, implicit sort of moral — ones that were notably universal. One of my all-time favorites, “A Passage for Trumpet”, is a very life-affirming tale. “One for the Angels” reminds us how good people live quietly among us, making humble but important contributions to our world. “The Fear” shows how we can be afraid for no reason. And so on.
The point is, Serling and his fellow scribes didn’t check the message box every week. Yet the way some people talk, you’d assume they did a message every time out — and a direct, pointed one at that.
Thank heavens they didn’t. How tedious that would have been. No, the writers of the original TZ focused first and foremost on telling good, absorbing stories, filled with vivid, memorable characters.
If those stories could be used to make a point, and do so naturally, great. If not, no big deal. You were still going to get a good story.
As I write this, we’re only three episodes in on the new Twilight Zone. We don’t know how it will shake out by the end, in terms of how many will be THIS type of story versus THAT type of story. There does seem to be some variety to it so far, but I’m getting the impression that the new TZ won’t be as rich and wide-ranging as the original.
Don’t get me wrong. For months, I’ve been urging fans to give the new series a chance, and I don’t regret that at all. All three of the episodes aired so far have some entertaining elements. They’re not stellar (some judicious editing would help, as I said in my post about the first two episodes), but they’ve clearly been made with care by talented filmmakers trying to walk in the footsteps of Serling’s original.
However, it would be unreasonable to expect the new TZ to play out like a simple continuation of the original. It can’t be done.
The original series was the brainchild of a man who had a great interest not only in “messages”, but in portraying the human condition in all of its wondrous diversity — the ups, the downs, the beautiful, the ugly, the sad, the funny, the terrifying, the poignant.
He was a man with a huge heart. Almost uniquely huge. And he stamped his work with it. That work can be imitated — sometimes well, oftentimes poorly — but it can never be replicated.
Many of Serling’s stories had a message as simple and perfect as “Life matters. Love matters. The ‘little people’ matter.” Many writers/producers can scare us, or give us a political message. But a message of love and humanity? That’s hard. It’s beyond the abilities (or at least the interests) of most.
I don’t believe it’s beyond the abilities of Jordan Peele. I have great faith in him and his crew. The mere fact that he realizes the original Twilight Zone was ultimately optimistic about humanity puts him leagues ahead of other Serling imitators, most of whom seem to believe you need only a weird story to qualify as a TZ.
So even though I’ve found much to like so far in the new TZ, I really hope the upcoming episodes go beyond direct-messaging and general (if entertaining) strangeness. Because if they don’t, then no matter how good they are intrinsically, the new series still will fall short, just as the other reboots did.
“Basically, nobody understood what made The Twilight Zone work except Rod”, original TZ producer Buck Houghton once said. And that’s only natural. Because TZ was Rod Serling. Not only was it his idea, he functioned as the sole executive producer. He also wrote no fewer than 92 of its 156 episodes.
TV just doesn’t function like that anymore. There are very few auteurs around today. Even the ones we do have (like Peele and J.J. Abrams) operate as the captain of a large team, not as the living embodiment of the show in question.
But the new TZ, for all of its merits in pursuing what is essentially an impossible task, can still get closer to the original than it has so far. For example, I’m really hoping that we get a wider variety of people and settings. So far, it’s all been regular people operating in our own time. And that’s fine, believe me. But think about how the original TZ was.
It went far into the future, and stepped back into the past. It was set on Earth, but also on asteroids and other planets. It might make you smile, it might make you think, and it might just scare the pants off you. You never knew where you’d go, or with whom. Or what, for that matter. Never mind the why!
“Replay”, of course, is set very much in the here and now (like “The Comedian” and “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet”). And it’s a message episode with a capital M.
Like many other fans, I found it very compelling. Nina and Dorian Harrison feel more like flesh-and-blood characters than those we met in the previous two episodes. Officer Lasky comes across more like an embodiment of racism than an actual person. (Even in the “friendly” scenario, he’s stiffer than many of the mannequins in “The After-Hours”.) But as a stark illustration of the fear that overhangs racially-tinged police encounters, he’s terrifying.
Some have criticized “Replay” for being heavy-handed, especially in the third act. But I think that perception flows mainly from the way the episode departs from how the original TZ often used allegory to make its points. The fact is, Serling himself wasn’t always a master of subtlety, as “He’s Alive” and “Deaths-Head Revisited” prove.
Yes, he often used a scalpel, and I’m glad he did. I think that resulted in some of his most memorable episodes. But he could use a blow-torch when he wanted to.
The key to a successful series, I believe, is balance. A series that never said anthing wouldn’t have interested Serling, who very much felt that writers should be engaged — should say something. But one that went the direct-message route too often could become fatiguing. The original TZ, as I’ve tried to show, provided its fans with an interesting and absorbing mixture of stories.
So the question for me, three episodes in, is this: Can the new Twilight Zone expand its horizons and embrace the true breadth of the fifth dimension? I know we’ll get an interesting series even if the answer is no. But let’s hope the answer is yes.