My “Big Tall Wish” for the 2019 Twilight Zone Reboot
I never did go back and wrap up my thoughts about the latest Twilight Zone reboot, did I?
I wrote a pre-release post explaining why I felt it shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand, as some Zone fans were doing. As a fan of Jordan Peele’s “Get Out”, I kept reassuring fans here and on Twitter. I then reviewed the first four episodes. But that was it.
This wasn’t by design. I anticipated writing more about it. But I have to admit, despite the obvious care that’s gone into it, and the talent both in front of and behind the camera, my interest began to waver about halfway through the 10-episode first season.
Mind you, I had some reservations from the start, despite my initial enthusiasm for the project. For example, the length of the episodes, averaging about 45 minutes or more, didn’t help.
There’s a reason the original TZ spent only one shortened fourth season airing hour-long episodes: Although you can certainly tell some good stories over a longer time slot, it’s almost impossible to maintain the snap that graces the classic episodes we all know and love.
The original TZ pulled you in quickly and built its universe at a brisk pace, setting up those famous twist endings. The new TZ, yes, gave us a few surprises along the way, but we didn’t have many what-the-hell moments just before the credits rolled.
The stories of the new TZ basically just played themselves out, reaching conclusions that may or may not have been enjoyable, but were seldom much of a shock.
Now, that can be fine, as several episodes of the original TZ’s Season 4 proved. But it’s not very Twilight Zone-esque, which is why the original show went back to half-hour episodes for Season 5.
I’m also not sure why the new series has to be so R-rated (TV-MA, in television-rating terms). The language is often pretty raw. I know, it’s 2019, and it seems as if everyone talks like an over-caffeinated New Yorker stuck in rush-hour traffic. And some rough language is acceptable in certain shows and movies. But even in the fifth dimension?
Some fans who watch the original Zone with their kids, and were hoping to enjoy the new show with them as well, told me they had to change their plans. That’s a shame. After all, if we want to keep TZ alive for another 60 years, we need to bring in new fans. A reboot can do that, but only if we make it more appealing to a wider audience. (Most diehard Zone fans first encountered the series as kids.)
But you know what? The length and language isn’t what made my excitement start to lag for the reboot. No, it was the fairly relentless agenda-pushing.
I’m not even talking about the TYPE of agenda-pushing. Left-wing, right-wing — that’s not the issue, at least not for me. It’s the fact that it almost never lets up.
But wait, you may say, Serling pushed an agenda all the time on TZ! For pity’s sake, don’t you even know the show you claim to be something of an expert about?
I do indeed. So let me explain.
Here’s a question that I think will help illustrate my point: How many times did Serling say “submitted for your approval” on TZ? There were 156 episodes, so how often, do you think? 50 times? 75? 100?
That’s right. Only three: In “Cavender is Coming”, “In Praise of Pip” and “A Kind of a Stopwatch”. (In “To Serve Man”, he did say “submitted for your perusal”.) Yet it’s such a signature phrase that most people assume it was uttered much more often.
Well, the same phenomenon is at work when it comes to the Twilight Zone and agenda-pushing. Many fans are aware of the show’s reputation, and Serling’s penchant for “saying something”. As he explained on more than one occasion, he felt that a writer needed to not only have a point of view, but to express that view. And express it he did, in ways that were often moving and passionate.
But run down the list of TZ episodes, and you’ll notice two things. One is that he didn’t insert a hard-edged “message” all the time. Or even most of the time. Yes, we got “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street”, “The Obsolete Man”, “Deaths-Head Revisited”, and “Eye of the Beholder”, to name only a few.
But many TZs simply tell a entertaining story. He and the other talented Zone writers wanted to give us a good scare, as Serling did with “The Dummy”, for example, or Charles Beaumont did with “Living Doll”, or Montgomery Pittman did with “The Grave”. Or present us with a heavy dose of irony (hello, Henry Bemis). Or tell a touching fable, as in “One for the Angels” or “Nothing in the Dark”.
And when there was an agenda on the original Twilight Zone, it was generally something that’s hard for anyone to argue with. Unless you occupy the extreme wings of the political scene, who’s going to take issue with the pro-humanity, anti-conformity, pro-little guy, anti-violence approach of TZ? Its “lessons” are couched in a sci-fi/fantasy setting that emphasizes plot over polemics, and story development over screeds, so the point of the episode can get past our defenses more easily — and find their target.
That, I think, is a big part of the reason that the original TZ became so legendary — and why it boasts so many fans from across the political spectrum (as I can see from the thousands of people who follow my Twitter page).
In short, if you’re looking for “agenda” episodes of the original TZ that take an in-your-face approach, or at least wear their politics on their sleeve, you’re going to come up fairly short. You’ll find them, yes, but they won’t be nearly as prevalent as you may have assumed.
That’s not the case with the latest Twilight Zone reboot. Nearly every episode has a pretty stark agenda, so we don’t get much of a break from that, even for variety’s sake. And the lessons aren’t ones that emphasis our common humanity and build up the little guy. No, nearly every story is wired into the news cycle in some way, and you know more or less from the get-go whether you’re on the “right” side or not.
And woe betide you if you’re not. This Zone isn’t here to coax you into the light. It’s here to curse you for being in the dark.
Perhaps that’s a symptom of today’s fractured political scene. Maybe it’s a sign of our wounded culture. Serling’s generation, shaped by the Great Depression, World War II, and Jim Crow laws, was still optimistic about our future (and strove to make it better), but today? Pessimism is the order of the day.
But if that’s the case, then I think we’re even more in need of the approach taken by the original Twilight Zone. Like the title character in Serling’s “Mr. Denton on Doomsday”, we should aim not to kill our opponent, but to inflict a beneficial wound — one that will help him reconsider his position, and emerge from the experience a bit wiser.
I’m still holding out hope that the second season of the latest Twilight Zone reboot will ease up a bit and tell some other types of stories — if only, as I indicated above, to mix things up a bit. But even if it doesn’t, I’ll keep watching. After all, we’re only 10 episodes in. I may be pleasantly surprised down the road. And wouldn’t that be a twist worthy of the Twilight Zone?
For a daily dose of Serling, you can follow me on Twitter, Facebook or Pinterest. You can also get email notifications of future posts by entering your address under “Follow S&S Via Email” on the upper left-hand side of this post.
Hope to see you in some corner of the fifth dimension soon!