Looking back at Rod Serling’s ‘The Twilight Zone’, and why Jordan Peele’s reboot will be great
This project is firmly in Peele's wheelhouse.
by Andrew Keahey
When I was young, I would intentionally avoid black and white television, except for The Twilight Zone. The show just hit all the right notes for me, even in my childhood. The wildly fantastic tales hosted by the slick man with the cigarette was part of the reason I got into writing and analyzing science fiction and horror (and smoking, but we don’t talk about that).
There was something about the way the man welcomed me to this other dimension that made me feel like I was actually there. No other TV shows that I can think of would invite me in like Rod Serling did, and as a result, I was forever changed by his work.
The man himself is a very interesting person. A WWII veteran, he was staunchly anti-war and anti-racism, which showed up in his stories. He introduced a mainstream television audience to major sci-fi and horror tropes for the first time outside of pulp comics and novels, but plenty of his tales were about the trauma that armed conflict can cause and the damaging entity that the seed of bigotry can grow into.
The original series ran from 1959 to 1964, and since America is known for being terrible at everything in terms of racial equality, there aren’t many people of color that feature in the original episodes. There are key episodes that have POC protagonists, such as ‘The Big Tall Wish’, about a young Black boy who wishes for his boxer friend (a Black man) to come out on top in his comeback fight, and ‘I am the Night, Color me Black’, about a man set to be executed after killing a bigot in self-defense. He’s set to be hanged at dawn, but the sun never rises. At its end, Serling delivers on one of his greatest pieces of narration:
“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.”
Serling believed in the work he was producing, and often had to fight with executives and corporate sponsors who sought to change it. As it often goes with modern television, those opposing forces got their way, and even though the show itself is groundbreaking and incredible, it doesn’t have many POC actors. While there were a couple of episodes featuring people of a darker skin tone, it didn’t amount to much, but that wasn’t for Serling’s lack of trying. Networks and corporate sponsors simply did what they do best, and he was forced to compromise.
Eventually, he left the show to work on other projects, as he felt that the show had somewhat gotten away from him. Despite many attempts to revive it, nothing ever came close to those original stories, and their chain smoking storyteller.
The three previous revivals of the show, one of which was a full-length movie whose production was marred by negligence and tragedy, have all fallen by the wayside. If you manage to find somewhere to stream them, you’ll see why: they were missing the heart. They were an attempt to cash in on the Twilight Zone brand, while failing to replicate the soul of the original.
With anthology horror shows such as Black Mirror rising in popularity, it was only a matter of time before someone else attempted another revival. Fortunately for us that someone is Jordan Peele, with his new ability to make pretty much whatever he wants after the immense success of Get Out.
With Peele producing the new Twilight Zone, it marks the first time since its original release where the show is united under one skilled storyteller, who we learned recently will actually be stepping into the narrator’s shoes, acting as the conduit between the real world and the titular nightmare realm. Originally, Peele was apprehensive about standing where Serling had stood, concerned that his background in comedy would take away from the energy of the show, but eventually reconsidered after the outpouring of fan support. His narration in the teaser trailer is already giving me goosebumps.
In this day and age, I think you’d be hard pressed to find someone better suited to take control of the show. The wildly successful sketch comedy show Key and Peele found success not only because it was helmed by two incredibly funny men, but also because it put society under a microscope, and then exaggerated the absurd, creating a commentary that holds up under scrutiny and the passage of time. People still quote the show with surprising regularity–myself included.
That same analytical eye was honed and focused to a sharp edge in the production of Get Out, and will only get better with the continuation of The Twilight Zone, a show that did the very same thing in its day, even when it wasn’t necessarily welcome. It wasn’t all scares and life lessons, there was whimsy and fun as well, putting the project firmly in Peele’s wheelhouse.
While some fans are concerned and dismayed by recent news that some of the old episodes will be remade by Peele–namely “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet” which will be starring Adam Scott of Parks and Recreation fame–there’s nothing to indicate that the story won’t be altered by Peele and team in order to create something new. To think that the series will be all remakes would be folly, as Peele has proved himself a capable and original storyteller who is unafraid to step outside the norm.
In a recent interview with Variety, Peele himself addressed the lack of imagination in Hollywood. I feel it’s safe to say that we don’t have a reason to worry. The new show is going to do what the old one did, which is hold up a mirror to our society and let us see who we are, warts and all. Only this time, the mirror is going to feature more than one color of person.
The reboot will premiere in 2019, the year that will mark the 60th anniversary of the premiere of the original show, on the CBS All Access, the network’s new streaming platform. We can expect little bits of information to keep trickling out in the meantime, like a story in itself, playing out in the abstract.
The Twilight Zone feels like somewhere I used to live, that I can still look at pictures of, but haven’t been able to return to… As if I haven’t been able to find my ticket to board the train back. On the 60th anniversary, I look forward to the portal being opened again, and held by a guide who knows his way around.
Andrew Keahey is a horror enthusiast and writer currently based in Austin, Texas. He’s been watching horror movies since he was far too young, and primarily writes essays, short fiction, and poetry.