Few TV shows hold up as well as Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone. Airing in 1959, this anthology television series has been responsible for numerous reboots, inspirations and references (I’m looking at you The Simpsons). The Twilight Zone is one of the finest science fiction pieces of media around and despite being over 60 years old, still inspires generations of today. It may be simple in its concept with plenty of misses to accompany its hits, The Twilight Zone works based on its core construct – to explore the duality of humans.
The duality of human nature is the idea that every human being has good and evil within them, and the importance of what decisions you make and how you behave greatly affects this. Every episode of The Twilight Zone follows a similar structure – there’s a set-up, a conflict then a resolution (with the resolution normally always being a revelation or twist to the audience.) Following a usual runtime of 25 minutes, Serling would always introduce the scenario within the set up. Addressing the audience himself, he established the protagonist, the way they view the world and what may happen to them after the course of the episode. Providing a source of comfort and fear, Serling’s narrator would be one of the few identifiable conventions of The Twilight Zone. Whilst every episode had a similar pattern, actors, sets and timelines would vary from week to week.
While you’d get recurring stars in the likes of Burgess Meredith, William Shatner etc. appearing in multiple episodes – the scenarios would differ greatly. One week you’d be in 19th Century Western town whilst the week after you’d be introduced to Aliens arriving on Earth with ulterior motives. Serling perfected the anthology structure, with a multitude of unusual events disguised as a take away moral for 50s America. Some of these classic episodes may be shunned today for their lack of subtlety in presenting these messages but the overall allegory hasn’t really changed.
There are plenty of examples that can easily be related to contemporary films. The Masks (5×25) depicts money-hungry off-spring to a wealthy patriarch in the same fashion as Rian Johnson’s Knives Out (2019) whilst Mirror Image (1×21) portrays the fear and paranoia of a doppelganger similar to Jordan Peele’s Us (2019). So whilst Serling’s show is still relatable, the reason it has stood above the rest of that era is due to the way in how these scenarios and characters are written. Whilst not an incredibly visual show, due to the simplicity of television and lack of budget in later seasons, The Twilight Zone found its hook with each varying character. These allegorical episodes would cover themes such as Communism and Capitalism, Western world standards, World War II, greed, trauma, death, religion and so forth.
Throughout 156 episodes, Serling touched upon all this and more – gut-punching you with the ending every single time. Appearing once more at the end, Serling would conclude this story with its real world consequences. Although you knew this took place in The Twilight Zone and was improbable, it was still very much possible. The Twilight Zone broke the line between reality and fiction with the every-day meeting the paranormal. Rod Serling created an anthology franchise which has yet to be topped, nothing can summarise humanity better than, what is often called… The Twilight Zone.
Header Image Courtesy of CBS.