Through Another Dimension: Considering “Twilight Zone 2019” (Part 1)

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The After-Hours

My earliest memory of The Twilight Zone was from 7th or 8th grade, at my friend Adam’s house, staying up late watching an all-night marathon on a local TV station (aired on New Year’s Eve, as I recall). Much of my early exposure to The Twilight Zone was in that format: holiday marathons of the “top” 10 or 20 most popular episodes on late-night local TV or cable channels.

It wasn’t until a few years ago that I realized that I really hadn’t seen very many episodes of the classic series–certainly fewer than 50 out of the 120+ half-hour episodes. With the advent of Netflix streaming (and discovering online resources like Tom Elliot’s fantastic Twilight Zone Podcast–definitely check that out!), I not only started filling in the gaps of my Twilight Zone viewing, but I also became aware of an entire season I had missed because those episodes were made for an hour-long format and most stations never air those longer episodes as reruns.

Over the last 2 years, I have almost completely caught up on what has become one of my favorite television shows of all time. While not every episode is a masterpiece, each season was packed with inventive ideas and challenging storylines. Serling and his team didn’t shy away from tackling social issues and political viewpoints, but they often did so under the cover of allegory and genre storytelling so that the message became a little more palatable. Serling himself became a modern-day Aesop, often underlining the moral of the story in his closing narration.

When I heard in 2018 that CBS was developing an updated version of the series, with Jordan Peele producing and starring in the “narrator” role, I was cautiously optimistic. I had just recently watched Get Out and was struck by how deftly (even Serling-like) Peele had been able to weave social commentary into an otherwise straightforward horror story. Like so many other TZ fans, I kept thinking, Don’t mess it up. Please don’t mess it up.

So did the new Twilight Zone live up to the legend of the classic? It took me more than a year to find out, as it happens. Life got busy, as it so often does, and it wasn’t until I heard that Season 2 would be released in its entirety in late June that I decided to “step through the door.” The question remained, however: what exactly would I find on the other side?

In Praise of Peele (and the Production Team)

So far, I’ve watched all of the first season. I’ll provide a brief analysis of each episode in the next few posts in this series, but I wanted to give my initial (spoiler-free) impressions here.

Let’s start with Peele himself. Stepping into the black suit (sans cigarette, naturally) would be a daunting task for anyone, but Peele brings the requisite mystery and cool restraint to the role (except…when he doesn’t–we’ll get there). He isn’t trying to recreate Rod Serling (except…well, we’ll get there), but instead to honor his legacy by taking up the mantle of the enigmatic, omniscient Narrator. He’s the one taking us on this journey (except…you know), and he does a bang-up job helping this show really feel like The Twilight Zone.

The show is cinematic and gorgeous to look at. The music evokes the appropriate off-kilter vibe, even reusing the end credits music from the original series. The production design and cinematography are spot-on, even down to small details like the fonts and layout of the title screen and end credits text. While a little bit of the CGI is limited by a TV-show budget, the practical effects are on point. Almost every episode includes very subtle easter eggs and callbacks to the original series that will make longtime fans positively giddy but will rarely distract a casual fan who’s only interested in the current story.

As an anthology show, The Twilight Zone runs the gamut in tone and tension, with some episodes being strange and intriguing and others being downright squirm-eliciting and bone-chilling. The production elements are employed well to create the mood of each episode, helping to draw the viewer into the story effectively.

All of that being said, production values aren’t (often) what made the original series stand out. It was always first and foremost the story and themes that captured our imagination. Does the current iteration have the same magic?

A World of Difference

My best answer to that question is: sometimes? The writing is solid from a technical perspective. The dialogue pops, and the characters generally work. The issue I had at certain points during the season was with how this iteration of the show handled the themes and messaging of each episode.

The Twilight Zone has always been a political show. This is a fact I never really appreciated until I started listen to Tom Elliot’s Twilight Zone podcast (again, recommended if you’re a fan of the series!). Elliot often discusses how Serling and the original show’s writers would sometimes use the genres of sci-fi and horror to make serious and pointed social commentary. When done well, this approach to genre storytelling elevates the form to something timeless and resonant.

In other episodes, the original series would present a type of morality play. Characters with a fatal flaw (hubris, vanity, greed) would receive their comeuppance via a type of karmic justice–as if the Twilight Zone itself was balancing the scales. Down-on-their-luck innocents would finally (usually, fantastically) get their big break. Then there were the episodes that were just strange for their own sake–creepy campfire stories to tell in the dark, strange tales of unimaginable situations and dark ironies. The original series seemed to balance these storytelling approaches fairly well, but I think the first season of the 2019 version struggled in this regard.

Several of the episodes in Season 1 of the 2019 series keyed in on a particular social issue, almost to the point where you could reduce the descriptions of the episodes to “the gun one,” “the racism one,” “the immigration one,” “the toxic masculinity one.” In some cases, the episode was still masterfully written, so that the clear allegory didn’t detract from a compelling story. Other times, it felt like the message was driving the narrative beats, instead of vice versa. The political bent of the show is predictably to the left, but as an ideological conservative I can still find pleasure in an interesting story well-told, even if I disagree with the worldview being expressed. Unfortunately, there were a few times this season where the cliches were a bit too much to overcome.

The other problem I have with this series thusfar is the “mature-rating” content that is employed throughout. Because this new series is written in 2019, it carries with it 2019’s social mores, in terms of sexuality, profanity, and morality. The show is only available on CBS’s premium streaming platform, so they are not constrained by broadcast standards (even 2019’s comparatively relaxed rules). For example, while it wasn’t enough to stop me from finishing the first season, I found the level of profanity in every episode (especially “R-rated” profanity) to be tiresome and entirely unnecessary. There are also a few instances of sexual content sprinkled throughout that, while tame by streaming-TV standards, still didn’t add to the stories and could have been alluded to instead of shown. I recognize that this show is competing in the same market as Black Mirror, Stranger Things, and Dark, but my hope was that The Twilight Zone could find a way to be provocative without being salacious. Some may find that corny; I prefer the term “classic.”

All that to say, I would strongly advise my readers and friends to look into the specifics of what would warrant “parental advisory” or a “mature” rating for this show, and then use their discernment on whether or not to watch (and I definitely wouldn’t recommend any of it for the kiddos).

The New Exhibit

All of that said, I did enjoy the first season of the 2019 series and look forward to checking out Season 2 very soon. (Obviously I did, otherwise I wouldn’t have bothered writing almost 1500 words about it!) I’ll follow up this post with some brief episode-by-episode analysis of both Seasons 1 and 2. (If you’ve made it this far, I assume that might interest you! If not, then thanks for scrolling!)

In summary, if you enjoyed the original Twilight Zone series and aren’t put off by the content issues I’ve addressed, the 2019 TZ might be worth checking out. If you do so (or if you have done so already), I’d be interested to hear your feedback in the comments below and the upcoming episode summary posts!

On the other hand, if the “modern” tone and tenor are enough to keep you away, I’d still recommend going back to the original series and giving it a(nother) watch. Even though some episodes definitely don’t hold up anymore, it’s still a fun ride to take (by yourself or even with the whole family) through a door to another dimension.

Coming Next Week: My thoughts on Twilight Zone 2019 Season 1, Episodes 1-5!

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