Why The Twilight Zone Still Matters

Pop culture is a huge, ever-shifting entity that never really coheres into a singular identity. Something that€™s a massive, runaway success in one moment is left forgotten and discarded in the next (hi, Heroes). Nothing exemplifies this better than TV, whose enormity and need for content is comparable to a vast desert wasteland filled with a billion of those gaping mouth/vagina things that Boba Fett fell into. For every show that succeeds, there€™s a couple hundred that vanish without a trace, and of that small fraction of shows that manage to achieve longevity, an even tinier percentage are able to transcend popular success and embed into the larger pop culture consciousness. Legacies are a hard thing to judge, and almost impossible to predict. Look at Lost and The Sopranos, shows that dramatically altered the course of television, but which now exist almost entirely as endless arguments over whether or not the endings sucked. Hundreds of hours of content were created for those shows, and yet the conversation for each now revolves around the last thirty seconds. Will we ever get over that and be able to discuss the shows as shows again? Will future generations even care? That extends to shows that are still airing. 30 Rock, Breaking Bad and The Office are all ending this year, and who knows whether they€™ll continue to be discovered and rediscovered or be relegated to historical curiosities? Right now Game of Thrones and Walking Dead are sitting atop the ratings peak, but can that popularity sustain either show for long enough to bring their sprawling narratives to a conclusion? And will anyone care to revisit the worlds of the show once the final sword has been sheathed and the final brain munched on? Who knows? The reason I€™m bringing all this up is to highlight that when a show does break through to that next level and surpasses mere popular success to achieve a further realm of significance, it€™s always valuable to ask: Why? There have been hundreds of sketch comedy troupes, so why Monty Python? There are dozens of sketch comedy shows, so why SNL? Why has The Simpsons been marked for immortality? And what is it about The Twilight Zone that has kept it relevant even as decades pass by in the rear view window? Seriously, what is it about The Twilight Zone? From a cold, dispassionate viewpoint, there are a whole lot of nits to pick. Like all anthologies, the quality and tone shifted wildly from week-to-week. The show was obviously done on the cheap, and its age is evident in the balsa wood sets, stage bound atmosphere and frequently hammy acting. Even the famous writing staff wasn€™t impervious to missteps. Many scripts fell into the black hole of telling instead of showing, comprised of long winded monologues that explained away every nuance and metaphor in agonizing detail. And added to that is the basic problem that The Zone was a product of its time, a time that has passed. The twist endings that must have had whole families jumping off the couch in shock have all been spoiled, remade, reused and spoofed well past the point where they could still surprise. And the show€™s thematic concerns of a post-World War II, Nuclear Age America are beyond passé. Especially in the shadow of 9/11, we don€™t need phantoms from the past leering from out of television sets to tell us that there€™s evil in this world. The world does a fine enough job of telling us that every day. So what is it about this show? Why do we keep returning to it again and again, watching episodes that have already been internalised? There are material reasons, for sure. There€™s an iconography to The Twilight Zone, ranging from the title to the opening imagery to Serling€™s suit and half-smirk as he dictated the fate of the poor schmucks who wandered into his cross-hairs that other anthology shows have never been able to capture. The opening image of that door opening into a star field has more resonance and immediacy than hundreds of millions of dollars of CGI can capture. Twilight Zone€™s grip on pop culture was bolstered by its basic format. 156 episodes were produced, including both hour and half-hour longs, giving syndication a huge variety of material to choose from and insert into their programming. Written out like that, of course the show found a hold on multiple generations of minds. It was inevitable. But there is something more important at the core of The Twilight Zone, something about it that makes me feel that even without those factors, The Zone still would have struck a chord and lingered on for the men, women and children who viewed it. This is where we run into a problem, because trying to define what makes The Twilight Zone work is kind of like trying to tell another person what their favourite colour is. Because The Twilight Zone could be anything at any given time, what defines the show for one viewer may be totally different for someone else. There are folks who have a nostalgic love for the look and cadence of 60€™s television. And there are those who respond to the more whimsical episodes, just as there are those who go in for the most jet-black trips into nihilism the show would take. Do you watch The Twilight Zone for the escapist fun of fantasy, for the societal metaphors writ large, or for the fun-house mirror look at the world? I don€™t know. I can€™t tell you why you like or dislike this show or the stories contained within. All I can do is best express what it is that draws me back to The Twilight Zone again and again, and hope that even with all the disparate views out there, others will understand and respond to that. So here is my vote for the most important, most resonant aspect of The Twilight Zone: The Sense of Possibility. When I say €˜possibility€™, I mean a couple different things. For starters, the show could do or be anything. The very fact that so many different people can find so many different things to love speaks to the elasticity of the format. Generally with anthology shows, there€™s a certain €˜type€™ of story that they settle into, be it horror, sci-fi, fantastical, etc. Not so with The Twilight Zone. It was a show that could be magical-realist and life-affirming one week, pitiless and hateful the next. It was a show that could celebrate all that is glorious about life, and then turn on a dime to wallow in the miseries we heap upon ourselves. And the show understood that one can€™t exist without the other. But instead of seeming schizophrenic or without a center, it felt instead like the show was exploring the whole canvas of human history. Never apologizing, never settling. It broached the biggest questions of human existence, and did so while still telling engrossing, intelligent narratives. Are humans responsible for their own behaviour or subservient to the whims of greater, more powerful beings? What is death like? Can a person be redeemed? What does it mean to have power? What is the soul? Are people stronger alone or in communities? Are we alone? The show tackled all these issues and more, often more than once. And different writers came to different conclusions. There are episodes of The Twilight Zone that carry an extreme moralistic view point, where evil is rewarded with evil. But there are others which refuse to give the audience that satisfaction, and others still where it is the decent and the innocent who are bowled over and destroyed (a pair of glasses smashing on library steps). It is because the show was never bound to one singular type of story or theme that it has been able to survive for so long. When I say €˜possibility€™, I€™m also saying it in the sense of, well, in the sense of things being possible. Not to say that we need to worry about robot baseball pitchers or time travel clouds or malicious cookbooks. Not yet anyways. No, the truly fantastic is just that. Fantastical. But then again, we do wonder about reality. We do ask, €˜What if?€™ We do have odd experiences that are almost impossible to describe to family and friends. We do see suspicious looking people and wonder from where they could have come. There are crimes that can€™t be solved, incidents that can€™t be rationalized. We poke and prod at our lives, sensing something greater and stranger is out there, but unable to put our finger on it. Writers as diverse as Lewis Carroll and Lovecraft have endeavoured to translate that sense into their work. Every civilization tells stories about the unseen world, and the poor fools who stumble unknowingly into it. The Twilight Zone, from the first lines of that incredible opening voice over, drops you right into that idea. €œYou are travelling through another dimension,€ Mr. Serling intones, €œa dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind". For me, that€™s the element of The Twilight Zone that lingers. The idea that any back road or alley way may lead to something extraordinary and unbelievable. The idea that anyone who passes you on the street has a story to tell. The sense that the world is thin, and filled with windows, and the slightest pressure could make those windows break, and let something through. Like I said at the start, I can€™t tell you what it is that you like or dislike about The Twilight Zon, but I imagine that for many, it is something along those lines. It is the concept that the fantastic and the mundane exist side-by-side and can cross over now and again. Heck, isn€™t that the engine that drives most of our popular stories? Isn€™t that the appeal of Harry Potter and Luke Skywalker and the Bagginses? Pick a big, successful story and I€™ll tell you about a character who steps outside of normalcy and into a world of impossibilities and miracles. But of course, Serling said it first.

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Brendan Foley is a pop-culture omnivore which is a nice way of saying he has no taste. He has a passion for genre movies, TV shows, books and any and all media built around short people with hairy feet and magic rings. He has a Bachelor's degree in Journalism and Writing, which is a very nice way of saying that he's broke. You can follow/talk to/yell at him on Twitter at @TheTrueBrendanF.