To be fair, the world of "The Obsolete Man" is totalitarian and arguably grimmer for its citizens than our world is to us. But the episode reflects the kind of tension that is bubbling up today in the United States, especially with regard to recent questions over the National Security Agency's surveillance programs, for instance. Here’s part of Serling's narrative from the episode that holds up today: "Any state, any entity, any ideology that fails to recognize the worth, the dignity, the rights of man, that state is obsolete."
The Twilight Zone repeatedly encourages its viewers to be skeptics. In "Third from the Sun" (1960), a government skeptic is warned that asking questions is dangerous. In "And When the Sky Was Opened" (1959), viewers are cautioned that they may cease to exist if they ask about secret government programs. In "No Time Like the Past" (1963), the cynical main character sums up his disdain: "We live in an exquisite bedlam, an insanity, made all the more grotesque by the fact that we don't recognize it as insanity."
The message is that what the government says and what it does are often incongruent, warmongers end up haunted or damned, and only those who exercise humanity may have hope for survival.
While The Twilight Zone is filled with supernatural phenomena—doppelgängers, mannequins that come to life, mind-reading aliens, a linotype machine that causes the news it prints, a stopwatch that freezes time, etc.—its underlying message is rooted in reality. It’s ultimately a show about all the ways you can lose yourself—to paranoia, to greed, to conformity. The Twilight Zone explores what it means to be human with a mix of "supernaturalism and civics," as The New Yorker put it in 1983. More simply, it is a program about fear and the price we pay by indulging in it.
"The massive fear is not being able to trust self," Serling told students in 1975. "The worst fear of all is the fear of the unknown working on you, which you cannot share with others."
The Twilight Zone is known for its twist endings, the most famous of which is perhaps the conclusion of "To Serve Man" (1962), when it's revealed that Earth's alien saviors have been planning to eat humans all along. (Simpsons fans will know this episode from its Treehouse of Horror sendup—the one that features the cookbook How to Cook for Forty Humans.)
Watch enough Twilight Zone episodes and the surprise endings become mostly predictable. It’s easy to catalogue them in a litany of familiar storytelling tropes, which is part of why the series, while brilliant, can also seem hokey at times. Some of the more obvious endings can be reduced to the following ideas: It was all a dream; she was dead the whole time; the dream wasn't a dream, and so on.
But if there's one twist that encapsulates the series, it's the idea that humans are the true monsters. The ultimate reveal of the series is that even when you're lost in the timeless infinity of The Twilight Zone—that fifth dimension between shadow and substance—you haven’t actually gone anywhere. You’ve been right here on Earth all along.