When “The Shelter” aired on television, Serling’s infamous closing narration downplayed the episode’s power. “No moral, no message, no prophetic tract,” the voiceover read. “Just a simple statement of fact: For civilization to survive, the human race has to remain civilized.” But the drama is one of the more searing indictments of American society, and how “neighborly” affects and niceties often inoculate people from confronting the uglier strains of racism and resentment they secretly feel. Washburn’s play gives the scene space and time to impart its meaning to the audience, particularly after the “missiles” hurtling toward the earth are revealed to be harmless satellites, and the neighbors immediately revert to their former selves. The disconnect between private and public selves recalls Peele’s Get Out, which, like The Twilight Zone, used satire to expose the more monstrous tendencies of supposedly woke white liberal characters.
In the play The Twilight Zone, the scene is one of the few moments that the show feels prophetic rather than anachronistic, potent rather than preposterous. Washburn, who imagined the end of the world in gleeful pop-cultural form in Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play, reportedly wasn’t an avid fan of the show when she was asked to adapt it, and saw her role as curatorial more than creative. It’s a shame, because in her rendering of “The Shelter,” you can sense what a modern adaptation of The Twilight Zone could be—a thoughtful, charged, sometimes caustic critique of the lies society is built on. As my colleague Adrienne LaFrance wrote in 2013, “If there’s one twist that encapsulates the series, it’s the idea that humans are the true monsters.”
The Twilight Zone has had an appropriately tentacular influence on popular culture since it premiered in 1959. Serling’s framework infused the short-story form (see Roald Dahl’s twisty, macabre Tales of the Unexpected, which were subsequently adapted for television), as well as TV (The X-Files, Lost, The Leftovers) and film (the works of M. Night Shyamalan and J.J. Abrams). That’s not to mention the more direct imitations like Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror, Hulu’s Dimension 404, or the upcoming Amazon anthology series Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams. The Good Place, NBC’s inspired comedy about a heaven that’s actually hell, seems to owe a significant debt to the 1960 Twilight Zone episode “A Nice Place to Visit,” while modern parables about robots and their emotional limitations, like Her and Ex Machina, nod back to “I Sing the Body Electric” and “From Agnes—With Love.”
Peele’s task with the CBS reboot is to both honor the spirit of The Twilight Zone and to make it truly modern, retaining what audiences love about the old episodes while resisting the urge to spoof them. Serling’s packaging was often goofy but his conception of the world could be surprisingly dark (in the 1964 episode “I Am the Night—Color Me Black,” some parts of Earth become so consumed with hatred that the sun stops rising). Unlike Black Mirror, though, bleakness isn’t the whole point so much as a means to an end: The Twilight Zone seems innately optimistic that things can be better. As Serling said in a 1968 speech at Moorpark College, “I think the destiny of all men is not to sit in the rubble of their own making, but to reach out for an ultimate perfection which is to be had.” The Twilight Zone has the most potential, in other words, during times when a perfect world seems farthest out of reach.