Reimagining The Twilight Zone for the 21st Century

With a theatrical adaptation opening in London, and a planned CBS revival helmed by Jordan Peele, what can the Rod Serling anthology series say about modern life?

Marc Brenner / Almeida Theatre

In a 1961 episode of The Twilight Zone titled “It’s a Good Life,” a small town in Ohio has fallen victim to a despot. The tyrant is endlessly cosseted and indulged by his inner circle, who excessively praise everything he does (anyone who criticizes him is banished to a terrifying hinterland). He’s obsessed with television, which he bans with the exception of a noisy, chaotic show everyone’s forced to watch once a week. When he’s finally challenged, he vindictively sentences half the town to starvation, even as his associates continue to praise and placate him. The twist: The oppressor is a 6-year-old child. The episode is a lesson that bullies who are unchecked and enabled turn into monsters.

How relevant is The Twilight Zone now? Consider 1962’s “One More Pallbearer,” in which a spiteful millionaire tries to force revenge on people he thinks slighted him, only to end up in a mental prison of his own delusion. Or 1964’s “The Brain Center at Whipple’s,” in which a callous manufacturer replaces his entire workforce with robots, only to be forcibly replaced by a machine himself at the request of his board. There are countless entries in Rod Serling’s groundbreaking anthology sci-fi series that seem constructed for the 21st-century world, which is presumably why there are so many ongoing efforts to reboot it. This month, a new theatrical adaptation of The Twilight Zone by Anne Washburn debuts at London’s Almeida Theatre, while a planned revival helmed by Get Out’s Jordan Peele was announced by CBS in November.

The question is, can the show still resonate with audiences hardened by the crueler speculative stories of Black Mirror and the more intense paranoia of The X-Files? The paradox of The Twilight Zone now is that it’s steeped in nostalgia and tied up with longing for a simpler time, even though no television show has more expressly warned against the impulse of yearning for the past. Washburn’s play falls victim to this impulse, splicing different episodes together in a spoofy, winking package that generally misses the acute imaginative insight of the original. What makes The Twilight Zone so rich, and so necessary, isn’t its hammy narration or its uncanny visuals. It’s the moral framework Serling was able to disguise in stories about faraway worlds that somehow exactly reflect our own. Embedded in the show’s 156 episodes are warnings against the greed, hate, corruption, and war innate in human societies, made palatable to viewers by being filtered through a sci-fi frame.

Of the eight episodes Washburn adapted into her theatrical production of The Twilight Zone, seven involve outlandish paranormal happenings. The play begins in a diner from 1961’s “Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?”: A sheriff has been alerted to a crashed UFO, and to footsteps leading toward the restaurant where a group of bus passengers wait out a storm. From there, it segues into portions of “Little Girl Lost,” where a small child gets accidentally trapped in a different dimension, “Nightmare as a Child,” where a woman’s younger self warns her of future disaster, and “Perchance to Dream,” where a man is convinced he’ll die if he falls asleep. Both the writing and Richard Jones’s direction emphasize the more absurd aspects of the source material—how a third hand mysteriously appears from an alien’s jacket, or how a man gets stuck in a swirling, terrifying carnival nightmare. “And When the Sky Was Opened,” a tense, frightening episode about three pilots who find themselves being erased from the world one by one, is played for laughs, with a recurring newspaper photo that pops up in different scenes documenting the ongoing disappearances.

Washburn’s treatment of the 1961 episode “The Shelter,” which comes in the second half of the play, is slightly different. Like many episodes in the series, the threat of nuclear apocalypse looms large. Bill Stockton (Neil Haigh), a doctor, has constructed a fallout shelter in his backyard. When a televised CONELRAD announcement warns that unidentified objects are hurtling toward New York, Stockton gathers his wife and daughter and rushes into the shelter. A neighbor pleads with Stockton to allow the family next door to join them, but there isn’t enough water, or air. Other local families arrive, also entreating Stockton to save them. The action above the shelter in which Stockton’s family is safely ensconced descends into hateful recrimination, and charged arguments over who has the most right to be saved—and who has the most right to call themselves American. The impending event sparks a conflict that brings out the worst instincts in everyone involved, and reveals how quickly society can disintegrate under pressure.

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.