Seen Anything Good? - The Twilight Zone
Welcome to Seen Anything Good? A monthly series where I tell you which shows to binge-watch when you need help coping with the state of the world.
I know it’s a cliché to say that it feels like we’re living in the Twilight Zone, but it’s a thought that I keep coming back to lately. Nothing makes sense, and every attempt at an explanation only makes me feel like I’m losing my grip on reality even further. It seems like every day there’s a new catastrophe to worry about, and it feels like we’re never going to catch up. People are trying to colonize Mars, for some reason. And are those murder hornets ever going to come back? I don’t know, and I’m scared to find out.
Even if you’ve never seen an episode of The Twilight Zone, you’ve probably heard of it or at least seen it referenced somewhere. It’s an iconic piece of television that has existed in one form or another since the late 1950s. The series tells the stories of characters who have stumbled into the Twilight Zone, described in the opening narration as “the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, [which] lies between the pit of man's fears and the summit of his knowledge.” It’s a show about ordinary people suddenly thrown into confusing and unbelievable situations with no clear way out, and it’s the most comforting thing in the world to me.
When I think of nostalgia, I think of The Twilight Zone. Obviously, the mid-century aesthetics and great retro clothes create a sense of nostalgia, but for me, the show was also one of the defining moments of my childhood. I still remember being five years old, sitting on the sofa in my basement sipping a strawberry Danimals as “Time Enough At Last” unfolded in front of me - and I know it sounds dramatic, but the final moments of that episode quite possibly changed me as a person. It was irony, and tragedy, and humor, and cruelty all wrapped up into one perfect scene, and I had never seen anything like it before.
It’s kind of ironic that I associate the show with a simpler time in my childhood because so many episodes center around the idea that no matter how comforting the past may seem, we can’t return to it. Two of the earliest episodes, “The Sixteen Millimeter Shrine” and “Walking Distance” both tell the stories of people who romanticize the past so much that they find themselves literally disappearing into another time, with very different results. The show revisits the theme of nostalgia frequently, but it usually settles on the same idea - You can’t go home again, and even attempting it means that you would lose the person that you’ve grown into. I know this, I agree with this, but every time I turn on an episode I’m five years old again, amazed and terrified and strangely comforted by the stories on my screen.
Since that afternoon in 2003, I’ve probably watched the series through hundreds of times. And that’s a low estimate. It’s playing in the background on every rainy day or quiet night I spend at home. I’ve tracked down the “lost episodes,” binged the numerous reboots, and sat through the absolutely cursed 1983 movie. I tune into the SyFy Channel marathon every year on my birthday (okay, the marathon is technically celebrating New Year's, but it always feels like a little treat just for me). The Twilight Zone is my ultimate comfort show, and to be honest, I’m a bit of a snob about it. I can sometimes fall into the pretentious trap of believing that no one understands the show as deeply as I do, and as annoying as that is to anyone around me who has the misfortune of bringing it up, I do think that there’s a disconnect between what the show set out to do and what it’s remembered for. So many reflections on the show focus on the twists, which are a huge part of The Twilight Zone’s formula and its legacy, but I don’t think that was ever the point. The show aimed to use unbelievable circumstances to highlight deeply human stories.
In 1958, Rod Serling wrote the television play “A Town Has Turned to Dust” for the anthology series Playhouse 90. The story was a direct response to the murder of Emmett Till and a condemnation of racism in America. The network tore his script apart, refusing to produce the show until he removed any reference to actual hate crimes that had been committed, and changed the setting from the present-day South to the Old West, basically painting lynching as a thing of the past. This wasn’t Serling’s first conflict with censors, but the moment was a turning point in his career, and it taught him two important things: 1) The censors were more willing to let you get away with social commentary as long as you didn’t set it in the present, and 2) The only way to avoid this kind of compromise in the future was to create his own show. So, The Twilight Zone was born.
The original show ran from 1959 - 1964 and has since become one of the most enduring and iconic pieces of pop culture in history. It was primarily a sci-fi anthology, but it spanned genres, blending horror, fantasy, and the supernatural alongside science fiction. It tackled issues such as racism, nuclear war, and McCarthyism while still managing to feel relevant today (mostly because uhhhh none of those issues ever went away). Interestingly, the show’s goal was never specifically to be political. Serling saw it as a way to take a break from constantly fighting against the censors. It was his opportunity to create “meaningful, exciting, challenging drama without dealing in controversy” because, at that time, television was mainly controlled by sponsors who made it impossible for him to tell the stories that he actually thought deserved attention. Still, Serling’s personal opinions found their way into the show - he wrote 92 of the series’ 156 episodes. While the episodes dealing with topical political issues made for some of the show’s most memorable moments, they often focused on more universal human issues. Anxiety, loneliness, nostalgia, and a fear of the future were all at the heart of The Twilight Zone.
Serling was famously quoted saying that many of his stories “aged like bread,” and he’s right. A lot of the episodes are heavy-handed and cheesy, but honestly, I think that adds to the charm of the show. To step into the Twilight Zone, you need to suspend your disbelief for a second. The special effects might look cheap and the lessons might be a bit on the nose, but once you get past that, the stories can be deeply affecting. They’re essentially 22-minute campfire stories - it’s more about the emotion you’re left with at the end, rather than the details of the episode. A bad Twilight Zone is still fun, and a good Twilight Zone can stick with you forever. Seriously. I’m a grown woman, and to this day, I can’t get a glass of water in the middle of the night without thinking about “Twenty-Two.”
Since it’s an anthology, you pick out whatever episodes sound interesting to you and ignore the rest. Here are a few that I recommend checking out first.
Season 1, Episode 16: The Hitch-Hiker
A young woman on a cross-country road trip realizes that no matter how far she drives, the same man always appears on the side of the road. It’s a classic, bone-chilling ghost story that also happens to include one of my favorite jump-scares of all time - seriously, I’ve watched this episode at least 50 times and it ALWAYS makes me flinch.
Season 2, Episode 7: Nick of Time
A newlywed couple finds themselves stuck in a small town with a few hours to kill. The husband quickly becomes obsessed with a fortune-telling machine, convinced that something bad will happen if they leave town before the machine allows it. It’s a really poignant story about superstition and free will, starring a young William Shatner in a very tight shirt. What’s not to love?
Season 2, Episode 28: Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?
A group of strangers trapped in a snowed-in diner become increasingly paranoid that one of them is really an alien. It’s a classic Twilight Zone McCarthyism allegory, and it’s a lot of fun. For a similar, more serious version of this story, check out season 1’s “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street,” but this episode’s wacky characters and silly alien prosthetics really win me over.
A few more favorites, because I can’t help myself:
“Elegy,” “And When the Sky Was Opened,” “Mirror Image,” “Nightmare as a Child,” “After Hours,” “A Most Unusual Camera,” “The Invaders,” “Twenty-Two,” “It’s a Good Life,” “The Midnight Sun,” “Five Character in Search of an Exit,” “Little Girl Lost,” “Miniature,” “Living Doll,” “Ring-A-Ding Girl,” “The Masks.”