“The Twilight Zone” TV series of the late ’50s and early ’60s revolutionized the entertainment industry by seamlessly blending horror and suspense with tactful commentary on relevant social issues. Sound familiar?
If it does, it’s probably because discussion surrounding the horror genre’s uncanny applicability to social justice has resurged recently as a result of Jordan Peele’s horror-comedy film “Get Out.”
With its adept handling of racial issues ranging from slavery to profiling in the criminal justice system, the film established sketch comedian Peele as an overnight directorial success story. And the film’s well-deserved critical acclaim brought into the spotlight complex conversations about prejudice in horror.
On Wednesday, multiple entertainment news sources reported Peele’s latest endeavor: co-producing a reboot of “The Twilight Zone” for CBS All Access, which will no doubt restore its predecessor’s visionary framework and effectively apply it to today’s sociopolitical concerns.
To say the creepy, satirical plot of “Get Out” is comparable to the unsettling yet thrilling elements of the original “The Twilight Zone” would be an understatement. In every 30-minute episode, “The Twilight Zone” differed in structure, featuring a separate ensemble cast and sci-fi/horror plot with social undertones of inequity and intolerance. But a condensed version of the film could practically serve as the new series’ pilot episode.
Peele’s masterfully calculated racial commentary follows “The Twilight Zone” formula almost to a T – he establishes a story world resembling reality into which he carefully plants eerie supernatural images and scenarios, such as a hypnotic teacup and an attempted brain swap, that contain just enough real-world connotations to leave one sufficiently uncomfortable. Eventually, the elements of realism and paranormality merge into a blindsiding climax that is terrifying both for its on-screen horrors and its harrowing off-screen relevance.
The same perfect storm of hair-raising entertainment and thought-provoking commentary made “The Twilight Zone” exceptional content, with standout episodes like 1960’s “Eye of the Beholder,” which tackled issues of appearance-based prejudice and discrimination. “Eye of the Beholder” begins with a seemingly normal scenario in which a woman has just undergone facial reconstructive surgery because she was previously considered abnormal. The entire episode leads up to the removal of the bandages covering her new face, as well as the reveal of the faces of medical personnel taking care of her – theirs have also mysteriously remained hidden from the camera.
The bandages finally unravel to expose a visage similar to that of Marilyn Monroe’s, and the doctors, whose now-visible faces all resemble horrifying pig-human hybrids, lament the failure of the surgery to improve her appearance. The translation to real-world issues is more subtle than that of “Get Out,” though the notion that beauty standards are constructed by the majority is not difficult to apply to the racial prejudice of the 1960s that persists today.
The “Twilight Zone” of the ’50s and ’60s had little choice but to take an indirect approach to the issues it presented due to censorship structures in place at the time – the Federal Communications Commission reserved the right to restrict content they deemed politically unbalanced or obscene, the definition of which has changed with society’s shifting standards.
Certainly, Peele and his fellow producers’ feat will only be slightly easier, if at all, than that of the original “Twilight Zone” creator Rod Serling. Now 60 years later, despite more lenient censorship regulations, there are evolved issues to tackle as well as new boundaries to push.
But the promise of resistance-bred innovation is what makes the prospect of a new-age “Twilight Zone” series so enticing. If done right, Peele’s version will showcase a more diverse cast and even bolder scripts, serving as an emblem of the progress its predecessor helped bring about while continuing its legacy of influencing a society-in-progress.
Given today’s polarizing sociopolitical climate, the time to reopen a dimension of sight, sound and mind is now, and Peele holds the key.