How to Properly Revive a Television Titan
The 1950s were a puzzling time for the world, particularly for contemporary America. There were wars, nuclear tensions, notable civil unrest, and a highway system that would boom the national economy but imperil that of small towns. It seemed Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone was heaven-sent at such a time, when the television had just a few networks to which the dial could turn.
Exposition aside, The Twilight Zone speaks for itself in content and in reputation as one of the defining hallmarks of television history. Many of those whom are not familiar with the series, or its subject matters, still recognize that disorienting, duo-tone theme that began in its third season. With that, the series has been able to channel its mysterious and enigmatic identity as a primetime purveyor of the peculiar.
Now, nearly sixty years after its emergence on television, yet another iteration is coming in the form of a series to be aired exclusively on the CBS All-Access streaming service (and executive produced by Jordan Peele, who will serve as host). It will take an astute and disciplined effort to revive the show with an inspired breadth of the bizarre, but it can be done. The powers that be must heed some key measures in order to keep The Twilight Zone from drifting into the mundanity of becoming yet another procedural, rebooted television entity, and there are a few notes on how they can do so.
The Black & White Format: Yes, this is necessary and perhaps the most crucial aesthetic element by which to follow. Sure, perhaps the original run of the series was constricted to the colorless format because of budgetary or technological limits, however that proved to be one of the prevailing elements of the show. The black & white texture of each frame allowed the viewer to sink deeper into the peculiarity of each tale, as if looking back on an old folk story through a distorted lens. There is an inherent eeriness and psychological current that is awoken when presented with the monochrome veneer that keeps the viewer engaged within the bizarre boundaries of each episode. From a practical standpoint, this also allows the viewer to better-focus on the story, themes and characters, rather than frivolous color schemes as a distraction. It is difficult to think of The Twilight Zone without seeing it through the unsaturated filter of the unknown, and it would be a grave mistake to assume otherwise of this new iteration.
Raw Visual Approach: Almost as important as the approach to color for this series is the raw approach to camerawork, blocking and overall staging within the series. Again, perhaps a practical limitation of the original run, but also another example of letting the audience better-sink into the elements of the story that are important. It would seem misplaced to see spangling cinematography, rigorous editing (when uncalled for) and several angle changes within a scene. The Twilight Zone’s episodes benefitted from an array of wide shots that allowed the characters to peruse through settings, pontificate on their situations and show their internal confusion or turmoil. This is an undoubted element of the series that need be continued. Too often, films and series of today are quickly-cut messes that mistrust the viewer’s attention span. This approach to editing, blocking and framing makes such efforts appear and feel more artificial, superfluous and overproduced. The Twilight Zone was apt early on to not let its larger-than-life concepts take hold of the aesthetics, nor should they now. The naturalistic guise of a simple wide shot, with characters partaking in a lengthy dialogue or course of action, is a useful and subtle tool to insert the viewer into the episode themselves. Doing away with this technique could modernize the show to a detriment.
Savvy Contemporariness: Let us not be mistaken, The Twilight Zone was a contemporary-driven show, even at its best. Its themes were rooted in ‘50s and ‘60s nuclear tensions, red scares, and civil rights heights among many other issues. There was a sense of savviness to that approach in which the modern themes could be painted with a broad brush. These themes, when written and carried out properly, were able to make more general, though equally-substantive statements about mankind and our collective folly.
A line that Jordan Peele and company will have to toe is that of not being too contemporary, preventing this iteration from being known more as a time capsule of the Trump years. There are definitely things to be said about the state of the world (or specifically America), technology, and politics, but one mustn’t look far to know that the 45th guy in the Oval Office is the driving force for much of the socially-driven entertainment of 2019. It would be prudent for Peele and the Twilight Zone crew to root their stories in more transcendent themes that better-align with issues that puzzle mankind. The Twilight Zone is about holding a funhouse mirror in front of ourselves, and that very notion calls for our own self-criticism. There is a more distinct poignancy when we do that, rather than simply parodying our most reviled bogeymen.
Practical/Minimal VFX: This item is up for debate, but it is a debate worth having. The Twilight Zone brought us to different worlds, galaxies, environments, dimensions and other crevices of existence, but all the effects in the world never seemed to undermine the story. In an age where the possibility of visual effects is near unlimited, it is also a power with which the producers should very-sparingly experiment. This series has thrived off of minimal effects, and even some very hokey ones (“Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”), but such effects did not give the series its identity. The lingering psychological distortion was the product worth selling. It would be unwise of the crew to overwhelm its die-hard fans, and even newcomers to a plethora of digital tricks that could distract from the narrative and characters. Sometimes, less is more.
The Host: Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the new iteration is Jordan Peele’s role as the show’s host. Peele, who is also serving as executive producer, will be a refreshing face to attribute to the series as its host. The question is: will he carry the brooding, eerie bravado ever-so famously-portrayed by Rod Serling? Likely not, but it will be interesting to see what gusto Peele can attribute to the intro and outro monologues of each episode. There is a distinct, yet proper poetry to Serling’s episodic soliloquies that is still effective years later. A point of contention among viewers may be whether or not Peele’s presence is refreshing and authentic, or simply a cheap imitation. We can only hope for the former.
Conclusion: The Twilight Zone is an entity we should want to welcome back with open arms, but with extraordinarily cautious optimism. In years past, it has helped us reflect on the experience of being human and has called on us to question everything — including our own place in the universe. This new iteration, led by the fiery-hot hype of Jordan Peele, very-well could be the modern equivalent to what the great Rod Serling had begun sixty years ago. That will only be accomplished, however, if the template is followed. Bringing back this television titan means bringing back its unvarnished nature and practicality, all while wrapped in a black and white veil. In the vast dimension of entertainment, where the number of rehashed IPs is becoming as numberless as infinity, it would be a joy to effectively travel to our next destination: The Twilight Zone.
// The Cinematologist [02-18-2019]