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The Lasting Legacy of ‘The Twilight Zone’ & Why Jordan Peele’s New Take Matters

Candice Frederick & Brian Linder

It’s been sixty years since Rod Serling’s epic anthology sci-fi series, The Twilight Zone, first invaded our homes and forced us to confront some startling, often disturbing truths about ourselves, our relationships with each other, and the world in which we live.

On April 1, exclusively on CBS All Access, host Jordan Peele (Get Out) will take us back to the eerie dimension in a reimagining of the series, confronting sociopolitical themes that impact today’s millennial audiences—many that mirror past ills.

From the Cold War to the Civil Rights Movement, and heightened paranoia in a fragile political state, The Twilight Zone, even at its most wild, aims to use genre storytelling as a tool to interrogate and narrate some of our greatest fears and distort our comforts.

Take a deep dive into five of the classic series most definitive episodes highlighted below that confront some of The Twilight Zone’s most urgent themes—including racism, superficiality, vanity, and mental illness. As we count down to the launch of the new series, re-enter an alternate dimension that is as relevant today as it ever was.

“Eye of the Beholder”—1960

Synopsis: A young woman braces herself to have her bandages removed after drastic plastic surgery to make her look like…everyone else. It’s her latest in a long line of attempts to conform to the dominant aesthetic. She will receive the horrifying fate of having to live among her kind if the surgery is unsuccessful.

Meaning: “Eye of the Beholder” is a commentary on how beauty is largely determined by shifting societal norms. As Serling says in his closing narration, “Now the questions that come to mind. Where is this place and when is it, what kind of world where ugliness is the norm and beauty the deviation from that norm? The answer is, it doesn’t make any difference. Because the old saying happens to be true. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”

How’s it relevant today? Every day, moment by moment, we’re confronted with glamorous images of beautiful celebrities and social media influencers. We emulate them — their looks, their lifestyle, etc. Why? Because we all want to fit in. But how far is too far in our obsession with appearance? There’s extreme pressure here on women and minorities, in particular, that could be explored in the new series.

“The Monsters are Due on Maple Street”—1960

Synopsis: A peaceful suburban neighborhood erupts into total chaos upon the “threat” that an alien has landed among them. Some residents go as far as trying to confront the new presence, while some begin hurling accusations at each other claiming that they are the strange beings only perpetrating as one of them. It all results in an innocent life lost.

Meaning: “For the record, prejudices can kill and suspicion can destroy…” Rod Serling’s closing narration puts a fine point on the dangers that arise when we fear those who are different than us, to the point of prejudice and paranoia. We see the tragic consequences that can occur when mob hysteria takes hold, and we become the monsters we feared others were.

How’s it relevant today? Fear-mongering around racial and cultural issues runs rampant. On social media, we’re bombarded by messages with the intent of turning neighbor against neighbor. It’s become clear that, as a society, we’re surprisingly susceptible to this. And if we’re not careful, we could be the cause of our own destruction.

“To Serve Man”—1962

Synopsis: An alien Kanamit comes to Earth promising peace and answers to our greatest problems. For a while, Earthlings accept his knowledge and begin to see positive effects, until they learn the alien’s motives are not so pure. The Kanamits leave a book at the United Nations entitled “To Serve Man,” written in an alien language. But once it’s decoded, the title is revealed to have a double meaning — it’s a cookbook.

Meaning: In his opening narration, Serling compares the Kanamits to Christopher Columbus, a man once viewed as noble by some, but who ultimately had a devastating impact on Native people. The Kanamit concepts of a brave new world had an instant gratification kind of appeal, but the endgame involved humankind going from ruler of planet Earth to an ingredient in someone’s dinner.

How’s it relevant today? Driven by their own ambition, politicians are preying on the fears and perceived needs of their constituents. As a society, we can choose a thoughtful path that considers the long-term impact of our choices, or take the quick and easy route — often at the expense of our environment and relationship to our fellow humans. If we choose the latter, it’s a safe bet that, sooner or later, we’ll end up on the menu.

“Deaths-Head Revisited”—1961

Synopsis: A former German SS captain in World War II returns to the concentration camp in Dachau, Bavaria, where he once tortured and killed many people to reminisce on the power he then held. Upon entering, one of his victims encounters him and immediately exacts violent retribution on him in the form of mental illusions to the point where he is committed to a mental institution.

Meaning: In the same year that the Berlin Wall was being constructed, this episode highlighted the human atrocities of World War II and attempted to reimagine the narrative with a stirring teleplay that gives posthumous power back to its victims at the sake of the Nazis.

How’s it relevant today? Retribution remains a source of debate when considering historical atrocities including the Holocaust, World War II, 9/11, and slavery. How do we reckon with the past? And how, in this age of wild conspiracy theories, do we preserve the facts of humanity’s gravest wrongs? If we fail to remember our past, we may be doomed to repeat it.

“Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”—1963

Synopsis: A man recovering from a mental breakdown boards a plane only to see a strange creature on the wing. The setting is eerily reminiscent of where he was at the onset of his breakdown, and while he tries hard to convince those around him that he is having a completely sane moment, he’s not entirely sure what he’s seeing is real.

Meaning: The same month this episode aired, President Kennedy signed into law the Community Mental Health Act that amplified resources for those suffering from mental health issues. This episode highlights the horror of being trapped in your own mind, unsure if what you’re experiencing is really real. And what if it is real? How do we cope with the horror of having tangible proof of something truly terrifying that others refuse to believe?

How’s it relevant today? The horrors of today’s reality are ripe for a new tale that prompts us to collectively consider our mental health. In these tumultuous, increasingly complicated times, it’s more important than ever to be able to rightly discern what’s real and what’s not.

Witness the reimagining of the most iconic series ever, exclusively on CBS All Access on April 1.

Candice Frederick & Brian Linder