Thursday, January 1, 2009

An Old, Fresh Piece of Humanity - Why "The Twilight Zone" Still Matters

The arrival of a new year is usually met with revelry and spectacle, even with times being a little more uncertain than they usually are. 2009 is met with relief and anticipation, due to the basic fact that the date is no longer 2008. For the past five years or so, I’ve spent a chunk of the holiday at home in front of the TV, ringing in the New Year with an old friend, Rod Serling. 2009 marks the 50th anniversary of “The Twilight Zone”, yet is has held up far better than contemporary shows of its time. Can anyone honestly say they could sit through a two-day marathon of the number one rated show of the 60’s, “The Beverly Hillbillies?” If you answered “yes”, there is a padded cell on your left. Please enter, lock the door and say hello to Jethro Bodine for me.

The annual “Twilight Zone” marathon on the Sci-Fi channel is somewhat of an anti-New Year party, as the majority of episodes rarely end with an optimistic tone. The show’s creator and host, Rod Serlng, tended to show the human race as fallible, distrustful of each other and innately paranoid. Serling, who was also “Twilight Zone’s” most prolific writer, created worlds where people and things are never what they seem. In the episode, “Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?” viewers are given the task of identifying the disguised alien from a set of stereotypes: the newlyweds, the big businessman, the crazy bum and a shopkeeper. The denouement adds an extra twist. There is not one alien, but two. I won’t spoil the episode by identifying the aliens. Serling used stereotypes often but always with irony. A beautiful woman who wants to be ugly, cute children who are never truly innocent and authority figures that tend to be clueless seem like fairly common ideas now, but in the early 60’s they weren’t.

Serling often addressed the Cold War and nuclear paranoia, using it not to condemn our enemies but to show the flaws in all of us. The classic episode “To Serve Man” possesses a far deeper irony than humans being harvested for stew. During the episode, the U.N. is dissolved as the aliens have brought peace and prosperity to the whole planet. Serling’s main point was showing that we could distrust and hate our enemies (at that time, the Russians) but readily accept an alien utopia without question. Several episodes, most notably “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street” and “The Shelter”, were morality plays used to show how little faith we have in our own friends and neighbors when a crisis unfolds. The “monsters” in “Maple Street” are revealed to be ourselves, ripe for an alien invasion when they cannot unite when the city loses power. Similarly, “The Shelter” shows a family locked in their fallout shelter, refusing to let their friends in while the friends on the outside turn on each other and attempt to break in. Once the “all clear” is given, the cast walks away from each other in slow silence. Unlike other pieces of Cold War literature, these episodes are not dated. Serling knew focusing on the human element in the stories was more relevant than the setting itself. If a crisis arose today, would we unite or would we act only out of self-preservation?

“Twilight Zone” was also a showcase for suspense and horror. The episodes “Living Doll” and “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” are downright terrifying. For a second, I thought about tuning in with the family for the airing of “Living Doll” but quickly realized this was a bad idea. Talking dolls are freaky and I didn’t want to deal with my kids falling asleep in terror from their toys. With all the animated, talking toys available today, it’s easy to become unnerved by their ability to know your child’s name and dance when they’re tickled. I challenge anyone to walk through the toy aisles at any store and not get just a little freaked out. “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” addresses the fear of airplanes. The image of William Shatner staring in shock at the monster destroying the plane is on par with anything created by horror masters Wes Craven and John Carpenter. “Twilight Zone” tapped into our inner fears, the eternal nightmares that occur in our minds and have resided in our collective conscious for centuries. Everyone is scared of something. “Twilight Zone” had a knack for finding those fears, no matter how buried they may be.

The “Twilight Zone” seems more relevant now than when it first aired. Technology was supposed to connect us but has pushed many apart. The advent of a new year and a new era for our country has been met with an almost na├»ve optimism. Are things really going to change or are we just participating in a collective illusion designed to convince us that we are in a garden with blooming roses when we are actually standing in a sewer? Is your financial advisor really looking out for you or are they busy planning an escape to the Cayman Islands? Will you be having cocktails with your co-workers on Monday, only to be forced to fire them on Tuesday? Will you lend money to friends that are losing their homes or will stand by with your eyes staring blankly at a window? Will you condemn those convicted of government corruption even as you know “pay to play” is the name of the game? Are you a good teacher? Are you relevant or are you merely a marionette dancing on a stage to the whims of children? Are you in love or are you just a chapter in another person’s story? Do you open Pandora’s box? Do you seek the unknown out of excitement, fear or both?

These answers can be found not only in our future but also in our lives, souls and minds, which seems to be forever intertwined with “The Twilight Zone.”

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