When Jordan Peele describes the once-in-a-lifetime chance to revive The Twilight Zone brand by following in the footsteps of producer-host-writer Rod Serling, he makes it sound like a dream come true. That’s not to say it was always a good dream – sometimes it felt like it was chasing him instead of vice versa.
Talking at the Paleyfest panel spotlighting the upcoming launch of a new iteration of The Twilight Zone, Peele added that the prospect of taking on Serling’s accomplishments on- and off-screen feels like an out-of-body experience at times. “It feels like,” he said, “I’m living in an episode of The Twilight Zone.” If so, hopefully, it’s not an end-of-the-world episode (like the optometry crisis tale of “Time Enough At Last“) or a scary kid episode (like the cornfield horrors of “It’s a Good Life”.)
Few shows plant a flag in the public imagination the way The Twilight Zone did. Its name, its theme music, and many of its characters (including monotone narrator Serling) became part of the American lexicon. In 2013, the WGA named it the third-best written show in television history (behind The Sopranos and Seinfeld) while TV Guide ranked it as the fifth best television series in broadcast history. Peele admitted the sheer magnitude of the original show’s success, stature, and legacy, made him question whether the series should even be revived for the 21st Century in the first place.
Peele, the auteur behind horror film hits Get Out and Us, said he finally got past his trepidations when he realized there was an “underlying positivity” in the original series and a sense of fun that is often excluded from the retrospective tributes that dwell on its edgier aspects. The humor of the show was a foothold for Peele, who has plenty of comedic experience after five years on a very different anthology series with Mad TV as well as a sketch comedy series Key & Peele on Comedy Central.
“One of the things that opened this up for me is realizing he’s a humorist,” Peele said. “We think of him as a horror, science-fiction master but he has a perfect pitch tone of comedy…in thinking about his tone we got to this thing we called the Serling wink. One of the greatest episodes, “To Serve Man”, is basically a long-winded dad pun, expertly crafted into this terrifying story that develops in front of you and at the end you are there with it. Only years later did I realize that kind of a silly, fun, joke, bit of satire. That was a big thing that kind of opened up what the energy of the show was. Don’t forget, The Twilight Zone is a place where anything can happen.”
The April Fool’s Day launch of the series and the casting of Seth Rogen in one of the launch episodes seems to hint that one of the first episodes might veer into humor. The original series did have comedic shadings in some episodes, among them the 1960 episode called “A World of His Own,” starring Keenan Wynn, and the 1963 episode “Cavender is Coming,” which featured a young Carol Burnett (as well as a laugh track).
Even after Peele was on board as a key architect of the show he cringed at the suggestion that he should also narrate the series. That would be the way to truly follow in the footsteps of Serling, who was a writer, a producer, the face, and the voice of the unique television franchise that aired 156 episodes on CBS between 1958 and 1964.
“Originally, no, I didn’t want to [be the narrator],” Peele admitted. “It’s one of these things where it’s terrifying to step into the shoes of such an iconic dude, a master. And I’m thinking, as a fan watching the show: Is that Key or Peele up there? He’s trying to be serious but I want to laugh. Like, that dude was baby Forest Whitaker last year – and now he’s trying to be Rod Serling? It felt presumptuous. But you know another thing that was part of the DNA of the show was have Rod, somebody who was an important producer and important presence for the show [as host] and in the end it felt right and it was one of those situations where you [ask] ‘How long do you bow away from the opportunity of a lifetime?'”
Panelist Simon Kinberg pointed out that the self-deprecating Peele’s name holds such cache these days that the tenor and expectations for the show changed appreciably when Peele became a potential centerpiece presence. “It changed how far we could push the show,” Kinberg said.
Kinberg stressed that the revival would not be doing straight remakes of any classic episodes. “Twilight Zone is not broken, it’s insane to try to improve upon those originals. I will say that throughout the series that fans of the original are going to find tons of homage. Sometimes you’ll see that in the science-fiction mechanism that we use, sometimes you’ll see it in the characters’ neurosis, their starting point [in the story], and sometimes in other places it will be tone or location…the original series looms large in all of it.”
Over the course of the panel, the creative team said the original show’s priorities and perspectives were a North Star influence for the new writers, especially if they ran into uncertainty about themes. Every episode will be an hour-long with a different cast and feel like “a different pilot to another new series every week.”
The season finale was directed by Kinberg, who makes his feature-film directorial debut June 7 with Fox’s new X-Men installment, Dark Phoenix. Kinberg says the slippery era we live in presents a “desperate need” for the illuminating parables and socially trenchant sci-fi the brand epitomized in the JFK era. One challenge, Kinberg said, is making sure the show can keep pace with the weird and hazardous absurdities that are manufactured these days by real-world America.
“If I told you three years ago that a reality star with no political experience would be the leader of the free world with access to the nuclear button you would have said that sounds like a crazy episode of the Twilight Zone,” Kinberg said. “But it’s not.”
A more pressing issue may be how the series stacks-up against its contemporary television heirs, whether they are similar anthology shows (such as Black Mirror on Netflix or Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams on Amazon, both of which specialize in the warping effects of technology on human nature — a classic Twilight Zone motif) or more standard monster-of-the-week rivals (like fan-favorite Stranger Things or The X-Files, a sci-fi brand revival that has fizzled for Fox.)
The creative team for The Twilight Zone was joined by a small army of actors at the Paleyfest appearance but many of them had little to say beyond their general enthusiasm for the classic brand and their excitement about the impending premiere.
The Twilight Zone returns with a new franchise on April 1 with the release of the first two episodes via CBS All-Access, the subscription streaming site that also airs Star Trek: Discovery. The two shows shared a tandem time-slot today at Paleyfest, where the capacity audience greeted both high-profile revivals with robust ovations and lots of curiosity. But while Discovery is well into its second season (and renewed for a third),The Twilight Zone is still shrouded in secrecy awaiting the April Fools Day premiere.
That significantly limited the Twilight Zone stage discussion which was wide (with so many panelists on stage) but not especially deep (one actor, when asked what he could say about his episode, dryly deadpanned: “It’s on CBS All-Access.”) Some family members of the late Serling attended the event and were acknowledged from the stage and warmly received by the audience.