When television viewers tuned in to CBS in October 1959 to watch a new series called The Twilight Zone, they heard Rod Serling describe the show’s namesake territory as a dimension as “vast as space and as timeless as infinity.” That sounds like good news for the high-profile CBS All Access revival of the brand (since it suggests boundless story terrain). But it’s also a reminder that Serling’s original franchise casts a colossal shadow that can easily swallow up anything that ventures too close.
Those opportunities and that challenge were undercurrent topics of The Twilight Zone panel on Sunday at Deadline’s Contenders Emmys at the Paramount Theater on the studio’s lot. The panel brought together executive producer Simon Kinberg and two Season 1 guest stars Adam Scott and Sanaa Latham, as well as Deadline’s Dominic Patten, who handled the moderator duties.
“We approach everything from a story first standpoint…the hidden or Trojan horse within it is this social messaging and the social, political, and moral issues of our time. Obviously, over the last couple of years, the issues have become even more relevant,” said Kinberg, who directed the season finale episode (and makes his feature-film directorial debut this summer with FX’s Dark Phoenix.)
The new iteration of The Twilight Zone launched on April Fool’s Day with two episodes, one of which, “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet,” starred Scott as a journalist who has the fate of Flight 1015 in his hands. The episode nods to the 1961 classic “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” (directed by Richard Donner, starring William Shatner, and written by I Am Legend author Richard Matheson). Twilight Zone: The Movie in 1983 featured a remake of that episode with John Lithgow in the plane seat.
“When this came, I was, of course, thrilled, and jumped at the chance. But I quickly decided not to try and compare and didn’t want to see either of them right before we shot,” Scott said. “I just figured I would never be able to measure up to either Lithgow or Shatner, so I would just try to do my own thing. The episode was different enough that it didn’t require that anyway. It was vastly different. It was more like a jumping-off point.”
For the new series, Oscar-winning screenwriter Jordan Peele took on the same sort of double duty that Serling had with the original series (1958-1964) as both the face of the franchise and its esteemed creative force. Peele has admitted the magnitude of the original show’s legacy made him wonder whether the series should even be relaunched at all. In the end, Peele took on the executive producer role after he was won over by the show’s optimism and under-appreciated humor that pushed him forward.
Few shows have planted a flag in the public imagination the way The Twilight Zone did. Its name, its theme music, and many of its characters (including 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.
That storied pedigree (and Peele’s red-hot stature) enticed a parade of notable-name guest stars to sign up for Season 1. They included Greg Kinnear, Seth Rogen, Kumail Nanjiani, John Cho, Ike Barinholtz, Taissa Farmiga, Ginnifer Goodwin, Luke Kirby, Rhea Seehorn, Alison Tolman, Jacob Tremblay, Jessica Williams, DeWanda Wise, and Steven Yeun.
The Twilight Zone is produced by CBS Television Studios in association with Peele’s Monkeypaw Productions and Simon Kinberg’s Genre Films. Peele and Kinberg serve as executive producers along with Win Rosenfeld, Audrey Chon, Glen Morgan, Carol Serling, Rick Berg and Greg Yaitanes.