What Is The Twilight Zone & How To Watch The Star-Studded Revival

Photo: courtesy of CBS.
Lessons we learned from The Twilight Zone: Don't buy lifelike dolls, especially ones named Talking Tina. Don't look at the wing of the airplane, because you might not like what you see. If aliens land on Earth, don't trust them.
Those are the literal takeaways from some of the anthology series' most memorable episodes, but each episode had a more profound moral lesson, too. With The Twilight Zone, creator Rod Serling aimed to entertain audiences — and to better them.
On April 1, Jordan Peele is bringing the classic show, which ran from 1958 to 1964, to a new audience with a revival on CBS All Access. While the star-studded series has some notable modern updates (plane travel is much different now, as the episode Nightmare At 30,000 Feet shows), it remains true to the ethos of the original. Expect eerie storylines, twist endings, and the quintessential theme. But first, here's what you need to know about The Twilight Zone.

What is "the twilight zone," exactly?

The Twilight Zone takes place in a mysterious realm, liberated from the conventions that govern our world. It's a place where ventriloquist's dummies get minds of their own, kids can teleport adults to corn fields, and nannies come in robot form (though we're only a few years away from that reality).
Let's let Rod Serling, explain the exact topography of this so-called twilight zone in the opening monologue delivered each episode: “There is a fifth dimension, beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space, and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call The Twilight Zone."

Fine — then what is The Twilight Zone itself?

The Twilight Zone is a TV show Serling created that ran from 1958 to 1964. Each episode of The Twilight Zone followed a similar format. Characters were put into outlandish, creepy situations, which were ultimately meant to ask probing questions about the human condition — or, in some cases, simply entertain. In each episode, Serling provided wry narration in his distinct voice.
The show featured a new cast in each episode. As a result, The Twilight Zone became a kind of sliding doors for burgeoning actors on their way to stardom. Actors like George Takei, William Shatner, Cloris Leachman, and Robert Duvall all appeared on the show. Conversely, the 2019 reboot will feature a lot of A-listers, in addition to up-and-comers.

Who can we thank for The Twilight Zone?

It all goes back to one visionary mind. The Emmy Award-winning Rod Serling created The Twilight Zone and wrote 99 of the originals' 156 episodes. Though Serling was the master of the show's trademark twist ending, his career in broadcasting extended beyond the show for which he was most famous. He won an Emmy for the TV show Patterns (1955) and co-wrote Planet of the Apes.
The Twilight Zone came about after Serling was tired of fighting with censors over the socially conscious stories he yearned to tell. For example, Serling wrote Noon on Doomsday, a script partially inspired by the Emmet Till case, in which a young Black teenager was kidnapped and killed by two white men, who were later exonerated on all counts. Censors took issue with the script's specific references to the South and lynching, and forced Serling to change the setting to New England.
This incident was representative n of Serling's contentious relationship with censors. In retaliation, he created The Twilight Zone, a show that couched social issues in fantastical elements, and lacked any controversial specifics. "Because they deal in the areas of fantasy and imagination and science-fiction and all of those things, there’s no opportunity to cop a plea or chop an axe or anything," Serling explained on The Mike Wallace interview in 1959.

But this show was from the '60s! Why do so many people still know — or care – about The Twilight Zone?

The Twilight Zone only ran for five years, but it achieved a flourishing second life thanks to TV serialization. The show's ingenious 100-plus episodes are frequently aired in holiday marathons (this writer turned SyFy's annual July 4 marathon into a yearly tradition). Rooted in the human condition rather than a distinct time or place, the show's appeal endures.
Beyond serialization, The Twilight Zone has had a thriving afterlife by influencing other works of pop culture — including all the heady, cerebral science fiction and anthology series we see today. The show is a favorite among creators, like JJ Abrams, Stephen King, and Peele himself, certainly inspiring their work. Finally, pop culture is also littered with references to the show, like when Kristin Wiig looks out the window of the airplane in Bridesmaids and sees a woman churning butter on the airplane wing, as opposed to the gremlin who torments William Shatner in The Twilight Zone.

Has The Twilight Zone ever been rebooted before?

After the original Twilight Zone was cancelled due to low ratings, Serling sold the rights to CBS, not anticipating the show's long afterlife. In 1985, 10 years after Serling's death, CBS rebooted The Twilight Zone for three seasons. Big-name talent signed on for the revival: Science fiction writer Harlan Ellison wrote episodes, despite being a critic of TV; horror legend Wes Craven directed some; the Grateful Dead recorded the decidedly funkier new theme song.
In 2002, the UPN network rebooted the The Twilight Zone once again, featuring Forest Whitaker in Rod Serling's narrator position. Though the revival only ran for one season, the show featured many now-famous actors, like Jason Bateman, Penn Badgley, and even Jessica Simpson. Reruns continue to air.

Will the 2019 reboot of The Twilight Zone feature original storylines?

I know, I know — you're just looking for a new Get Out. According to interviews with the show's creators, the new Twilight Zone will be a mix of updates to preexisting storylines and wholly original episodes.

Is there a place for Twilight Zone super-fans to convene?

Boy, is there ever. Head over to a Twilight Zone convention, where former stars and current fans gather to discuss their favorite episodes. The internet is teeming with fan forums, too. The Twilight Zone has merch, board games, and even a national holiday on May 11. Your people are out there.

Why is everyone comparing The Twilight Zone to Black Mirror?

The two shows are admittedly similar. Both are thought-provoking anthology series that dip into the surreal. However, Peele distinguished his Twilight Zone revival from the BBC-turned-Netflix show in one marked category: tone. “It can’t go so dark that it makes us want to curl up in a ball," Peele told The New York Times in a recent interview of The Twilight Zone. On the other hand, Black Mirror, he says, gets dark – really dark (just watch "White Christmas," and you'll know).

Where can I watch the original Twilight Zone?

That's easy: It's streaming on Netflix, Amazon Prime, CBS, and Hulu. Start with these episodes.

Where can I watch the shiny new 10-episode revival?

The first two episodes of the new Twilight Zone will air on CBS All Access on Monday, April 1. The hour-long premiere episodes "Nightmare at 30,000 Feet," starring Adam Scott as a paranoid man on an airplane, and "The Comedian," starring Kumail Nanjiani as a comedian willing to make major sacrifices for fame. The Twilight Zone is a convincing reason to sign up for CBS' subscription-only service, with plans beginning at $5.99/month, with the first week free.

More from TV

R29 Original Series