"Black and white creates a strange dreamscape that color never can." – Jack Antonoff
The original iteration of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone is perhaps the most iconic television anthology in history. With 156 episodes aired over five seasons (1959-1964), the CBS show broke new ground with its unsettling mix of suspense, drama, horror, and moral provocations. At its core, the show was meant to make the viewer ponder deep philosophical questions by making them uncomfortable. After an unexpected reveal, the viewer was left with the confrontational rawness of each episode’s dilemma to work through – along with a powerful incentive to watch the next one. Contrary to the modern belief that weaponized clickbait is the key to durable engagement, people enjoy being made to think, and Serling tapped into this desire with brilliant flair.
In the 10th episode of the third season – The Midnight Sun – a prolific artist (Norma) and her elderly landlady (Mrs. Bronson) find themselves in an existential crisis: Earth has suddenly changed its orbit and is hurtling ever closer to the sun. The last residents in their New York apartment building, the pair are sweating out their final moments when confronted by a desperate looter looking to quench his ultimately unquenchable thirst. In a twist of perspective, the viewer learns that the entire episode has been a fever dream, and Norma wakes up to discover that Earth is moving away from the sun. Her imminent demise will be the result of global cooling, not warming. The episode was designed to demonstrate Earth’s fragility, couched in the context of a cold war threatening to turn hot and looming large in the collective attention of the day.
In It’s a Good Life – an episode that aired two weeks before The Midnight Sun – Serling introduces the viewer to Anthony Fremont, a young boy who abuses his exceptional mental powers – including the ability to read minds – to isolate his town of Peaksville, Ohio and return it to the dark ages. Residents of Peaksville must grow their own food and make essential supplies by hand, an inefficient set of tasks made all the more challenging under each of Anthony’s new edicts. They must also refrain from criticizing Anthony, even in thought, lest they be permanently banished to “the cornfield,” a clear euphemism for execution. Despite Anthony’s destruction, the adults never rise against him. The episode ends with the town still stuck in its predicament as Anthony’s father meekly affirms that “tomorrow’s gonna be a real good day.” Here is Serling’s closing narration for the chilling episode (emphasis added throughout):
“No comment here, no comment at all. We only wanted to introduce you to one of our very special citizens, little Anthony Fremont, age six, who lives in a village called Peaksville, in a place that used to be Ohio. And, if by some strange chance, you should run across him, you had best think only good thoughts. Anything less than that is handled at your own risk, because if you do meet Anthony, you can be sure of one thing: you have entered The Twilight Zone.”
With its heavy focus on utopian themes and bizarre situations, The Twilight Zone would have no shortage of material to work with using today’s news flow for inspiration. Whether it be the partnership between monopolistic technology companies and totalitarian governments, the insistence that blatantly wrong policy ideas are “good” despite clear and convincing data that proves the opposite, or the move to preemptively silence dissent with little regard for fundamental human rights, a modern-day Serling would likely provoke his own cancellation in short order. Consider this horrific story out of China:
“A protest planned by hundreds of bank depositors in central China seeking access to their frozen funds has been thwarted because the authorities have turned their health code apps red, several depositors told Reuters.
The depositors were planning to travel to the central province of Henan this week from across China to protest against an almost two-month block on accessing at least $178 million of deposits, which has left companies unable to pay workers and individuals unable to access savings.
Rights groups have warned China could use its vast COVID surveillance infrastructure to stifle dissent. Without a green code on their smartphone app, citizens lose access to public transport and spaces such as restaurants and malls, as well as the right to travel across the country.
"They are putting digital handcuffs on us," said a depositor from Sichuan province surnamed Chen, who declined to use his full name for fear of government retribution.”
However, this scene in China would hardly make for a convincing episode of The Twilight Zone. Such behavior is to be expected based on its history – where’s the plot twist? Rather, as increasing numbers cheer encouragingly at similar developments in their own democratic nations – naively assuming the precedents set today won’t boomerang back on their architects in due course – one can envision a salivating Serling framing out his shot.
Let’s dive into a specific example developing on democratic shores.