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Reality mirrors ‘The Twilight Zone’: TV episodes from 1950s and 1960s are eerily similar to circumstances today

UPDATED: Mon., Nov. 16, 2020

It looks the same, it smells the same, and it feels the same – but it isn’t the same. There is something not quite right. Either an invisible contagion has invaded our country, or we’re in “The Twilight Zone.”

Apparently, it’s the former, but it certainly feels like the latter. For the uninitiated, “The Twilight Zone” is a compelling TV series created and hosted by Rod Serling, who wrote most of the scripts. The series, which ran from 1959-1964, featured an array of genres, from dystopian fiction and supernatural drama to black comedy. Each episode typically included a twist, and the original shows are still relevant today.

There have been other versions of “The Twilight Zone,” the latest by director-writer Jordan Peele (“Get Out,” “Us”), which airs on CBS All Access. Karen Petruska, associate professor of Communications Studies at Gonzaga, agrees that it feels like we’re living in the seminal TV show, which influenced Steven Spielberg and Chris Carter, the creator of “The X-Files,” among others.

“It is like ‘The Twilight Zone’ right now,” Petruska said. “It’s like the show in that we’re trying to make sense of what we’re experiencing. There’s something that is obviously wrong. It’s weird at times during this pseudo-lockdown.

“You can go to the park, but you can’t have people over for dinner. I want to invite you into my house, but I can’t let you in. Obviously, something is off. It wasn’t quite right with Major League Baseball. Without people watching in person, something was definitely off.”

Something is definitely off, but that’s the story behind most “Twilight Zone” episodes. Now is the time to go back or check out classic “Twilight Zone” episodes for the first time.

As Serling once said, “You unlock this door with the key of imagination. Beyond it is another dimension: a dimension of sound, a dimension of sight, a dimension of mind. You’re moving into a land of both shadow and substance, of things and ideas. You’ve just crossed over into … the Twilight Zone.”

There are a number of classic episodes that mirror or are a reminder of what we’re experiencing courtesy of the coronavirus or due to human behavior. Also consider what “The Twilight Zone” has spawned: a board game, graphic novels, two other series with the same name and format and a film. The entire “Twilight Zone” collection is available on Hulu and Netflix.

1. ‘The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street’

Season 1, Episode 22, original air date: March 4, 1960

The suburban subdivision appears idyllic at the beginning of the episode. Children are playing during a sunny afternoon as an ice cream truck drives by. However, everything changes when a flash of light streaks through the sky, and the residents lose power. Those on Maple Street convince themselves that aliens disguised as humans have been residing in their community.

Some strange events occur, and suspicion follows. After a resident’s car inexplicably starts, the group of friendly neighbors turns into an angry mob. How different is their behavior from Americans’ views of the Chinese? How many Chinese restaurants went out of business after the coronavirus struck? It’s also reminiscent of post-9/11 views of Middle Easterners.

What do humans do in a time of crisis? “There are weapons that are simple thoughts, attitudes, prejudices,” Serling said at the end of the episode.

2. ‘Time Enough at Last’

Season 1, Episode 8, Nov. 20, 1959

A bank clerk disappears with a book during his lunch break and locks himself in a vault, which saves him from a nuclear assault. The meek and mild inveterate literature junkie, played by Burgess Meredith at his finest, is ecstatic as he ventures to the library. There is no one around in the rubble to interrupt him as he indulges in the classics.

However, it doesn’t take long for him to discover that there are pitfalls to isolationism. It wasn’t easy for folks to be by their lonesome during the lockdown, and considering what is projected, people might be starving for human contact again.

3. ‘Where Is Everybody?’

Season 1, Episode 1, Oct. 2, 1959

“The Twilight Zone” pilot features a man clad in a U.S. Air Force flight suit wandering into a desolate town. The protagonist walks into a diner with freshly baked pies and a hot pot of coffee on the stove, but there’s no sign of life.

He spots a lit cigar in an empty police station. Not every episode of “The Twilight Zone” is explained, but the reason for what the man experiences is detailed at the conclusion of the episode. It’s all about dealing with isolation. How long can we tolerate it?

“The barrier of loneliness: The palpable, desperate need of the human animal to be with his fellow man. Up there … is an enemy known as isolation. It sits there in the stars waiting, waiting with the patience of eons, forever waiting … in the Twilight Zone.”

A fascinating side note. Serling, who died at 50 in 1975, intended for his script “The Happy Place” to be his “Twilight Zone” debut. The episode revolved around a society in which people were executed upon reaching their 60th birthday since they were deemed no longer useful. However, network executives refused to run with that episode since it was deemed too dark.

4. ‘The Midnight Sun’

Season 3, Episode 10, Nov. 17, 1961

A pair of Manhattan apartment dwellers are all that’s left in their building as Gotham heats up. The Earth’s orbit is disturbed, and it’s moving toward the sun. The mercury is rising, and New Yorkers are either moving north or perishing in the sweltering city. Since the pair are all that’s left, they’re in isolation. Aside from that common denominator with the coronavirus, the script screams global warming.

5. ‘The Shelter’

Season 3, Episode 3, Sept. 29, 1961

Everyone is having a great time at a birthday for a neighborhood doctor who has cared for each guest as their physician. Shortly after the party ends, a civil defense warning reports that UFOs have been detected traveling toward the United States. The doctor and his family retreat to their bomb shelter.

His friends/patients beg their doctor to open the door to the shelter, where there is only room for three. Desperation and violent acts follow. There is the element of isolation but also of division, which reflects the state of our country. The closing narration has a solution. “For civilization to survive, the human race has to remain civilized.”

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