What 'The Twilight Zone' Teaches Us About Storytelling

Watch a video essay on the cinematic devices of one of the most influential TV shows of all time.

Twilight Zone Screenshot

Watch a video essay on the cinematic devices of one of the most influential TV shows of all time.

Few shows have remained as culturally relevant as The Twilight Zone. Nearly 60 years after it first premiered, Rod Serling‘s sci-fi anthology still looms large over the modern television landscape, influencing countless shows from Black Mirror to The Man in the High Castle. Undeniably ahead of its time, The Twilight Zone‘s enduring impact stems not only from the stories it told, but how it told them. Over the course of five seasons, The Twilight Zone helped introduce the cinematic languages of theme and structure to television, blowing televisual conventions wide open and expanding the possibilities of the small screen.

Despite presenting new protagonists and conflicts with each episode, The Twilight Zone maintained both thematic and structural unity across the series. By cloaking social commentary in science fiction, Serling managed to slip past censors and sneak thoughtful, timely themes into every installment. Serling’s writing tackled everything from the anxieties of nuclear threat to the broken promises of suburbia, warning against anti-intellectualism and condemning virulent racism and bigotry — themes that all sound uncannily familiar today. Structurally, the show employed universal cinematic vocabulary to build tension and hurl twists at the audience, strategically (and masterfully) balancing suspense and revelation. Oh yeah, and it did all these deep thematic dives and structural balancing acts in just 22 minutes.

With Jordan Peele‘s Twilight Zone reboot on the horizon, one might fear that the original series’ brilliance could get lost in translation. Luckily, Peele shares many of Serling’s sensibilities, having proven his natural aptitude for pointed social commentary and potent iconography with his Oscar-winning debut Get Out. He clearly understands the series’ importance and timely undertones; in an interview with Variety, Peele explains, “Too many times this year it’s felt we were living in a twilight zone, and I can’t think of a better moment to reintroduce it to modern audiences.” While the forthcoming reboot may prove to be an exciting update, it sure has some big shoes to fill. 

A revisit to The Twilight Zone reveals its agelessness, its ability to tell stories that are as pressing and incisive today as they were 60 years ago. In the below video essay, Jack’s Movie Reviews takes a closer look at the specific cinematic devices that enabled The Twilight Zone to pack such a storytelling wallop. Check out the video to learn more about The Twilight Zone‘s abiding influence and how it can teach us to tell better stories.

Writer, college student, television connoisseur.