“If we’re remaking old ‘Twilight Zone’ episodes, I think we’re not doing our job,” said executive producer Win Rosenfeld.
Since it first hit television screens in 1959, “The Twilight Zone” has delighted, haunted, and kept audiences thinking. It’s regularly ranked high on lists of the best television programs ever made and has inspired countless shows and movies. “If you say those three words, ‘The Twilight Zone,’ everybody understands exactly what you mean,” actress Gretchen Mol told IndieWire in an interview.
It’s a high bar to cross, and it took some trial and error when the first season of the Jordan Peele-produced reboot debuted on CBS All Access last year. “The first year we produced the show we were really conscious of what constituted a ‘Twilight Zone’ episode,” executive producer Audrey Chon told IndieWire. “It’s really in the DNA of the types of stories we’re choosing and how we’re producing the actual show.”
For Chon and Win Rosenfeld, another executive producer on the series and screenwriter of the Season 2 episode “Who of You,” the series is more content to focus on the tone of “The Twilight Zone.” This season especially saw a push to make the season lighter in comparison to Season 1 which, according to Chon, was steeped in the fallout of the 2016 election. “This season has a real sense of mischief to it,” said Rosenfeld, with several episodes focusing on just one or two characters and exploring identity.
In the case of “Who of You,” which follows a bank robber who discovers he can jump into the bodies of others, it came out of discussions in the writer’s room about humanity’s narcissism. “Human beings are insanely narcissistic, to the point that we can’t see past ourselves,” Rosenfeld said. “What does it mean if you do have the power to be somebody else, and how quickly that power can be corruptible and damaging.” The whole season, in a way, becomes about how the self is constructed.
And yet there remains a reverence for what series creator Rod Serling put out. “There’s a certain bar for the show already,” said Chon. “The shadow of Rod Serling and the original series definitely hung over our head [in Season 1]” and it’s something they’ve transitioned away from in this season.
For Rosenfeld’s episode, he didn’t necessarily set out to do a “Twilight Zone” episode in the sense of conjuring up a unique twist. Instead, the writer’s room focused on bringing together specific genres, and in Rosenfeld’s case he saw it as an opportunity to join the heist genre with that of the body-swapping story.
In the case of the most ambitious episode of Season 2, “You Might Also Like,” it was a chance to tell an alien story with a satire highly relevant to our current times. Osgood Perkins, director and writer of the episode, said the idea for the episode came after “Twilight Zone” writers pitched him several story ideas he didn’t connect with. “If I was going to do an episode I wanted to do … [something] really reverent towards the original, which is so essential and impactful to our cultural consciousness,” Perkins said.
Perkins explains he didn’t want to be “precious” in his storytelling, or be too clever or ironic. He wanted to make it clear that he was doing a “Twilight Zone” episode. “You Might Also Like” tells the story of Janet Warren (Gretchen Mol), a woman living an unhappy life who discovers the world is about to be turned upside down by the arrival of the Kanamits, an alien race originally seen in the legendary 1962 episode “The Twilight Zone,” “To Serve Man.”
Perkins had always planned on including an alien entity in his episode, but when he decided to employ the Kanamits, it turned into something special. Perkins said he couldn’t have imagined writing an episode of “The Twilight Zone” without either referencing, reinvigorating, or drawing on something from the original series. Both Chon and Rosenfeld cite “To Serve Man” as a favorite of theirs. “It’s such an indictment of humanity, and our built-in narcissism and egoism,” Rosenfeld said. “And the twist is a joke in the wordplay.”
But as Perkins started the process of putting it together there were roadblocks in how heavily he could homage the series. He initially wanted to film it in black-and-white in a square aspect ratio not unlike the original series. He came to understand, though, that there was more “cheekiness” in placing the episode in the modern day. The need for relevancy is paramount with the series, said Rosenfeld, which he understands could be paradoxical with a rebooted series.
Thankfully, Perkins was able to accomplish both tasks through the storytelling and casting. Perkins had wanted to work with actress Gretchen Mol for awhile and felt she had a “vintage quality” that worked perfectly with a story that inhabits old school “Twilight Zone” with modern day. “She looked like Grace Kelly in ‘Rear Window,’” Perkins said. Mol concurs that it was like “going back in time” while doing the episode. Even though there is a nod to technology with the “egg” item Mol’s character is told she wants, the arrival of the Kanamits bridge the gap between old and new.
Perkins was also specific about how he wanted the Kanamits to both hearken to the original series and work with a modern-day audience. Perkins said he told the makeup crew he wanted them to look ripped from the episode, entirely in grayscale. “When you’re able to sit down in front of a makeup artist and say, ‘I just want the original thing,’ they love it,” Perkins said. “Because there is reverence to this stuff that got them doing what they’re doing.”
The finished product, achieved entirely through practical effects, ended up giving the Kanamits more malevolence than might have been felt in the original series. And to talk to Perkins, they’re the perfect characters to deal with this moment in time. “There a matter-of-fact quality about them,” he said.
“There’s no urgency, there’s no violence, there’s no attack.” Perkins sees the Kanamits as realizing humanity has royally screwed up and it’s time to pull the plug. “The Kanamits don’t have to be aggressive, or violent, or even powerful in the traditional sense because their argument is so unassailable.” Couple that with the episode’s outro, which was written by Jordan Peele, about existential dread and it’s hard not to see “You Might Also Like” as being the ultimate representative of 2020’s mood.
The example set by Perkins is what “The Twilight Zone” hopes to follow. Chon said there haven’t been discussions about what the Season 3 scripts could look like, but she imagines that if the show does see a third season they will definitely be influenced by events of today. That being said, both she and Rosenfeld want to avoid being too preachy about their messages and they also don’t want to trod over old ground. So don’t expect any episodes to be remakes of older “Twilight Zone” installments.
“The intent never was to do any remakes, in part because we feel those stories have already been told,” said Rosenfeld. So even though they’ll refer to an episode, like their Season 1 reference to “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” the episodes have be original. “If we’re remaking old ‘Twilight Zone’ episodes, I think we’re not doing our job,” he said.
“The Twilight Zone” Season 2 is streaming now on CBS All Access.