“Twilight Zone,” Generation Z, and Nostalgia for the Unknown

Assorted Stills from “Twilight Zone”

A few years ago I had an interesting conversation about television, memories, and nostalgia with my cousin (who was twenty years old at the time). We discussed the classic television series the Twilight Zone in intimate terms. She described it as a great comfort in times when she felt “lost.” If she doesn’t know what to watch on television or if she doesn’t know what to do, in general, Twilight Zone gives her direction and consistency. Whether her aim is to be entertained, contemplate, or have good background media, she described it as “her immediate go-to.” When asked why, she frankly stated, “there’s not a single bad episode.”

She recalled that some of her earliest television memories are of the Twilight Zone. Specifically she fondly reminisced about bonding with her grandfather as a child. Over episodes of Twilight Zone, they bridged the generation gap by sharing the joys of the viewing experience. While the show was always on in the background of her life, she didn’t watch intensively until recently after Netflix provided her with greater access. When asked about her more recent relationship with the program, she responded “We’ve been dating a couple years now, and it’s really going well!” Though she laughs amiably, her word choice hints at the intimate presence the show has in her life.

When asked why she considers the program to be so important, she told me its social commentary and narrative reflects her passions for anthropology and religion studies. She additionally noted how the series aligns with her favorite genres: science fiction and fantasy. In fact, she believes that “it laid the foundation for a lot of science fiction and fantasy.” In regards to its narrative elements, she described it as “a template for future shows” and professes “everything now pays homage to Twilight Zone.”

She went on to explain that Rod Serling expressed anxieties about war, society, and racism in a way that was way ahead of its time. She feels that, for a show from the late 1950’s/early-mid 1960’s, it was incredibly progressive and even at times transgressive. She believes this contributed to its great success as a “crucial stepping stone” that would inspire elements for future television programs. She also finds it remarkable that its influence isn’t restricted to the science fiction genre. She explained that the episodes established a narrative tradition through its structure that transcends the confines of genre.

My cousin detailed how fascinating she finds its wider cultural reach because the scope of its themes are likewise very broad. She told me many of the elements used are universal, but were especially impactful due to the contextual relevance of its themes. Twilight Zone’s themes weren’t just relevant to Cold War America, however. She said the show “touched on a lot of aspects of human nature that lead to a lot of issues.” Specifically she values the commentary on “social problems that have always been prevalent in society.”

For example, she cites the famous episode “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street” to emphasize how a show about the seemingly fantastic can reveal raw, core truths about human nature. As her cousin and best friend, I can confidently say that this statement reveals why the show is so important to her (and many others).

Despite the generation gap, Twilight Zone speaks deeply to my cousin for many different reasons, which are many of the same reasons it remains so popular among the millennial and generation Z audience despite the show’s age. It has a template that is habitual and continual, but it has the spark of authenticity she desires. This authenticity is captured through the lens of tradition that is not just intellectual. It’s cherished due to its communal presence and ubiquitous nature. Although its content is about the insubstantial and the transience of mystery, the substance of its content and the constant illumination of the show’s themes makes it both fascinating and enlightening.

Most importantly, my cousin says Twilight Zone “makes you think about social interactions and the way society works.” My cousin is someone whose interests lie “beyond that which is known to man and studies the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition.” It makes sense that she would desire to contemplate the “pit of man’s fears, and the summit of his knowledge” through her viewing experience. For her, the fictional stories ring so true because “the dimension of imagination”, like human nature, is “as vast as space and as timeless as infinity.”

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