How ‘The Twilight Zone’ Changed TV Forever

The show explored a fifth dimension of uncharted TV territory.

From the doo-doo-doo-doo of its theme music to the sonorous lull of its fifth-dimension opening, “The Twilight Zone,” which premiered in 1959 and has spawned numerous reboots and spin-offs across the media landscape, is a television icon. With a new evolution of “Twilight Zone” now streaming exclusively on CBS All Access, discussions of how the TV show predicted our paranoid present and shaped the state of modern television are highly relevant.

We teamed up with CBS All Access to pull back the curtain and take a look at the groundbreaking original series. Derek Kompare, an associate professor of film and media arts at Southern Methodist University, spoke with us on how “The Twilight Zone” changed TV, and where it stood alone.

“The show was really well received, due in large part to [creator Rod] Serling and his reputation, and succeeded as reruns,” Kompare says. “I think its stories really persisted in the cultural memory of people watching TV.” 

  • The Twilight Zone title sequence (1964)

The spirit of the show — holding a magnifying glass up to society and presenting a warped version of it with just enough changed to highlight the similarities — lives on in many of today’s popular shows. Current storylines reflect topical social issues such as global warming, gender equality and the dangers of social media. Kompare mentions that “The Twilight Zone” also served as an inspiration for future scriptwriters and showrunners to craft tight, self-contained episodes that could endure through the years. “You get generations of viewers watching and rewatching the series,” he says.

“The Twilight Zone” was also on the tail end of an era of anthology-style shows, shows that didn’t necessarily use consistent characters, plots and settings throughout a season. Due to production costs and logistics, the television industry shifted to focus more on sitcoms and other stories with recurring elements in the decades after. However, the format has seen a recent resurgence, along with the reboot of “The Twilight Zone.” For example, anthology-style shows with uncanny social commentary, like “Black Mirror,” have been popular in recent years, and other shows like “American Horror Story” have found popularity with a hybrid anthology-drama format, focusing on one throughline per season, if not per episode. “We’re in an environment now that’s a lot more conducive to anthologies,” Kompare says.

The show also heralded a more beautifully crafted time in television, a predecessor to today’s lushly produced hour-long dramas. “It was an interesting time because stylistically, television was moving from New York to Hollywood, live to filmed, and you get the writing and acting talent coming, by and large, from New York to Hollywood,” Kompare says. “You would get a lot of people who had worked on stage, and writers who had worked in film.”

  • "Nothing in the Dark" S3 E16 (1962)

Almost every episode of the original “The Twilight Zone” had music scored specifically for it as well, heightening the production value. Though the quality of television continues to creep up year over year, “The Twilight Zone” was positioned at the beginning of a turning point for TV.

However, a few of  “The Twilight Zone’s” qualities are unique to the ’60s show: It turned a paranoid mirror on society, extracting the creepy and surreal with scalpel-like precision and forcing viewers to examine their own biases and choices.

Kompare says of the show’s critical success and its ability to make bold comments even while network standards were arguably tighter than they are now. “It was an era where if you hit the right combo of things going for you, you’re able to take some chances on things, to say some things,” he says, adding, “They were clearly taking this as a laboratory to take some chances and do some things in conveying these stories. 

  • “What’s in the Box” S5 E24 (1964)

It was a secret sauce of storytelling, innovative techniques and production values that has proven hard to replicate in the half-century-plus since then.

Indeed, Kompare argues, “The Twilight Zone” could almost parody itself in one of its episodes: a show so good and witty that it’s a zebra in a field of horses, set apart and praised for its merits, but ultimately somewhat isolated in its brilliance and differences.


From CBS All Access:

Witness if you will, the re-imagining of the most iconic series of all time. Join Academy Award® winner Jordan Peele as he hosts a journey through a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination. 

Next stop ahead, The Twilight Zone, now streaming exclusively on CBS All Access.