HON-H 399: Politics & Culture in The Twilight Zone

Course Description

Amid the stifling conformity of the 1950s, when a certain new-fangled technology called “television” was still in its infancy, former soldier turned screenwriter Rod Serling set out to make the kind of TV that networks at the time wouldn’t touch. Frustrated by his earlier attempts to make shows that challenged the status quo and explored difficult social and political issues, such as the 1955 murder of Emmet Till by a white mob, Serling turned his attention to the supernatural and science fiction as vehicles for exploring the darker regions of humanity: monsters, freaks, doppelgangers, aliens, misfits, bizarre situations, and strange worlds.

What he discovered in the process was that a science fiction anthology series could be a showcase for the kinds of difficult themes that the plastic-fantastic-frozen-dinner Eisenhower-era wasn’t ready for in prime time:

  • Racism, ethnocentrism, and anti-Semitism
  • Loneliness and isolation, depression and suicide
  • critiques of capitalism, totalitarianism, and mass conformity
  • war and nuclear annihilation
  • technology and artificial intelligence
  • body-swapping and doppelgangers
  • nightmares and hallucinations, the liminal space(s) between dreams and reality
  • personifications of death, communication with the dead, mortality/immortality
  • parallel worlds and alternate histories
  • returning to childhood, aging
  • aliens, space exploration, and parallel worlds
  • relationships (love and marriage) and family

Submitted for your approval: an Honors Seminar on The Twilight Zone, one of the most enduring TV shows in history and a gateway to understanding the last 75 years of American culture, politics, and society.

Since its network debut on CBS on October 2, 1959, The Twilight Zone, with its soon-to-be A-list actors, exceptional writing, signature twists, and earworm theme song, has insinuated its way into the very fabric of American life and culture. Even people who have never seen a single episode of TZ instantly recognize the catchy theme music or the shadowy figure of Serling himself narrating the upcoming episode. It has been spoofed and parodied by everything from Family Guy to Bridesmaids, spawned countless imitators and spin-offs, and since its TV debut over sixty years ago, it has never once been off the air. In 2019, CBS rebooted the show with all new episodes and actor-director Jordan Peele stepped into Serling’s role as on-screen host. This is only the most recent reboot of TZ.  

But, like all good interdisciplinary honors seminars, at the end of the day, this course isn’t really about The Twilight Zone at all. It’s about the human condition. While this seminar will explore the history of one of the most iconic TV shows in American history, as well as the life of its creator and head writer Rod Serling, what we are really after is a core set of certain “philosophical” questions: What is the relationship of the individual to society? What are the limits of human knowledge, including scientific knowledge? How do we understand identity, the liminal space between the self and other? What are the limits of community and acting in the interest of the greater good? What is “the good”?

We’re also after another set of questions related to both politics and the history (and future) of television as a medium. What can the legacy of The Twilight Zone teach us about politics in American life? In what ways does TZ’s focus on the supernatural and macabre allow for a more “honest” or robust exploration of challenging political and social issues? If we are currently experiencing TV’s second “golden age,” as many media critics claim, then to what extent does our own era of binge-watching Netflix or Hulu and longform serial dramas on HBO owe a debt of gratitude to Serling and his quirky anthology series?

Learning Outcomes

  1. Analyze, discuss, and write about the cultural and social phenomenon of the original television series The Twilight Zone and its related aesthetic, narrative, and interdisciplinary contexts, including such disciplines as philosophy, cultural studies, politics, art, sociology, political science, psychology, and media studies.
  2. Develop a familiarity with the artistic and critical principles and techniques used in discussing and analyzing all media forms (i.e., film, literature, art, etc.) as they pertain to The Twilight Zone and related media forms.
  3. Evaluate selected episodes and themes, formulate critical opinions of them, and express these opinions verbally and in writing.
  4. Develop a working knowledge of the variety of research sources and methods available to researchers across disciplines and majors.
  5. Use and properly document research findings to support a complex written argument.
  6. Develop further as writers of academic prose.

Course Reflection and Revision Statement (2021)

I have been a rabid fan of Rod Serling’s medium-altering TV show The Twilight Zone for as long as I can remember. Even before I fully understood the intricate plots or twist endings, I was enthralled by the spooky atmospherics and the thin, cigarette smoking man in a black suit who introduced each episode. Growing up in the 1980s, if a television was on after hours, there was most likely a syndicated re-run playing of TZ somewhere on the dial. In any case, one was never too far from the spooky reach of this black and white gem from TV’s first “Golden Age.”

When I signed up to teach an honors seminar for the first time since 2015, I sat down with Erin Doss, Director of the Honors Program at IU Kokomo (and my collaborator on Table Talks), to get her take on what topics and themes would make a good honors seminar. When I pitched her the idea for a semester-long exploration of The Twilight Zone, one that could pull together loose strands from disciplines as diverse as literature, art, film studies, psychology, sociology, folklore, media studies, and even mass communication, she jumped at the idea. At their core, honors seminars are meant to be interdisciplinary affairs; the idea is for students to come away with an idea of how human knowledge is comprised of insights from across the disciplinary spectrum.

The typical undergraduate curriculum is often major heavy—students are recruited into a particular major with claims about the importance of that major and its world-changing properties. This is particularly the case on regional campuses like mine where encouraging students to declare a major early on is viewed as a retention tool. This is all well and good, of course, but I fear sometimes that it places an undue amount of conceptual strain on one specific discipline or major to deliver the kind of intellectually varied experience that a solid liberal arts education is supposed to deliver. While I think of all my courses as, ultimately, inter- or multidisciplinary in some way, honors seminars like this one provide the opportunity to showcase it in a way that few other courses do.

For example, in a course like this one, which is basically centered around a television program, the show itself provides the immediate object of analysis; the various disciplinary trappings—analytical practices, research methods, discipline-specific terminology and focus—these can be brought to bear on the objects of analysis as the semester progresses. So, one week we might be discussing the philosophical question of acting in the greater good in all circumstances (Mill’s utilitarianism), while the next week we might explore the way that folklore functions as a repository of humankind’s fears and anxieties.

Honors seminars allow for this kind of interdisciplinary itinerary because they are not obligated to any one discipline; they are freed from the nervous constraints of coverage or the imperative to provide students with a particular kind of disciplinary knowledge or experience. As such, as you can see in the course syllabus, I designed this seminar to allow students to follow out a number of different itineraries and explore their interests in the course. Students will have access to the entire run of The Twilight Zone (via Blu-ray disc) and Marc Zicree’s helpful compendium of episodes in The Twilight Zone Companion (3rd ed.), which will allow them to develop their own forays deep into The Twilight Zone, as well as the recent collection of critical essays The Twilight Zone and Philosophy, edited by Heather L. Rivera and Alexander E. Hooke.

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