Between Light and Shadow:

Twilight Zone-inspired hope for the New Year

I’m not much of a New Year’s person. I don’t typically go out or make resolutions. Most of my New Years of the past have been spent in the basements of high school friends’ houses playing Apples to Apples. This year I went out to a Hibachi place/Chinese buffet with my parents and their neighborhood friends, which I thought would be incredibly depressing until they plied me with Blue Hawaiians. (In case you’re wondering: it was still moderately depressing, even with the free drinks.)

But one thing I have always enjoyed about New Year’s, religiously, is the SyFy channel’s Twilight Zone marathon. This thing is undeniably magnificent: three full days of aliens, wormholes, and anthropomorphic objects that will 100 percent kill at least one person by the end of the episode. I wait all year for it, for the pageantry, the twist endings. I even look forward to the ritual shunning of “The Bewitchin’ Pool,” the series’ controversial last episode, and the chorus of my family’s, “Boooo, this one suuuuucks, change it!” To be clear, we never change the channel. We watch the entirety of those stupid kids swimming in the magic pool and relish our complaining as we do.

While watching one of my favorite episodes, “To Serve Man,” (spoiler alert: “To Serve Man” is a cookbook), I started wondering what it is about The Twilight Zone that makes it so appropriate for the New Year. Is the timing just a coincidence, just an excuse to hold a marathon? I’m starting to think that it’s a bit more significant than that.

Rod Serling, the creator of the show, tells us that it “lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge.” (Side note: what a line, right? I unironically love everything Serling ever says in this series.) I think this line sums up the tension that I, at least, feel at the beginning of every year. Here we are, standing and reflecting on the height of everything we’ve achieved in the past year, with an entire new one stretched out in front of us. But, this year especially, the summit of this achievement has been occluded by a lot of pain and a lot of fear.

As 2016 drew to a close, I saw GIFs online of John Oliver making 2016 explode. I saw the memes comparing the beginning of 2016 to Britney Spears in her prime, performing “Oops, I Did it Again,” and the end of 2016 to bald, post-breakdown Britney. There was a deep need for New Year’s to feel like the destruction of the past in order to build something better with the future. As someone who cried for two days straight after Trump’s election, I completely understood this mentality. I, too, wanted to see the past year obliterated behind me.

In The Twilight Zone, that obliteration concretely manifested itself. It’s not uncommon for episodes to show the earth rendered to dust and rubble and the spores of a new and better society rising up from it. In one instance, two astronauts from separate planets, each the sole survivor of his/her kind, crash-land on an abandoned world. Their names are Adam and Eve. It’s a narrative that’s been appealing for all of human history: one of rebirth and hope in a time of destruction. I took solace in it this New Year.

The thing is, here on the earth we know, in the America we know, we can’t start rebuilding yet. In 2017 thus far, if one thing has been made clear, it’s that the end of 2016 was not rock bottom. With Trump’s travel ban instituted mere days after he took office, I was hit with the realization that things could get much worse, and very quickly. I think most would agree that, right now, it doesn’t feel like we’re living in a Twilight Zone world. Rather, it feels like the different, and more desolate, sci-fi universe presented in a more current show: Black Mirror. In Black Mirror, there is no right and wrong, no higher power, no justice. It is a dystopia where the seeds of our actions have already been so deeply sown that there’s no escape.

I remember trying to recommend Black Mirror to my dad, the person wholly responsible for my Twilight Zone love. I tried to explain it as the George Orwell counterpart to The Twilight Zone’s Ray Bradbury: a sci-fi show for the current generation—and a genuinely terrifying one. I expected him to be excited at the prospect of this new show, one that would carry on the Twilight Zone legacy, but he was incredibly reluctant to watch even one episode. He said it would go against everything he enjoys about The Twilight Zone. “It’s not the creepiness I like, or even the sci-fi. It’s the weird justice,” he said.

It is this “weird justice” that makes The Twilight Zone so comforting to me and so appropriate for New Year’s, when we all want our slates wiped clean. Sure, in the Rod Serling universe, people are cruel, both intentionally and unintentionally. There is undisputable evil. But the difference is that it’s not a world without integrity. It is not a world where human avarice eclipses our aptitude for kindness or creativity. Each episode functions under the premise that humanity’s default setting is good. We can be brought to do bad things because of our environment or because of extreme circumstance, but the world will always right itself by the end of the 22 minutes, resolved in a way that is just and swift and immediate. A possessed doll leads to the death of a neglectful parent. The faces of the evil are molded into monsters by magic Mardi Gras masks. Sometimes an episode leaves you unsettled but pleasantly so. In the Twilight Zone world, you are not forced to confront any evil you can’t handle. That’s not true of Black Mirror, and it’s not true of the real world. But maybe The Twilight Zone can help us remember something that I believe to be true: People are alike all over. It’s the name of an episode as well as a central theme of the show. On earth, across the galaxy, and throughout time, humans can always find themselves reflected in others of their kind. Trump may want to divide us and turn us against each other, but if people truly are alike all over, we will overcome.

I know that this year isn’t off to a good start. But we can hope that we’re in the middle of the episode. We can be the ones who resist together, who find and enforce that “weird justice,” who make this place we live The Twilight Zone and not Black Mirror. I’m still hoping that this year humanity will show me that we do, in fact, live in a Serling world.