Why The Twilight Zone Revived Its Most Famous Alien Race

Gretchen Mol stars in ‘You Might Also Like’ alongside some familiar-looking interplanetary costars. Photo: Dean Buscher/CBS

It’s hard to live up to the memory of a TV series that crept into childhood dreams. Created by Rod Serling, the original incarnation of The Twilight Zone ran for five seasons between 1959 and 1964 and has lived on in reruns ever since. Its reputation is built both on its many classic episodes and the reverence of generations of viewers for whom its tight, twisty, alien- and supernatural phenomena-filled morality plays offered a first glimpse into a darker, richer storytelling world. That hasn’t stopped others from trying, however, leading to several revivals in the years since Serling signed off for the last time. The latest, executive produced by Jordan Peele and now entering its second season on CBS All Access, has not only acknowledged the difficulty of reckoning with that legacy, it’s made The Twilight Zone’s past a part of its present.

Rather than running from the past, this new incarnation has put it in the spotlight. In a first season already loaded with Easter eggs nodding to the classic series, Peele’s version paid homage to the original’s “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” via the quasi-remake “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet” and concluded with the ultra-meta “Blurryman,” in which a Twilight Zone writer anxious about living up to the show’s standards encounters a spectral version of Serling on the set of the series.

It’s a risky approach, inviting unflattering comparisons should the new series fall short of its inspiration. (Case in point: the solid-but-less-than-classic “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet.”) That hasn’t stopped this new season from bringing back some familiar, if unmoving, faces for the standout “You Might Also Like”: the Kanamits, the towering, telepathic alien visitors with a hidden agenda first seen in the 1962 episode “To Serve Man.” (A memory refresher, and a spoiler warning for those who haven’t seen the episode: “It’s a cookbook!”)

The episode’s creator, writer-director Osgood Perkins — best known for writing and directing the well-received horror films The Blackcoat’s Daughter, I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House, and this year’s Gretel and Hansel — is well aware he has to meet a high standard, thanks in part to his own childhood memories of the series. “I feel like my first strong impression of The Twilight Zone [came from it being] shown in the marathon form on holidays like Thanksgiving,” Perkins says. “When you’re a kid, there’s that sweet spot period of time on Thanksgiving Day when adults are bustling around making dinner and you’re sort of figuring out what to do with yourself while you wait for people to arrive. I always remember The Twilight Zone was there on that occasion, in that kind of cozy sort of limitless time, that weird liminal space of being a kid in that kind of waiting area.”

Along with “Living Doll” (home to the malevolent Talky Tina) and “Time Enough at Last” (home to the bespectacled bookworm played by Burgess Meredith), “To Serve Man” is among the first episodes Perkins remembers watching during one of those marathons. The Kanamits stuck with him, too. “I remember feeling like the aliens were so non-aggressive and non-threatening. I’m a child of late ’70s and ’80s, a Star Wars kid, and I felt there was a really charming innocence, a real approachability to what was happening in that show, even though the ultimate reveal is so dark,” he says. “It felt like the aliens knew what they were doing. It’s how they were — and they were obviously superior to us.”

Rather than the original’s famous twist, it’s the Kanamits’ air of pitiless superiority, and the light it casts on human society, that ties “You Might Also Like” to “To Serve Man.” The episode didn’t begin as a comeback for the Kanamits, whom Perkins later integrated into a story that attempts to erase the boundary between The Twilight Zone and our world. It’s the rare episode of television that works better with commercials, incorporating fake ads for products like iWide Shut Intimacy Goggles (“the password is ‘Fidelio’”) and strategically using sponsor breaks to stand in for the lost time experienced by Janet Warren, a well-to-do stay-at-home protagonist, played by Gretchen Mol, who comes to believe she’s being abducted by aliens. (She is, of course, but there’s more to it.)

The self-aware outing began as an even more radical experiment. “I wanted to do a black-and-white episode in the square format,” Perkins says. “I wanted to use old cameras. I wanted to use bad camera moves and sets where you could see the beams in the walls, to really feel like we were inside of a Twilight Zone episode, so that when the commercial breaks happen it’s easier to see she’s being transported during the commercials.”

As work progressed, however, Perkins felt the need to change direction to serve the story he wanted to tell, a clever satire of consumerism with dark emotional undercurrents. “Jordan and I decided that the more mirthful version, the slightly naughtier version, is to set it in the present, to implicate everybody in the watching of it. Perhaps watching the black-and-white square format episode that I wanted to do would have been a little bit too much like a museum piece, or kind of run the risk of the Black Mirror thing, which I feel [has] this sort of once-removed quality of ‘look how clever we are.’”

Which isn’t to say the episode is not clever. “You Might Also Like” pays winking homage to Stanley Kubrick and Bob Dylan and features some inspired pieces of casting, including Colleen Camp as a “psychic” and an appearance by Donna Dixon, a family friend who starred in Lucky Stiff, a 1988 comedy directed by Perkins’ father, Anthony Perkins. And nestled into the other fake commercials are a series of ads for The Egg, a product in such high demand that it’s being distributed by appointment at regional distribution centers. What is The Egg? No one but Janet seems to be asking that question, trusting instead in the ads’ promise: “The Egg will make everything okay again. And this time it will be okay forever.” To drive home the episode’s themes, Perkins lets the action unfold in a suburbia filled with identical houses in which everyone drives the same model of ’80s vintage wood-paneled station wagons, but he also ties his characters’ drive to acquire possessions to a deeper sense of vacancy and loss, emotions that rest closer to the surface for Janet than some of her neighbors.

“For anybody who’s experienced real grief,” Perkins says, “there’s that sort of bottomless quality to it. There’s no barrier, no border to grief. It feels like an ocean. I wanted her grief, what she’s lacking in her life, to be directly connected to consumerism, the loose context being that human beings are restless. We perceive that we lack things all the time, and that’s how consumerism and capitalism thrive, the constant convincing of the public that we don’t have enough, that we don’t have the right thing, that we’re not good enough without the thing, seemed like a pretty natural bridge to build between someone who was grieving, someone who’s feeling like their life is essentially lacking something, and connect that to the need for the newest, latest thing.”

It’s a theme The Twilight Zone’s Serling incarnation could have explored, but done in a style that acknowledges the new series’ origins while pushing beyond them. Where some of the revival’s episodes have felt hampered by sticking too closely to the original’s storytelling model (and further weakened by attempting to stretch the sort of story that works best as 25 minutes to twice that length), “You Might Also Like” uses it as a foundation on which to build. In the end, the Kanamits are just aliens of convenience, their return less an attempt to continue the story of “To Serve Man” than a way to talk about weightier ideas. But there’s a connection stronger than continuity that unites the episodes, and points to The Twilight Zone’s continued relevance. As before, the Kanamits come to take Earth not by force, but by finding and exploiting a weakness hiding in plain sight. Maybe every era gets the Kanamits it needs to reveal how our worst tendencies might undo us, and how easily the world we know could fall apart.

Why The Twilight Zone Revived Its Most Famous Alien Race