Submitted for our disapproval: another Twilight Zone reboot

Jamie Weinman on why new anthology shows continue to fail

There is no limit to the number of Twilight Zone reboots that studios can attempt to make. Whether or not this latest attempt goes to series, it won’t be the last attempt either. The Twilight Zone is the easiest format to remake because an anthology format doesn’t actually need to be rebooted – there are no continuing characters to re-cast, no premise to re-think. An anthology doesn’t have a premise, it has a concept, a feeling that all the separate stories share. In the case of The Twilight Zone, the concept is that every story takes place in a world that is like our own, but where the everyday, natural terrors we take for granted are supernatural. Now go find some writers to come up with twist endings.

Another reason why The Twilight Zone keeps getting revived is that everyone sort of wants to bring back anthology shows, but nobody really knows how. New anthology concepts rarely make it to series, and it’s hard to see how they could. The problem with a pilot for an anthology show is that since there are no regular characters, the pilot tells you nothing about the potential series except the proposed style and tone. An existing concept like Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits or even Love, American Style (which has been remade several times) can help a show break through the resistance, since the producers can point to a hundred or so examples of the kind of stories they have in mind.

It’s possible that anthology, like variety, is one of those things that sounds like a good idea but can never really come back in its original form. Anthology is a more respected form than variety, and a good episodic anthology show (as opposed to American Horror Story, which advertises itself as a sort of anthology of 13-episode minseries) would fill an important gap, telling stories that can’t be stretched out to a series or tailored to fit the personalities of continuing characters. But it’s been a long time since one caught on.

Why don’t new anthologies work? The main reason is probably the reason most commonly given: audiences like the continuity and comfort that regular characters provide. It’s not just about comfort, actually, but about a certain guarantee of quality. If the show is good, then the characters are good (or some of them) and that means even a bad episode can’t be all that bad. We know that when we watch, even if it is the worst episode the series has ever done, there will be something worthwhile in it. An anthology has no such guarantee. If we don’t like an episode, we may like literally nothing about it. I don’t think it’s entirely coincidental that the most popular anthology is Twilight Zone, where Rod Serling provides that comforting presence, the guy we always like even if the episode is a stinker.

Another thing anthologies have going against them is that in order to crank out a season’s worth of episodes without going way over budget, they require really great producing – not showrunning, but producing, in the physical sense of getting the show up there every week. With no regular characters or locations, an anthology is in the position of creating and populating a new world every week. There are all kinds of ways to do this at a reasonable price, but it’s harder to guarantee that it can always be done at a reasonable price; every episode presents a new set of challenges and a new set of opportunities to blow the budget. If viewers find security in regular characters, then studios find security in having some costs amortized over a season and a series, instead of always starting from scratch. The Twilight Zone was lucky enough to be shooting at a time when desperate movie studios – in this case MGM – were allowing TV shows access to their backlots and old sets and props (some of which looked different in black and white than they did in the colour movies they were built for). A show today wouldn’t have that.

This also means that every week the producers have to find actors with the star quality to carry an episode, who are available for a reasonable price. This isn’t easy. With so many TV shows in production signing good actors to contracts as regulars, it’s hard enough to get anybody good for a guest shot; finding good leads for a single episode may be really difficult, and require a lot of working around schedules and exclusive contracts. Again, The Twilight Zone benefited from an easily available source, not of sets, but of talent: it drew heavily on New York theatre actors who could play leads (on the stage) but weren’t so well known outside New York that they wouldn’t be available for a one-episode stint. William Shatner is an example of that kind of actor: on Broadway, he was already a lead, but on TV, they could get him for a week.

Finally, anthologies need a really effective, efficient promotion system – a promotional blitz at the beginning or at selected times in the season won’t be enough. If every episode is about a different group of people, then every episode needs its own specific promotion to prepare viewers for what’s coming. The original Twilight Zone had this built into the format: Serling ended every episode by telling us what we were going to see next week (and who wrote it, if he didn’t write it himself) and his little teaser would alert us to the subject matter and tone of the next show. Without that or something like it, an anthology is going to have trouble making it, because there’s nothing in the show we just saw, except the general style, to make us certain that we want to watch another one of these.

Since I don’t have an ending for this – not even an ironic twist ending where Bryan Singer finds out he’s actually remaking The Twilight Zone in an alien network – here’s a promo for an anthology remake that didn’t work out as well as the 1985 Twilight Zone: ABC remade Love, American Style as an experiment in daytime comedy, shot on videotape and with less than exceptional star power. Arsenio Hall excepted, of course.

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