The Twilight Zone

It’s baaack. The Twilight Zone, originated and written by Rod Serling 40-plus years ago, is back, again. Not reruns, but original episodes, with a new host, Forest Whitaker (Panic Room, Bird). The Zone, he tells us, is “a wonderful land whose boundaries are only that of the imagination.” It features guest stars and two stories each week. The show has perennially asked viewers to understand that things are not always as they seem. The most recent tales from the Zone suggest it can again become a venue for investigating contemporary cultural and moral dilemmas.

The second episode of the series begins with “Shades of Guilt,” a portrait of a man who “looks in the mirror and sees a decent, upstanding citizen.” In it, Matthew (Vincent Vintresca), is driving home one dark, rainy night and a frantic black man appears at his car window. The man (Hill Harper) is begging for help, but Matthew drives away and leaves him standing there. When Matthew gets home, he tells his wife, “You should have seen the look on his face. I mean, I’m telling you, this guy, he looked, deranged.”

The next morning Matt notices his skin darkening and in the morning paper, he finds a picture of his “deranged” man. The headline: “College Professor Found Beaten to Death: Third Hate Crime This Month.” Matt shows the article to a friend and descends into a pit of regret. “I left the guy there… I could have done something,” he whines. His friend says it’s no big deal: what’s a guy to do, let a strange, black man into his car at night? Matt persists. “Do you know that he was a college professor, and he had three books published?” Matt’s buddy asks, “If you had known that this guy was a college professor, would you have helped him out?” “What kind of question is that? Of course I would have,” Matt says. What kind of question, indeed. If only the professor, John, had thought to whip out his faculty identification. Class trumps race in Matt’s world. As he puts it, “I’m not a racist.”

At the same time that he’s trying so hard to define himself as a “good” man, Matt is becoming a black man (eventually, he’s played by Harper). He goes home, where neither his wife nor his dog recognizes him; she and a neighbor come at him with a gun. The scene conjures up Amadou Diallo as Matt/John reaches in his pocket for identification and his neighbor shoots at him. (New York City police officers fired 41 bullets at Diallo in 1999. He was reaching for his wallet when they came to question him.)

Black Matt/John makes it out of suburbia alive, but runs into trouble trying to get a hotel room, then a cab. Then he gets the bright idea to go to the dead professor’s house to ask forgiveness from his widow, who has one question for him: “If my husband had been a white man, would you have helped him?” Matt has no answer. Troubled and still black, Matt/John goes back to wandering the streets and is beaten by white thugs. A white guy comes along (Vintresca again) and, after hesitating, offers Matt/John a ride. He gets in and the two drive off. Matt/John: “What made you change your mind?” White guy: “All I could think was, what if it had been me?”

A man gets to redeem himself and save a life. Terrific. But the big questions are still out there. The story turns not on one man’s life or death, but on what kind of life it is. The emphasis on John’s profession implies that if he’d been a sanitation worker, Matt wouldn’t have been so eaten up with regret. Has his perspective changed at all or only broadened to include “safe” black people, the ones just like him? On the flipside, if we’re honest with ourselves, it’s pretty frightening to let any stranger in your car. The writers leave Matt with only one option, when more are available. For instance, he’s on his cell phone when John approaches the car — while it may be unreasonable for him to put himself at risk, a call to the police might have saved the professor.

The second vignette, “Dream Lover,” is more challenging. We’re introduced to Andrew Lomax (Adrian Pasar), a graphic novelist facing writer’s block. He dreams of Sondra (Shannon Elizabeth), who seems to be perpetually getting out of the shower, approaching him wearing only in a towel. Sondra, quite obviously, is his muse, even if he can’t take her out on display. “She may not be real, but she’s all mine,” he says.

Turns out, he’s wrong on both counts. Other people can see Sondra, and Andrew grows jealous when the cable guy starts hanging around her. He comes home one evening to find Sondra at his desk. She’s drawing. Andrew thinks it’s kind of cute, but makes it clear that “doing my artwork is not in your job description.” Take that, dream lover. Then, the truth: she’s the graphic novelist who created him. “I guess I made you so real, I even convinced you,” she says. As Andrew begs for his imaginary life, Sondra, in a whiff of eraser dust, dispenses with him.

This segment, ending with a woman at work, is a surprise, as a good Twilight Zone tale ought to be. Here the writers encourage us to coast on our assumptions. Graphic novels, sexual fantasies, possessiveness: guy stuff. This presentation of a woman as author of her life and fantasies is rudimentary feminism. Sondra controls his existence; that’s the big payoff for his assumption of power and reality.

“Dream Lover”‘s interrogations are more challenging than those in “Shades of Guilt,” because while we still avoid meaningful discussions of race, we do see daily examples of racism. It’s no big surprise that a black man can’t get a cab or would be chased out of a suburban enclave. However, examples of women’s agency, particularly sexual agency, are rarely made visible. Yes, there’s lots of sex and sexual fantasy on the tube, mostly from the male perspective, for the masculine gaze. Here the fantasy and sexual authority are all hers.

With these two segments, the series delves into difficult social dilemmas. Perhaps UPN is reaching beyond its Monday night black lineup, in an effort to “diversify,” in various ways. (The choice of Whitaker as host is a good start toward integrating broadcast television.) The key for the show’s success will, as always, lie in the writing. If the vignettes can leave us questioning our assumptions, about race, class, gender, responsibility, or any number of big-question topics, it will be worth visiting The Twilight Zone.