Each episode of Jordan Peele’s “Twilight Zone” deals with one of the heroic types of our times, and they all turn out tragically. It starts with the Woke Comic, moves on to the White Savior, the strong black mother, the tough female cop, the tech wunderkind who hopes to revolutionize elections, the heroic astronaut, and more, since the season isn’t over yet. They’re each facing a crisis based on the success of their hopes.
What all these stories have in common is they modify parts of our liberal mythology—the kinds of narratives we’re used to seeing—to show something always going wrong, to reveal the inherent contradictions of our liberal politics, to shake the consensus or peace by questioning whether we are as just and as good as we usually like to believe. To what purpose? That’s harder to say.
The Woke Comic is an angry young American who wants to take revenge on a society that is too stupid to do things his way. He doesn’t consider that a perfect society would put him out of business. He’s obsessed with railing against the Second Amendment. But people don’t think he’s funny. So he makes a deal with the devil in the guise of success and discovers the power to take his anger out on people, while exploiting his experience for material. His new brand of woke comedy is successful, but it makes him crazy.
The White Savior is a journalist on a plane who learns a crash is imminent. This seems to be an image of the liberal media’s reaction to Trump’s election and any number of other such problems. Indeed, part of the crisis deals with Russians who might be putting the whole plane in danger. So far as I can tell, the story blames the media for making problems they don’t even understand worse, only to become victims themselves. Why? The journalist is a guy who’s incredibly angry because he thinks he should have more authority than he does, he knows the secret future and everyone should listen to him. Instead, his imprudence proves costly.
With the strong black mother, we get to the stories that scare us, the stories that bring us shame, cause riots, and become nationally divisive. The protagonist wants to save her idealistic son whose future was stolen by white policemen. She ran from her family, made it alone, and now has raised a beautiful young man to go to college. But there’s an evil white cop complicating her every step! Will she manage to return to her roots in the civil rights struggle? This Black Lives Matter episode is probably the hardest to take, since it describes America as endemically racist.
This brings us to the Christmas episode, which seems intended to aggravate Christians by looking at them from an outsider’s perspective. In a small Alaskan town, a sheriff has a habit of pardoning a criminal on Christmas to honor Christ. Everybody plays Christmas carols, but there are non-Christians in town, such as the Inuits. In typical horror fashion, people start turning on each other when a Chinese stranger starts revealing dangerous secrets, lying to people, and terrifying them. From the perspective of the natives Americans conquered, there may well be other conquerors later and it might not make a difference. America is just something some people believe in—for a while.
By now it should be obvious that the new “Twilight Zone” is more “Black Mirror” than anything else. But it’s less about tech nightmares than about political, social, and cultural nightmares. So after episodes on journalism, civil rights, and religion, electoral politics! A young tech guy gets involved in politics, given that elections now are about scientific control of political communications. He seems to be an image of the guy who ran Hillary Clinton’s disastrous campaign.
But after the inevitable collapse, the man gets back on the horse he’s beating to death. Young and ambitious, he’s realized the corruption of media and political institutions means that self-government has been lobotomized. Americans neither know nor care about how things are done. They just want someone they love in office. So he decides to make a popular YouTuber boy president. Children are the future, after all, offering us a dream where we always get more good things, and fewer bad things. Out of the mouths of babes, as the Bible says.
Here, the show begins to demonstrate its limits. The future is not social media politics, or any television celebrity, not even in this democratic era of TV where we can all try to be the next temporary celebrity. This is a show about our situation as it is now, not as it will be. The kid, of course, is President Trump, a creature of whim who eats fast food, changes moods all the time, and has no policy expertise. We return to the criticism of the media, who created a monster they couldn’t control.
Beyond this, you get aliens, space travel, and of course nuclear war. At that point the show obviously presents itself as a reevaluation of the last two generations of American history through pop culture. It offers very good episodes, compelling storytelling, great polish, and what the audience really wants: Fear of the historical dead end at which we have arrived.
The problem so far is the show doesn’t do much to demonstrate how we ended up this way, only that the liberal hopes of technological, political, and social progress are vain. Fine, but what next?