Later this month, Jordan Peele's re-booted The Twilight Zone returns to CBS All-Access for a second season. It's a show that's been remade, re-booted, parodied, and borrowed from since its inception in 1959. More than most viewers probably realize, the concepts and twists of the original series have recurred again and again in popular fiction, mostly because they trigger some very elemental fears and fascinations in the American psyche. Which is why it's not at all surprising that during the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent shutdown of business and social life, a Twilight Zone episode or two would be called to mind.
One episode in particular that I have not been able to shake for weeks is "Time Enough at Last," the eighth episode of the show's first season. Written by series creator Rod Serling and directed by horror-film director John Brahm, the half-hour episode focuses on a bookish, timid man named Henry Bemis, played by the great Burgess Meredith, whose best-known roles would come later, in the 1960s Batman series (where he played the Penguin) and Rocky (where he played pugnacious trainer Mickey). Henry, an awkward sort with thick, coke-bottle glasses, works at a bank in a rather thankless role as a teller, where he deals with annoyed customers and a bullying boss, before returning home to be henpecked by his wife when all he wants to do is read David Copperfield in peace and solitude.
Then, in its own inimitable Twilight Zone way, the story takes a turn as, while Henry is taking his lunch break with a book in the isolation and quiet of the bank vault, there is a nuclear explosion outside. Shielded from the blast by the vault, Henry emerges to find the outside world obliterated. Everything is rubble, not a soul to be found. As far as he knows, Henry is the last man left on Earth, which initially causes him to despair and momentarily consider ending it all… until he sees the sign for the public library, with its contents largely intact.
Is any of this beginning to feel at least a little familiar? The world may not have been hit with thermonuclear destruction, but the worldwide pandemic did force us into our homes, isolated from our family, friends, and lives. Like Henry, the world fell away from us and we were left with nothing but time. Like Henry, we were comforted by the fact that at least we had seemingly limitless resources of entertainment to keep us company. Suddenly, all these movies and books and shows we didn't have time for in our busy lives were there, and we could finally get to them.
Of course, our world is a Twilight Zone too. Anecdotally, how many of us have actually been able to follow through on our high-minded plans to watch our way through the Criterion Collection or get to that shelf of novels we never had time for? Or have we been so rattled by the stress and anxiety of living through COVID that we've retreated to comfort shows that we've watched a billion times before and YouTube channels about elaborate marble-racing (uh, to speak for myself). Rod Serling would have appreciated that kind of irony. The same Rod Serling who took Henry Bemis's darkly realized fantasy of limitless time to read his books and twists it at the last minute, when Henry drops and breaks his glasses, leaving him with a lifetime's worth of books he suddenly can't read. It's a cruel fate that makes for an enduringly memorable installment of The Twilight Zone, a show that would often take "be careful what you wish for" to its most macabre extremes.
The true gag of it all is that classic Twilight Zone episodes — currently streaming on CBS All Access, Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon — are honestly a fantastic quarantine watch. You can binge as many or as few as you like, and even episodes like "Time Enough at Last," which eerily calls to mind current events, are still clearly operating in such a stylized manner that you won't feel overwhelmed by the moment. So dip into original Twilight Zone — just be careful with your glasses.
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Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.