The majority of The Twilight Zone’s episodes have dealt with hot-button political topics in 2019 – police brutality, Donald Trump’s presidency, toxic masculinity, etc. – and have made taken very clear stances on them. Which is fine. Great, even. All art is political and is a response to its cultural environment, sometimes as a direct allegory or sometimes a subtle allusion. I want television that is about 2019, especially since 2019 is a trainwreck and I could use all of the help I can get making sense of the world.
But The Twilight Zone isn’t cutting it. Even the strongest episodes lie “Replay” and “Not All Men” boil down to annoyingly simple theses: “Police brutality is bad,” in the case of “Replay”; and “toxic masculinity is bad and men should fight against it” in the case of “Not All Men.” I concur. I even concur with the messages of the bad episodes. Yes, “The Wunderkind,” I agree that Donald Trump is a petulant child. Yes, “A Traveler,” I think fake news is a problem. I am down with all of these sentiments, but they aren’t teaching me anything. I haven’t learned anything from any of the series’ episodes so far.
On the most recent episode of The Funkhouser Situation, Chris and Lee discussed who the best late-night hosts currently working are. Chris praised John Oliver for a few reasons, but the chief among them is that Chris always learns something after an episode of Oliver’s show “Last Week Tonight.” Oliver spend twenty minutes of the show’s thirty minute run-time doing a deep-dive into some current issue of national debate (the first season’s episode on standardized testing stands out as one of the show’s highlights for me) and comes down to some conclusion, usually calling his audience to action by having them troll whatever government organization he is covering. As a liberal, he takes generally leftist stances on the topics at hand; as a liberal, I am inclined to agree with what he says. But by presenting his stances using incredibly strong journalism and research, Oliver ensures that his audience – those who side with him and those who don’t – have a more holistic, nuanced understanding of the episode’s subject.
The Twilight Zone is not an informative comedy show, sure. But fiction has just as much, if not more, potential to shed light on the complexities of an issue. The Twilight Zone has flubbed so hard on providing any insight into any of its political issues because it opts to take the most milquetoast stance it can. It feels so safe to simply say X thing is bad without delving into any underlying aspects of X thing.
The show’s eighth episode “Point of Origin” is perhaps the most vanilla of this season. It follows Eve Martin (Gennifer Goodwin), a rich white lady who is detained by the U.S. government alongside her Guatemalan maid Anna Fuentes (Zabryna Guevera). Eve is treated just like many the undocumented immigrants she is kept with: she is separated from her children, given inadequate food and living arrangements, and the only explanation she receives as to why she is being held is that her presence in the U.S. is a “matter of national security.”
In the most Twilight Zone 2019 plot development yet – because every episode of this damn show has to involve some lame space shit – Eve learns that she is suspected of being a (gasp) alien from another dimension. When she was a child, the people of her dimension immigrated to her current dimension in hope of finding a better life. By coming in, Eve and her alien-cohort have spoiled the once great genetic pool of this dimension. Therefore she must be detained.
Does that sound familiar? Does it sound rhetoric you have heard before, say, from advocates for stronger border control? Does it sound like points you have heard made by someone with extreme governmental authority? Huh? Does it? Of course it does, because we’re not the fucking morons the show thinks we are. We get it. The U.S. government is treating undocumented immigrants like trash, and those with racial and financial privilege like Eve are complicit by being willfully unaware of immigrants’ experiences. We have heard it all before in more succinct and intelligent ways.
The heavy-handedness not only makes for poor storytelling, but it makes the episode’s audience unclear. If “Point of Origin” is trying to make border-hawk conservatives change their attitudes toward immigration, they are failing. Eve, her family, and friends are treated with active disdain by the episode. Anna has been with the Eve’s family for over ten years, but Eve cannot name any of Anna’s children, nor does she know that Anna is from Guatemala and not Mexico (likely, Eve doesn’t know the difference between the two). Eve and her friends remark about how illegal immigrants should know the risks of crossing the border; they are, after all, breaking the law, so they argue. If the show wants to connect conservative audiences to Eve, making Eve one of the more repulsive characters the show has dealt with will not accomplish that. Viewers can point to Eve’s repeated self-centeredness and say “She’s nothing like me!” because her behavior is so extreme that no one would be willing to identify themselves with her. Even fucking Green Book, for all of the massive racial issues it had, was more deliberate in targeting its older white audience to teach them a lesson on race.
And maybe she shouldn’t be sympathetic. People who hold such disdain for illegal immigrants based on their race probably aren’t deserving of loving depictions onscreen. However, if The Twilight Zone wants to make a case to conservatives that they are perpetuating the torture of thousands of humans, making the lead of the character a snooty aristocrat may not be the best approach. Showing how a middle-class person, who seemingly does good for their community through school programs or whatever, is capable of great evil through their oppression of immigrants would do much more to swing the tides. As “Point of Origin” stands, though, it seems the writers are more interested in appeasing their liberal viewership by feeding safe and unsubtle truths to them.
Stories like “Point of Origin” should be told. We should have more fictional shows with the massive platform of The Twilight Zone highlighting the incredible harm that the U.S. is causing immigrants who are simply looking for a better life. And perhaps I am being cynical. Maybe a white middle-class mother watched this episode and was genuinely moved by it. I hope that is the case. But this episode and many others in the series seem so thin in their depiction of progressive causes; they highlight the issue but give very little in the way of cause or solution. We don’t walk away from “Point of Origin” knowing how racial and nationalist bias forms, or how we can combat. We simply learn it is bad. I suppose for some people that is a step, but for a show as politically self-serious as The Twilight Zone, we should expect more than an already well-trodden diagnosis of social ills.