Horror and sci-fi have historically served as popular vehicles for social commentary — and consider for a moment what this has meant specifically for the medium of television. Even though so much television content is, and has always been, insipid, dispassionate, and motivated purely by profit, there have been excellent shows throughout the decades which have offered socially conscious programming while still managing to entertain viewing audiences. Some programs have been especially stimulating because they employed horror or fantasy narrative devices. After all, noble intentions alone don’t make for engaging art, and horror and science fiction are particularly well-suited, thematically, for exploring darker aspects of humanity, if for no better reason than that such entertainment allows viewers to confront real-world anxieties in a safe and controlled way.
A true pioneer in the world of television was Rod Serling — the creator, executive producer, and frequent writer of the scripts for The Twilight Zone, which premiered in 1959. In that same year, Serling gave an interview with Mike Wallace, and openly discussed his struggle to reconcile his own subversive artistic impulses with the demands placed upon him by sponsors and network censors. “If you have the temerity to try to dramatize a theme that involves any particular controversy currently extant,” Serling said, “then you’re in deep trouble.”
And although he continued to court controversy throughout his tenure on The Twilight Zone, Serling enjoyed a much higher degree of creative control over his content. The episode “Eye of the Beholder,” for instance, addressed issues of institutionalized racism, and the stigmatization of ethnic physiognomies perceived as inferior by the dominant class. You will recall that “Beholder” features a woman named Janet whose face is hidden under bandages for most of the episode (actress Maxine Stuart performed the role in bandages, while actress Donna Douglas provided the face at the end). Janet has recently undergone facial reconstructive surgery for the eleventh time so that she may assimilate into mainstream society, and not be forced to live in specially designated, substandard government housing projects for people with peculiar physical attributes. When the woman’s bandages are removed and we finally catch a glimpse of the doctors on staff, it is revealed that she is a pretty blonde woman, and that the doctors (representative of the ruling class) are grotesquely deformed swine people. “Beauty,” Serling tells us in the closing voice over, “is in the eye of the beholder.”
Bear in mind that this episode aired in 1960, before the civil rights movement in the United States was in full swing, and during a time when the aftermath of the holocaust, and the horrors of ethnic cleansing, were all-too-present in the collective consciousness.
In recent years, the best socially conscious horror/sci-fi show that mimics the structure of The Twilight Zone has got to be the British show Black Mirror, which was just picked up by DirecTV and will be airing in the U.S. for the first time (more information here). The show, created by Charlie Brooker, features stories which address mounting anxieties over the pervasive (and potentially corrosive) influence that technology has had upon our lives.
One particularly chilling episode of Black Mirror is entitled “Fifteen Million Merits,” and features a glimpse of a dystopian, post-industrial world where members of the futuristic society earn money by riding stationary bicycles in box-like offices to generate electrical power. They live, breathe and eat surrounded by black screens, always trying to engage with them to produce energy. The episodes protagonist Bing (Daniel Kaluuya) is one of these peddlers. In this bleak future world, “merits” are issued as currency. The peddlers get to essentially idle away their days, mindlessly peddling while seated in front of massive television screens. The lower social classes, who are overweight and ungainly, have to tend to menial, low-level janitorial jobs. It’s a fascinating comment on the tedium of white collar labor in the technological age, and the degree to which people inundate themselves with electronic media.
There’s no disputing that the world we live in has changed drastically since the fifties. But for everything that has changed, humanity still has many issues to grapple with, and hopefully, television can continue to serve as a coping mechanism.
When you get home from your office job, and nestle on the couch to watch an episode of a program like Black Mirror which offers scathing commentary on the nature of office work and humanity’s unhealthy emotional dependency on electronic media…is this ironic, or is it perfectly congruous?
Either way, it’s encouraging to see television with a real backbone, and what’s more, a moral compass guiding the writers. Serling said it best: “I think it’s criminal that we’re not permitted to make dramatic note of social evils as they exist, of controversial themes are they are inherent in our society.” Hopefully, more and more television writers will continue to follow suit, producing content that is engaging, intellectually stimulating, and conveys something earnest about the state of the human condition.
Black Mirror is available on Netflix and 4oD