Dark-and-Twisty TV Sci-Fi (Then and Now)

Can you see me now?
I discovered TV in the early 1960s: wholesome, twin-beds-in-the-master-bedroom comedies like I Love Lucy and The Dick Van Dyke Show, children’s stories every Sunday night on The Wonderful World of Disney, and then the “really big shew”, The Ed Sullivan Show, where I met the Beatles, Topo Gigio, Stiller and Meara, SeƱor Wences, and that guy who ran around balancing spinning plates on tall poles, who has served as an ongoing metaphor for my entire life.

Which were all well and fine, but I as my age approached double digits, I began to seek weightier subjects that engaged my brain more deeply.

The dramas that grabbed me were the ones that showed me strange new ways of looking at our world, challenged my assumptions, and made me think. All of them were sci-fi and suspense-with-a-twist, and the suspense was enhanced by the fuzzy, disappearing reception on our TV antenna.

These old shows ignited a voracious hunger in me for dark-and-deep-and-twisty stories, and it has been exceedingly difficult since then, at times, to keep that part of my brain sufficiently nourished. Thankfully, a smorgasbord of original shows funded by premium networks has satisfied my cravings in recent months. Here are some of my favorites ... a bit about then, more about now, and a theory about why we should keep watching.


Most days I can’t remember why I walked upstairs, but I can still sing every single word of the theme songs to The Beverly Hillbillies, Gilligan’s Island, and The Addams Family.

I didn’t even mention It’s About Time,
because *dumbest show ever*

The stories that stuck with me were weird, the weirder the better. Literary vignettes and moral parables set amidst a staggeringly vast, multidimensional universe of time and space — that somehow still resonated with the very core of what it meant to be human. There were anthology series like The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, and Alfred Hitchcock Presents, plus the first Star Trek. They came on after my bedtime, so it was a real treat when I got to sneak a peek at these “sophisticated, adult” stories.

Before there was Stephen King, there was Rod Serling

I think these shows tried to help people escape from their new fear of global nuclear annihilation, and generally think outside the box during the political and military turmoil of the mid-sixties. But I was fairly sheltered from the turmoil, I was thirsty for knowledge about life. These are the shows that helped me grow up. They made an indelible impression, and my abiding affection for them has never diminished.

My younger friends often share which Friends episode their life reminds them of. I’ve always drawn parallels with Rod Serling stories. (Hey, it was a different time. And I think I mentioned my tastes are weird.)

Like the time a loved one watched another loved one slowly wither away with a noncommunicable terminal illness, then just as she began to move on emotionally was diagnosed with the same illness (mistakenly, as it turned out). All I could think of for weeks was the (Rod Serling’s) Night Gallery episode where an earwig ate its way through a man’s brain, causing interminable excruciating pain, and after it miraculously emerged without killing the man, the doctor said it was a female who had laid eggs — still one of the scariest fucking things I’ve ever seen.

Life is hard. Rod helped me prepare, but he kept my conscious brain revolted with icky little bugs or fascinated with alien planets, while my subconscious put on its big girl panties and set about developing the emotional skills to cope with the unexpected.

Looking at real women brings to mind Eye of the Beholder, the classic Twilight Zone episode about failed plastic surgery to make a horrifically “ugly” woman look “normal” — with its big reveal that “ugly” was our idea of gorgeous and “normal” had pig snouts. As a gangly pre-teen with low self-esteem, I loved it.

But in All the Time in the World, the future Saucy Wench in me experienced one of my worst nightmares. Can you imagine being the only person left alive alive, consoling yourself by anticipating an infinity of time alone with all those books you’ve been hoping to read, and then breaking your only pair of glasses?! It’s not the bowels-turning-to-water, impending-death-by-raptor terror of Jurassic Park. It’s the my-life-has-lost-every-shred-of-joy-left-to-derive-from-it existential terror, which is much more insidious. *shiver*

And now...

Okay, we’ve established that my childhood tastes were dark and twisted. So what new TV shows have appealed to these cravings lately?

Twin Peaks
(Showtime) Ahhhhh, it’s so good to visit old friends again. Still groundbreakingly bizarre after all these years, yet endearingly retro and nostalgic. In the light of what has come since, it’s merely quirky, not batsh*t nuts.

This was my third time watching the original series, and I enjoyed it tremendously and drug it out shamelessly so I could just wallow in it, but at the same time I was anxious to watch the third season, released in 2017, before major storylines got spoiled.

I admit that I waited to commit until the whole season had aired and I read good reactions from online book friends. Because I love weird and complexly convoluted tales, but they can easily lose their way, and I didn’t want to head down a dead-end path. (No, I’m not talking about Lost, or not more than a little bit. I’m talking more about season 2 of Twin Peaks. It’s always easier to create mysteries than to solve them, or time their conclusions to the right number of episodes.)

I confess that I’m still watching and can’t yet give my verdict on season 3. Because season 2 was interminable, and then there was Fire Walk With Me, and my deadline wouldn’t budge. But the whole Twin Peaks experience is bringing back many memories (where did 25 years go?!) that I’m enjoying much more than I thought I would, and I can’t be rushed. Or interrupted. So if you live nearby, please call before you visit. :-)

(Netflix) This starts out like a missing-persons mystery and morphs into a time-travel story. It’s sublimely atmospheric. And though it’s German, it reminds me of brooding, dark low-light Scandinavian movies where everyone is morose. Set in a small town beset by mysterious disappearances, it starts slowly, and for a while it’s hard to keep all the characters straight, but if you’re still waffling by the end of the third episode’s haunting musical/photo montage where it all finally clicked for me, maybe it isn’t the show for you.

That scene forged a deep emotional connection between my heart and the characters. A stunning emotional moment paired with a singular, mesmerizing piece of music, ensures that I will never be able to separate my feelings for the song from my feelings for the scene or characters. (Which is why I burst into tears every time I hear the song from the end of Six Feet Under. Best. Drama Series. Ending. Ever.) I played the Dark song, Familiar, nonstop for a week just to keep me in that mystical mindset. You can hear it here or, ONLY if you’ve already watched the show, here.

I absolutely LOVED this show. I watched it while sitting in a candlelit basement by a fire, which heightened the ambiance 1000%. Absolutely perfect!

The ending didn’t tie things up like a great mini-series. Instead, it set the stage for season 2. Artistically, perhaps that wasn’t the best choice. But it means I get to watch season 2, so I’m okay with it.

(Starz) About 30 years ago, our reality created a duplicate, alternative version. Ever since, our fates and those of our dopplegangers in the alt-verse have diverged alarmingly. But this is classified information known only to top-level members of secret government agencies.

One day, mild-mannered, low-level bureaucrat Howard Silk goes to his dead-end, monotonous, 30-year government job and discovers that not only does the alt-verse exist, but his clone has come to visit — and is a total badass!!

And both are portrayed by J.K. Simmons, who is amazing! He makes you feel it, he makes you live it, and even though it is a top-notch production in every way, he makes you watch it! You don’t have to be told which incarnation he is. You just look at his eyes.

I’m watching this show on Starz as it airs, which means agonizingly long waiting periods between episodes. But the story is riveting. It reminds me a bit of Fringe, with the characters switching between parallel universes, which for me is a very good thing. Keeping my fingers crossed that this show lives up to its lofty potential.

Also, I’m going to look up Simmons’s old work! He’s a phenomenal character actor. Where has he been all my life? (Fun factoid: He interned at a summer theater in the little Montana town where my husband grew up! He told some funny stories about that and playing a yellow M&M candy recently on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.)

Altered Carbon
(Netflix) Imagine if your consciousness was stored in a little disc-type doohickey that fit into the top of your spine, like a vertebra. So when your body dies, you pop out the doohickey and put it into a new body.

In Altered Carbon, adapted from Richard Morgan’s 2002 novel, your consciousness is your “cortical stack” and your body is a “sleeve”. As long as you don’t get your head blown up, and have enough money, you can live forever in a succession of new sleeves. Or your stack might get put into storage, purchased by a moneyed interest, and you suddenly find yourself in a sleeve you didn’t order on a mission you don’t condone.

Joel Kinnaman plays a terrorist who dies violently in the first scene, then is reincarnated 250 years later. A wealthy man thinks Kinnaman’s character might have the skills to track down and capture a murderer. As a viewer, the fact that someone could buy another person’s consciousness, skill set, and very existence like that, in a literal sense, took a while to fully internalize.

The most terrifying thing so far, to me, is the horrific inequality of wealth. It’s not a stretch to think that only the very wealthy can avail themselves of technological advancements, and as those advancements become more spectacular, the disparity increases. Innocent crime victims who aren’t wealthy and must rely on the social safety net — for example, to replace their murdered body — get what no one else wants to pay for, even if it means your murdered young daughter wakes up in the body of an elderly woman.

Not sure where this one is going yet, but it’s good so far. The special effects are very Blade Runner. Two episodes in, and I can report lots of casual nakedness, male and female, so though it cashes in wholeheartedly on the sexploitation trend, it’s an equal gender sexploitation. The idea of downloading consciousness into new bodies certainly isn’t new, but the corporate and incarnation-for-purchase spins are frightening.

These next two shows explore our relationship with technology and harken back to great anthology series, and I’m hoping the trend continues.

Electric Dreams
(Amazon) Several blockbuster sci-fi movies plus Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle have been based on the prolific and prescient novels of Philip K Dick. Electric Dreams’s 10 episodes are based (somewhat loosely or barely at all) on his short stories, which have been criminally overlooked. Some episodes are better than others, but I enjoyed every one.

The first, Real Life, stars Sookie Stackhouse herself along with Terrence Howard, and the hook set deeply enough in me that I devoured the entire series in a week. Safe and Sound was particularly disturbing, because about 2/3 way through I thought I’d figured out the ending and would be bored, and then a mere 15 minutes later I was speechless with horror. Powerful, powerful story. Especially in the Trump era.

Executive producers include Outlander’s Ronald D. Moore and Maril Davis, plus Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston, who also stars in one episode. I hope there are many more stories to mine for future seasons.

Um, deja vu in this episode. I feel like
I’ve just checked in to ... The Twilight Zone.

Black Mirror
(Netflix) Black Mirror is aptly named. I think it’s intended to serve as the bleak (or, ahem, black) mirror into mankind’s evolving relationship with technology. In comparison, Electric Dreams is more hopeful, and for me more palatable.

Black Mirror is tough to watch. Tough isn’t necessarily bad. For example, tough love. But it’s disturbing. It challenges preconceptions. It makes me think too hard about things I don’t want to. It makes me think about what I should do if I don’t like what I'm seeing. And I think that’s the whole point.

I’m slowly working my way through the stories. I hated the first episode. The second was intriguing. Last year, the San Junipero episode won Emmy awards, and I read that the USS Callister episode (which this Star Trek fan finds interesting) might be a contender this year, so I’m saving the remaining episodes for just the right moments. I love knowing I’ve squirreled away some particularly juicy nuggets for future treats.

The child is (mo)father of the (wo)man

So why am I, and so many people, drawn to these shows? Other than general weirdness? Well, I have a theory.

Rod Serling voice on...
Consider, if you will. Some stories remind us to inhale deeply and savor the roses, and others remind us to think deeply and question everything. These are the latter. Because life is an unpredictable adventure. Fraught with dangers. And we never know what’s lurking around that next bend. Ready to lure us away to ... The Twilight Zone.
...Rod Serling voice off

Or ... as Stephen King once quoted William Wordsworth in ’Salem’s Lot, the child is father of the man. Which, as paraphrased by my Romantic Poetry professor in college, means listen to your imagination or lose it else the vampires capture your soul.

Yes, in college I learned that there’s medieval demonic imagery in English Romantic poetry! So under what you might have thought were merely lovely ditties about flowers blooming and clouds billowing — are demons trying to steal people’s souls. And those who listen to that little voice in their head that tells them something’s not right — they’re the ones who live. (Did the little boys in ’Salem’s Lot whose parents wouldn’t let them play with vampire toys live? No, they did not. But the boys who were allowed, did.)

Child who wasn’t allowed to play with vampire toys
beckoning children who were

So my theory is that dark-and-twisty sci-fi might be intended as entertainment and distraction, but there’s also a deeper purpose. It can keep us sharp. It can keep us mindful. It reminds us to listen to our imagination, to keep the inner child alive. And it also ensures that we’re not completely unprepared if we wake up some morning to find that our entire neighborhood has been relocated to a faraway planet as A Feasibility Study to determine whether the human race would make good slaves. (Nope, not The Twilight Zone, that was The Outer Limits!)


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