In many ways, 2019 seemed like the ideal time to bring something like The Twilight Zone back, what with Black Mirror having opened the door for high-concept episodic anthology storytelling to work its way into the forefront of popular culture over the last few years. There have been other series, too, certainly. Hulu teamed up with Blumhouse Television for the monthly horror movie series Into the Dark, while AMC is starting the second season of The Terror. Amazon, meanwhile, has Lore, Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams, and, Matthew Weiner’s The Romanoffs (which, strangely, may actually be the weirdest of the recent spate of anthology series to hit television). In other words, with so many series doing what The Twilight Zone did so well so many times over, why not go back to the source?
The answer to that question seems doubly obvious when Jordan Peele gets involved. Coming off the Oscar-winning acclaim of Get Out and the recent box office success of Us, Peele is on the sort of run where his name grants certain projects a much higher profile than they might otherwise have had. That’s certainly the case with the revival of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone, a series that’s been rebooted before and was even the basis of a feature film that included directors Steven Spielberg, John Landis, Joe Dante, and George Miller. With the name recognition of a piece of IP like The Twilight Zone and, certainly, Peele, it’s no surprise that this revival would attract a lot of attention and with it certain high expectations.
It is something of a surprise, then, that this new series, which is now streaming on CBS All Access, seems to have gotten off to bit a rocky start with its first pair of episodes, 'The Comedian' and 'Nightmare at 30,000 Feet.' Both underwhelm in terms of concept and execution, a problem that is made exponentially worse when you consider the latter episode is a remake of a remake. Most of the time it’s as though the series itself doesn’t quite know how best to convey its intentions with each episode, or even what it means to be an episode of this new Twilight Zone. It’s as if all an episode must do to pass muster here is to be slightly off-putting and strange, and to pause long enough at the beginning and end for Peele to step in as the Narrator (the role once filled by Serling) to address the audience directly and deliver a few puns with a flat-affect speaking voice.
‘The Comedian’ offers Kumail Nanjiani a starring role as a struggling stand-up comic named Samir, whose issues-based comedy isn’t connecting with audiences. After a chance run-in with a famed comedian played by Tracy Morgan, Samir begins using his own life as the basis for his material, but with tragic ramifications. Anyone he mentions by name ceases to exist after his set is done.
There’s intrigue in such a concept, and it’s easy to see why something like ‘The Comedian’ would be a good fit for this modern re-imagining of The Twilight Zone. There’s not only tragedy in the ramifications of Samir’s actions, but also great power, and for a brief second, the episode, written by Alex Ruebens (Key and Peele, The Last O.G.), attempts to zero in on the more profound moral implications of what it is that Samir is doing. But the episode also wants to balance that with the question of how much should and artist give up of themself? How personal can an actor or writer or comedian get before they’re giving up all that makes them who they are in the first place?
The entire episode rests on a foundation of dream logic, such as when Samir first starts using his personal life, the audience responds with uproarious laughter, despite his not really telling a joke. In a sense, it’s as if this being part of The Twilight Zone has become a storytelling crutch, something to help it over the many gaps in logic that seem to get in the way of the topical references and other points it’s trying to make. It’s not a terrible hour of television, but, like most TV nowadays, it could have been cut down considerably.
That seems to be one note the Adam Scott-led ‘Nightmare at 30,000 Feet’ took when it was in production. Clocking in at just over 30 minutes, the remake once again capitalizes on the usual fears surrounding air travel, but with a twist. This time, the twist isn’t that there’s “something” on the wing that only William Shatner or John Lithgow seems to be aware of, but that there’s nothing there at all. Instead, Scott’s PTSD-suffering investigative reporter, Justin Sanderson, discovers a podcast titled ‘The Mystery of Northern Goldstar Flight 1015.’ That’s very Twilight Zone-y since that also happens to the be exact same flight Justin in on. The rest of the episode transpires much as you might expect, with Justin growing increasingly unhinged as the podcast details specific events before they happen, convincing him that the plane is doomed and he’s the only one who can stop it.
Because it’s a remake of a remake, it’s understandable that writers Glen Morgan and Marco Ramirez might feel the need to offer up something dramatically different. And, in a sense, they succeed. Unfortunately, they decided to add an unnecessary coda that upends the whole thing with what amounts to a joke regarding the fate of Scott's character that falls as flat as one of Samir’s punchlines.
In all, this new version of The Twilight Zone has a lot going for it. With high production values, an all-star cast, talented directors and producers like Greg Yaitanes, and the presence of Peele, it’s plain to see why expectations would be as high as they are. And although the first two episodes don't quite live up to those expectations, there’s still reason to think that the best this new Zone has to offer is yet to come.
The Twilight Zone returns Thursday, April 11 with ‘Rewind’ on CBS All Access.