[Review] The Twilight Zone

Rod Serling was known as the “angry young man” of Hollywood and he railed against topics like war, racism and censorship. He was full of new ideas, bucked the system when needed and found ways to say what he wanted to say in a world that didn’t want him to speak out about the injustices he saw. He was an ally to the disenfranchised. And his crowning achievement, The Twilight Zone, was alternately subtle and blunt in its focus. But he managed to get around censors and sponsors by utilizing science fiction smartly. He created parables. Metaphors for the times he lived in.

While Jordan Peele is probably not called the “angry young man” of Hollywood today, I couldn’t think of a better person to spearhead a Twilight Zone renaissance, as he, too, seems just as interested in disrupting the status quo as Serling was, years ago. Fresh off the double whammy success of Get Out and Us, Peele seems to understand exactly how Serling worked: pinpoint areas to talk about, hire the best people in front and behind the camera and then unleash their singular vision.

Much like original run of The Twilight Zone, the result so far is a solid, if somewhat mixed bag, of social commentaries that range from subtle to almost melodramatically blunt. Like other critics, I was given access to the first four episodes, so let’s break them down.

The Comedian

The first of two episodes available today (and also available for free on YouTube), The Comedian stars Kumail Nanjiani as a struggling stand-up comic named Samir, whose routine continually bombs. Samir’s comedy reminds me of a less angry Lewis Black, focusing on social issues like gun control. But unlike Lewis Black, his jokes fail to land. After a disastrous night on stage, he meets reclusive superstar J.C. Wheeler (an effectively used Tracy Morgan), who offers Samir notes.

He tells Samir that he needs to make his act more personal but also warns that one he gives the crowd a bit of him, it belongs to them and is gone forever. So the next time Samir performs—and bombs—he switches gears and tells a crude story about his dog. The crowd eats it up, but the pup vanishes from his life and the memories of everyone, except Samir. It then goes from there.

This is a perfect first episode for the reboot because it has something interesting to say about our culture’s obsession with fame, the way humor can be weaponized and what we give up of ourselves to stay relevant and interesting to our audience. Kumail nails the part, providing pathos and he makes his path towards madness perfectly understandable. Tracy Morgan, let’s face it, isn’t a fantastic actor, but he is used slyly here and his creepy, plastered-on grin is deeply unsettling. It feels a little overlong and sags in the middle, but it’s insightful and a perfectly shows the level of satire the show can achieve.

Nightmare at 30,000 Feet

Because 20,000 is so 1960s and 1980s, we now have Adam Scott as an investigative journalist who finds not a gremlin on the wing of the plane, but something more relevant and insidious: information. More specifically, an MP3 player with a podcast that seems to be about the flight he is currently on. A plane that apparently, according to the podcast, vanished without a trace about forty-five minutes from now. At first, he doesn’t believe it. But incidents and statements begin aligning with what he’s currently witnessing and it becomes a race against the clock to save the flight from disaster.

Obviously, the title is an homage to Nightmare at 20,000 Feet and I appreciated the subtle way it both playfully referenced the original but also made a similarly paranoid tale that felt more grounded in reality. With crime and mystery podcasts on the rise and information and disinformation spreading across the internet, the idea that we can listen to a podcast and become our own armchair sleuths resonated with me here. That said, I don’t think the final scene really did much to tie it together and I wish it had omitted that part completely. But it’s a fun and expertly filmed episode that made complete use of the small location. It also completely makes use of the shortened runtime to really ratchet up and sustain the tension.

Replay

So this is an episode that I thought I’d enjoy more than I did. It’s the least subtle of the episodes. But while the Serling’s Twilight Zone could sometimes be blunt to the point of moralizing, the way this one unfolded felt divorced from what made the social commentary of the original so pertinent and powerful.

Replay is about Sanaa Lathan trying to safely get her son to college. She discovers early on that her old rickety camcorder that she used to capture her son’s first steps can actually rewind time. A fact that becomes incredibly pertinent as they both are continually harassed by almost Terminator-esqe cop that seems destined to threaten, assault and potentially kill her son. It’s an incredibly powerful metaphor and is sadly relevant to our current social landscape. No matter what she does, she can’t seem to catch a break. She reasons with the cop. She buys him pie. But he is tenacious in taking her and her son down, time and time again.

Obviously, the concept of recording police brutality and the power and ubiquity of recording devices today is very resonate. As is the tragic truth that POC constantly seem to be targeted by police and police brutality, no matter how small (or non-existent) the crime. Unfortunately, as Replay reaches what should be its emotional and triumphant crescendo, the episode veers into melodrama and gets a bit too heavy-handed in its resolution. The stinger of an ending felt manufactured and lacked the punch of some of the earlier resolutions. That said, the episode is still incredibly powerful and timely and it packs a punch.

A Traveler

The most curious of the four episodes I was privy to, A Traveler follows the ideals Serling established of giving visionaries the reigns. In this case, Ana Lily Amirpour (of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night fame) directs a tale about xenophobia and struggles with being assimilated into society, with a dash of good old-fashioned Cold War tensions, set in a police station in Alaska.

It’s Christmas Eve and it’s tradition for the police chief (Greg Kinnear) to pardon an inmate. On this particular night, Steven Yeun’s A Traveler mysteriously appears in the jail and wants nothing more than to be pardoned. Meanwhile, Marika Sila plays an Inuit police officer, who’s trying to fit in in a culture that still calls her people Eskimos. And as the smarmy A Traveler starts to cause a ruckus at a Christian celebration at the station, we see a microcosm of society start to crumble.

To be honest, on first viewing, this was my least favorite of the episodes because it felt a bit unfocused. But it’s one that I keep thinking about and it ultimately might be the most interesting, if not best, thanks to the superb direction of Ana and the fantastic performances of Yeun, Kinnear and Sila.

In Conclusion

I really enjoyed these four episodes, for the most part. My biggest disappointment is that, so far, it seems so focused on emulating the past, rather than forging a new path. Except that it has an obsession with dropping F-bombs. It’s surprising the first time it happens and then it continues to jump out at me, maybe because I still don’t expect it in The Twilight Zone. This reboot also faces stiff competition with Black Mirror, which has mastered the art of the narrative stinger and these new episodes feel like they’re trailing it.

But Jordan Peele is absolutely fantastic as the narrator. The first time he walked into view, I had chills. And he has mastered the subtle facial expressions—the arched brow, the slight, sly smile—that sells the entire conceit. I’m really excited to see where this show will go and I hope the show continues to give free reign to auteurs like Lily and Replay’s Gerard McMurray.

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