You’re traveling through another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind. A journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination. That’s the signpost up ahead—your next stop, The Twilight Zone, rebooted by Jordan Peele.
Riding a wave of acclaim left over from his masterful Get Out, and furthered by his recent Us, Peele brings Rod Serling‘s brilliant parable-infused sci-fi series into the 21st century. And what a perfect time it is for this show. Despite what some may have you believe, Serling’s Twilight Zone was always political, and Peele and company aren’t afraid to lean heavily into that. The end result is something exciting and vibrant, loaded with a cavalcade of stellar actors in colorful, memorable roles. It doesn’t always work, but when it does, The Twilight Zone is exquisite.
Jordan Peele was reluctant to enter The Twilight Zone. The acclaimed writer-director-producer may have an Oscar under his belt, but the prospect of following in Rod Serling’s footsteps was daunting. What finally made up his mind, Peele told a crowd at Paleyfest, was how appropriate a new Twilight Zone would be at this particular time. “One of the things that we kept coming back to was the timing felt right,” said the filmmaker, “because it’s one of the sentences you hear often like once a week for the past couple years: ‘It feels like we’re living in the fucking Twilight Zone. That was the signal.”
Working with fellow executive producers Simon Kinberg, Win Rosenfeld, Audrey Chon, Glen Morgan, Carol Serling and Rick Berg, Peele brings viewers a Twilight Zone that feels very much in tune with Serling’s original vision. The original master’s presence is always felt, and indeed, the new series gives Serling is due by still listing him as creator. The 2019 Twilight Zone often dabbles in topics that are painfully relevant to today, but the real tragedy is, they were just as prevalent in Serling’s time, too. Our progress has been minimal. “I happen to think that the singular evil of our time is prejudice,” Serling once said. “In almost everything I’ve written there is a thread of this: a man’s seemingly palpable need to dislike someone other than himself.”
That’s not to say the new Zone is a non-stop trip through lesson-teaching. Peele comes from a comedy background, and Serling himself loved winking, nodding humor. The Twilight Zone that awaits new viewers still has plenty of room for fun – but it always comes with a price. Of the four episodes made available for critics, three have humor running through them, while one is incredibly tense. Yet curiously enough, the humorous episodes are the ones that tend to have a less-than-happy ending.
Speaking of endings, the new Twilight Zone has a problem with them. The original show was often famous for its endings, which came with big, shocking reveals that knocked viewers for a loop and left them reflecting back on what they’d just watched. This incarnation of the series never quite gets there. Which can often be frustrating, because everything that came before it works so well.
Don’t be disheartened, though: the new Twilight Zone is a must-see. Directed with flair, and finding clever ways to blend social topics with sci-fi scenarios, Peele’s new take sincerely feels like the series we need right now. A series that perfectly holds a mirror up to the current strange nightmare we as a society find ourselves in, and asks us to take a deep, hard look. Nestled among all of this are an overwhelming number of Easter Eggs that call back to iconic series. These help make the new Zone feel warm and welcoming – like returning home to a familiar place. And it’s hard not to get goosebumps the first time the camera pans over to reveal Peele, decked out in a suit and tie, offering a flowery but ominous intro to the story we’re about to see, just as Rod Serling did so many years ago.
In “The Comedian”, Kumail Nanjiani is a struggling stand-up who can’t catch a break. Night after night, he strolls out on stage, and tells the same tired, unfunny jokes about gun control and other hot-button topics. Just when his career seems to be at rock bottom, Nanjiani is paid a visit by a legendary comic, played by Tracy Morgan. Morgan’s creepily cheerful character offers Nanjiani some advice – advice Nanjiani that follows the next time he’s on stage. The results are staggering: the crowd eats it up, much to Nanjiani’s shock and pleasant surprise. But when he steps off stage, he finds his life considerably changed in strange ways. Every time he does a set, things change further, in shocking and more disturbing ways. While Nanjiani comes from a comedy background, and has played stand-ups in the past, has never quite played a role like this before. It takes him to dark places, and reveals a range that few filmmakers have exploited so far. Morgan is a particular highlight here, playing his devilish character with a constant, unsettling smirk.
“Nightmare at 30,000 Feet” takes its name from a classic Zone episode – “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”, in which William Shatner spots a gremlin on the wing of his plane. But this is no remake. Here, Adam Scott is a journalist who boards a long commercial flight, and discovers an mp3 player at his seat. The player has a podcast pre-loaded, and curious, Scott begins to listen. The host (voiced by Hardcore History podcast host Dan Carlin, in a brilliant piece of stunt casting) proceeds to set up a true story of a plane that vanished off the face of the earth. If you guessed that the plane in question is the same one Scott is on, you know your Twilight Zone. Of the four episodes I screened, “Nightmare” was the most entertaining, with Scott turning in an amusing performance as a man slowly coming unhinged. The only qualm is the conclusion, which doesn’t make a lick of sense – even for an episode set in the universe of The Twilight Zone.
If there’s a rotten apple in the bunch, it’s “The Traveler”, a woefully muddled episode that never settles on what it wants to be. Set on Christmas Eve, the story finds the employees of a small local police station in the middle of a holiday party when an uninvited guest arrives. That guest is a man literally named A. Traveler, played by a sharply dressed Steven Yeun. Just how A. Traveler seemingly materialized in the police station, and what he’s doing there, is a mystery. But it’s ultimately a mystery with an unsatisfying solution. The tone of “The Traveler” is wonky, and the performances are far too broad – particularly Greg Kinnear, playing the local sheriff. Yuen’s work is solid, but it belongs in a better episode. There are traces here of classic Twilight Zone episodes like “Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?” and “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street”, but “The Traveler” never comes anywhere close to matching them. If you’re not a completist, I’d advise you to skip this episode entirely. Unless you want to see Steven Yuen in a slick suit, which I’ll admit is a fairly good incentive.
The best of the first four episodes is “Rewind”, a perfect encapsulation of what this modern take on the show can do. Sanaa Lathan, giving an aching, earnest and often hypnotic performance, plays a woman who finds a way to turn back a certain amount of time – something she keeps doing, over and over again, in order to save her son (Damson Idris) from running afoul of a racist cop (Glenn Fleshler). Faced with a kind of Groundhog Day scenario of having to re-do things over and over again, Lathan’s character is constantly trying to find new ways to protect her boy – but nothing seems to work. Even when we think Lathan’s character has finally achieved her goal and found a way to right a wrong, the wrong rears its ugly head again. The specter of racism is impossible to outrun, outthink, or even reason with. It’s a big, dumb, lumbering animal constantly barreling towards the disenfranchised. “Rewind” is the embodiment of Serling’s story idea about “a man’s seemingly palpable need to dislike someone other than himself.”
The Twilight Zone premieres Monday, April 1 on CBS All Access with two episodes. Following the premiere, additional episodes will be released weekly on Thursdays beginning April 11.
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