Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone is widely considered a beloved show from TV’s first golden age. And rightfully so. Serling, famously annoyed at the neutering many of his previous projects had gone through at the hands of network execs, managed to blend the serious subject matter he wanted to discuss with elements of science fiction/fantasy/horror, thus allowing his radical ideas to slip by a bit less noticed by the network brass. It was a genuine work of genius that brought science fiction into the mainstream lives of many Americans who, otherwise, might not have been exposed to the genre in such a sophisticated way. What is often forgotten, however, is how wildly inconsistent the original run of the series could be. For every brilliant, memorable episode, there was at least one episode – if not multiple – that was utterly forgettable. That’s the dice roll you get with anthology shows and The Twilight Zone was no exception. With that in mind, it should come as no surprise to hear that the first two episodes of CBS’ newest reboot of the series are just as inconsistent as the originals were. (There will be spoilers for the first two episodes of The Twilight Zone.)
The original “The Twilight Zone” premiered on Oct. 2, 1959 on CBS. The series took viewers to another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound, but of mind. As the godfather of sci-fi series, the show explored humanity’s hopes, despairs, prides and prejudices in metaphoric ways conventional dramas could not.
In 2019 viewers will enter another dimension with Jordan Peele and Simon Kinberg’s modern re-imagining of the classic. CBS All Access’ THE TWILIGHT ZONE anthology series will bring the original show’s legacy of socially conscious storytelling to modern day audiences, exploring the human condition and holding a lens up to the culture of our times.
The first episode, The Comedian (written by Alex Rubens, directed by Owen Harris), is a pretty classic Faustian tale, with a unique Twilight Zone-style twist – one which works surprisingly well and goes to a number of really dark places. Kumail Nanjiani – himself, a real comedian – plays the role of a struggling comedian particularly well. It’s easy to see how he gets seduced by Tracy Morgan’s Faust-like character into making a deal that gives him the “power” to erase the people he talks about in his act from ever existing. It’s this element that leads to the episode’s true darkness. Sure, it starts off with a few mistakes – he talks about his dog in his act and the dog subsequently disappears – but, eventually, Nanjiani’s Samir weaponizes that power. He starts making jokes about bad people, people who have wronged him in the past, and those people subsequently disappear, saving many lives that might have been lost due to their existence.
Of course, this eventually backfires as Samir’s jealousy causes him to erase his girlfriend’s mentor from existence, leading to her never becoming a lawyer and her resenting him for his success, thus breaking up with him. At this point, I thought that Samir would use his power to erase Tracy Morgan’s character from existence, thus creating a timeline where he never got this power in the first place. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the episode chose a much darker path and I really adore it for that. (Though, I wish that Nanjiani’s final monologue wasn’t overshadowed by some pretty generic sad-sounding piano music. Like, I get the scene is supposed to be bittersweet, I don’t need sad piano music to get me to understand that!) While this episode is technically the first episode of the series, I actually watched Nightmare at 30,000 Feet first because I had been anticipating that episode far more than I’d been anticipating this one. These lowered expectations for The Comedian probably played to its favor as I really dug this episode. I may not think this episode is necessarily a classic Twilight Zone episode, it is still a very good episode. It’s a 55-minute long episode, but it’s paced in such a way that you never feel like you’ve spent the better part of an hour watching it.
The second episode, Nightmare at 30,000 Feet written by Marco Ramirez, directed by Greg Yaitanes), is, however, not quite as good. Being a remake, more or less, of a classic episode, Nightmare at 20,000 Feet, the episode had a lot more to live up to. In the original episode, a man (William Shatner) saw visions of a gremlin terrorizing a plane, leaving the audience unsure as to whether or not Shatner’s character was going insane. This time, Adam Scott plays a journalist named Justin Sanderson who discovers an mp3 player left in the front pocket of his seat. Loaded onto that mp3 player is a podcast – hosted by Rodman Edwards (a fun nod to original Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling) – that details the destruction of the very flight that Justin now finds himself on. Many people derided this concept, finding the idea of a podcast-from-the-future too stupid. But, frankly, I love stories with diegetic narrators who can influence the outcome of the story. That’s not exactly what happens here, but it’s always a fun time when one of the characters is aware of whoever is narrating the story. I do, however, feel that the show missed a trick by not having Jordan Peele play both Rodman Edwards and the regular Twilight Zone narrator. Having two different narrators in the episode is a bit confusing, frankly, as all of Rodman Edwards’ dialogue is delivered as voiceovers – as is much of Jordan Peele’s dialogue – and it would have been much simpler (and far more interesting) for Peele’s Twlight Zone narrator to also be the host of the podcast. I mean, I don’t want to know too much about how the Twilight Zone as a place functions, but I would enjoy seeing how it exerts its presence into stories and having Peele be both the diegetic narrator and the non-diegetic narrator would have been awesome.
That little irk aside, the first twenty-some minutes of the episode are pretty strong. Tension is built up expertly as Adam Scott’s Justin realizes the podcast is really predicting the destruction of his plane. Like anyone in his situation might, he tries to both use his knowledge of future events to prevent the plane’s destruction and/or to warn the other passengers so they can prepare for it. Naturally, nobody believes him – and many actively try to stop him, one Air Force marshall even going so far as to place him under arrest. The one person who believes him is Joe, a fan that Justin met in the airport before the plane took flight. If you saw Joe and immediately pegged him as a suspect, then bingo – you’ve figured out the twist! In trying to stop the plane from crashing, Justin comes up with a plan where Joe, a former pilot, will knock out the plane’s pilots and bring the plane to a safe landing in Canada. Joe, of course, does not do this. While I am totally onboard with the idea of Justin’s paranoia that the plane will be destroyed ultimately leading to the plane’s destruction, the method of that happening feels so mundane. I mean, the episode has been presenting us with a spooky podcast from the future, and you’re telling me that the cause of the plane’s disappearance is just some ex-pilot with an ax to grind who gets the cockpit’s entrance code from Justin (who pulled it out of thin air by remembering the weird coincidence of this plane being flight 1015 taking off on October 15th). Like any good Twilight Zone episode, Justin does get his comeuppance at the end of the episode, but the final ten minutes do feel like a cop-out when compared to the expert suspense-building and weird spooky atmosphere of the first twenty-five. It’s not that it’s a bad episode, it’s just one with a really great first 2/3 and a weaker final 1/3 that leaves you feeling a bit let down. It’s one of those Twilight Zone episodes that feature a great premise and a disappointing ending. It happens.
This reboot of The Twilight Zone definitely feels like a show that’s still finding its feet. There’s a whole lot of potential there but it hasn’t quite been mined just yet. While the quality of any anthology show will vary depending on the episode, there are a few things that seem to be emerging as patterns based on these first two episodes. The dialogue is all sharp and well-written, but the plots aren’t always super well-developed. The atmosphere is great, but I’m still not sold on Peele’s narration; he’s not bad, but he does feel a bit flat right now. It’s as though he’s trying too hard to imitate Rod Serling instead of just bringing his own take to the role of the narrator. There’s obvious room for growth and I’m sure Peele will grow into it (and, thankfully, the show isn’t using his narrator very much), but it does leave me wanting some. The acting, cinematography, and directing are all great, but the editing is a bit weird. For example, currently, when the show transitions from Peele’s opening narration into the title credits, it doesn’t flow particularly well. At a guess, it’s because the score that accompanies Peele’s narration isn’t being mixed into the score that accompanies the title credits. Instead of a nice blend, there’s just a sharp cut and you’re immediately pulled out of the moment and it makes the title sequence feel like it’s just been arbitrarily placed there instead of naturally belonging there the way it did in the original run. Not only that, but it often takes anywhere from 7-10 minutes to reach those opening titles – which just feels like such a long time, even though the episodes are otherwise well-paced. Even with these issues, it’s clear that many of the elements needed to make this reboot of The Twilight Zone something special are present, but they just haven’t quite been combined correctly yet. There’s a whole lot of potential, though, and I’m eager to see how the next eight episodes play out.
All in all, these first two episodes of this latest reboot of The Twilight Zone are inconsistent. While neither of them are anywhere near as bad as many skeptical fans predicted they would be, neither episode is really as good as you’d want them to be, either. While I enjoyed The Comedian far more than Nightmare at 30,000 Feet, your mileage may vary. At the end of the day, both episodes are just fine. One has a strong ending than the other, but neither ends up being any really special. The potential is there, though, for future episodes to be genuinely special but there are some kinks that probably need to be worked out, first. If you’re looking for something as mind-blowing as the original Twilight Zone, these episodes probably aren’t that. But they are enjoyable. Honestly, if they didn’t have the connotations of being an episode of The Twilight Zone, they’d both be pretty stellar episodes of any random anthology series. So, if you can go into these episodes just expecting a good anthology story, you’ll enjoy them well enough. The acting is strong, the dialogue is sharp, and the directing is great. Visually, they’re a treat. Hopefully, the creative team is able to improve in future episodes, because I do think they’re onto something. There’s a whole lot of potential in this here Twilight Zone reboot.
The Comedian: 4.5 out of 5 wands
Nightmare at 30,000 Feet: 3.5 out of 5 wands
A Note: I will not be reviewing new episodes of The Twilight Zone as they air every Thursday, but I will write a comprehensive review after the season concludes.