The Twilight Zone: Season One

Jordan Peele won the Super Bowl. The feed introed the usual sports fanfare and then cut to static. It cut to an empty football stadium. The most occupied and watched sports event of the year was immediately contrasted with the loneliness of the empty space, the gridiron posing larger philosophical questions. “Witness an empty space,” Peele prompts, “…when truth is not the truth, what dimension are you even in?” His eyebrow cocks upward in a peculiar way, too fashionably dressed for his environment. He walks through the door, into The Twilight Zone. It was the single best moment of this year’s biggest sporting event. A rapturous inversion of the very commercial product it was a part of. “Premiering April 1,” the ad says – what about this is even real, trustworthy? One of the greatest commercials of the year prompts a season that occasionally rises to the challenge of all this great television history and accumulated culture. It has the odds stacked against it, certainly. We may not return to the field with Peele this season, for a dissection of America’s most heralded event – the series flailing between woke and tired commentary about social causes. It will not be to all tastes, but occasionally, when it fires on all cylinders, the first season of The Twilight Zone captures something genuine and special about our place and time.

Episode 1, “The Comedian”

the comedian.jpg
“The Comedian,” The Twilight Zone. CBS.

“A. Well. Regulated.” Comedian Samir Wassan (Kumail Nanjiani, who also directs) is a struggling comedian. His comedy is bombing. He just has a second amendment joke – the repeated “A. Well. Regulated” being a central hook in the episode – and as much as he wishes for success, does not have the material. That is until he meets a great Tracy Morgan and is cursed with the gift of permanent erasure of his comedy subjects, in exchange for some laughs.

We rejoin the actor-director after his great success with The Big Sick (2017). Once again, he emphasizes a great empathy for the human condition. With hilarious results, the anti-comedy of Nanjiani’s piece helps inform and shape its surrealist undertones. As the comic indulges, his grip loosens, and his life slips like grain between his fingers. Everyone he wishes away has a net negative impact. All of their influence, gone. Any good they have achieved instantly wiped away. His jealousy of his girlfriend’s associate and erasure of his life will subsequently ruin her career and may reset their entire relationship.

It strikes an iffy balance between social commentary and socially consensus terror. “A. Well. Regulated.” No matter how many times he tells the joke, it does not remove the second amendment. He wishes away everything he thought held him back and lost all that he had. “The Comedian” is a solid piece of anti-comedy, a brave and subversive pilot, a rather unusual but effective way to start the season.

Episode 2, “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet”

“Nightmare at 30,000 Feet,” The Twilight Zone. CBS.

Remaking “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” a second time is a risky proposition. This is the new show putting it all on the table. Director Greg Yaitanes has been tapped for the privilege following his radical work on the Sissy Spacek centered “The Queen” episode of Castle Rock last year. Adam Scott fulfills the role of a much more paranoid passenger, creating a new mental dynamic not found in previous versions. On a transatlantic flight, Scott’s character listens to a podcast that accurately depicts his surroundings and early problems with the plane, and eventually promises his demise. (For podcast fans, the episode’s voiced by Hardcore History’s Dan Carlin.)

This takes the original conceit of Richard Matheson’s short story and heightens the drama by 10,000 feet. How’s that for elevated horror? The first adaptation, directed by Richard Donner, famously found William Shatner terrified by a gremlin on the wing of his plane. The second version appeared in Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983), maybe the only segment well remembered from that venture. The new version finds further invention on the premise. In a time after Lost (2004-2010), it has that series’ trademark spin on the mystery of a lost Transatlantic flight – the ending would seem to be a direct callback to that show.

There’s a good progression to the episode. The podcast allows an unusual narrative device that works intrinsically with our experience of travel. There’s a good sense of movement between acts and the paranoia mounts in a really effective straightforward way. This may be the most classic of the new episodes, by necessity, it is formed and tied around one of the most beloved episodes, and occasionally has improvements on the formula. Adam Scott is good in the central role and genuinely sells his situation. This is an economical thriller, the best argument of the bunch for anthologized short stories, and certainly the truest to Rod Sterling’s original vision.

Episode 3, “Replay”

“Replay,” The Twilight Zone. CBS.

“Replay” is haunting in the recognizably grim situation it evokes. A black family – a mother and son – are sitting down for the last meal before the son departs for college. A police officer interrupts their nice greasy spoon meal, and a camcorder to capture the last outing triggers a Groundhog Day loop, where the mother can rewind and try every possible outcome to keep her son out of the law’s way. The truth is that no matter how many stipulations are put on the situation, the inequality in the country has become inescapable for minorities. The cops will always catch up. You can not protect your young forever and real change has to happen from the top.

This is as real as the first season of The Twilight Zone ever wants to get. The looping story mechanisms offer novel plot contrivances that allow the family to adjust and explore every option. The young man may have cultivated an attitude toward the law, the way the officer has cultivated a racist persona, that levels both sides with an incredible obstacle that comes between ever understanding one another.

The cyclical nature of “Replay” makes it the only truly rewatchable episode of the first run. It clips along at a brisk and steady pace and suggests alternate realities and possibilities depending on how we interact with our world. Director Gerard McMurray nonetheless bludgeons the audience’s head in with the themes, like so many police batons. The episode screams its messaging in case you do not understand belligerent metaphors – much like “Replay”‘s themes there is a sense of determinism to the new The Twilight Zone – you’re going to understand the message, the show will leave you no choice.

Episode 4, “A Traveler”

“A Traveler,” The Twilight Zone. CBS.

“It’s only a lie if we choose to believe it.” The lights of the police car dance across the snow of an Alaskan byway, the lights situated between reindeer antlers atop the car. It’s Christmas time in a chilly Alaskan village, and the good Indigenous cop Yuka (Marika Sila) must take her brother in so the police chief (Greg Kinnear) may have someone to pardon. The work of an easy miracle to bring in a local drunk and offer forgiveness. This time it would not be so easy. Another figure has materialized in the neighboring cell. It’s a mysterious suited man played by a slippery Steven Yeun. He begs for the pardon instead, claiming he’s an Aggro Traveler – a tourist looking for thrills, this year’s pardon topping his Christmas list – and couldn’t he come to sing carols with them. Once he joins the office party, tensions escalate as he goes person by person, revealing their darkest secrets.

This is another nostalgic episode, a parable reaching back to “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” a classic late entry in the first season. “Maple Street” dealt chiefly with McCarthyism – or creating accusations of willful subversion, much like it plays out here. That terminology extends back to the second Red Scare and “A Traveler” aligns well politically as such, often commenting on the nature of Alaska’s political and physical proximity to Russia. The episode is situation neatly between paranoia and fear, escalating tension as the reveal slowly trickles out, that our traveler is worse than a Russian spy, he’s an alien.

The premise of the story suggests we may not believe a tall tale until our believing stands to benefit us. It’s a sharply shot episode with the best acting of the season from Yeun. As it progresses, the sequencing becomes somewhat convoluted. We wonder, did we really need all of this, only to arrive at this conclusion? By the time we get to the fact that it’s about Aliens, it’s become a different story than the first couple acts can support and begs for a bit more development. It’s also simply devilish to start releasing Christmas content just as Winter has ended. Unseasonable Easter release, but OK.

Episode 5, “The Wunderkind”

“The Wunderkind,” The Twilight Zone. CBS.

With the Presindential office sullied, creatives have imagined their own worst case scenarios. Ones where the ascension to public office is a born trait. Like with the current President, someone might be born into some wealth that can capitulate them toward the most powerful position in the world, without any significant barriers to entry. Such is the plot of “The Wunderkind”, an episode that takes a couple of talented central performers and fails to spin out a very interesting yarn around their social predicament.

More capable than this, John Cho plays a kind of campaign manager for would-be child President Jacob Tremblay (we can assume he’s been nominated on the strength of his child performance in Room – 2015). It’s a convoluted affair about the rewriting of American politics as an angry institution of wish fulfillment and telling people what they want to hear.

As a bridging middle episode, “The Wunderkind” under-utilizes its talent. Tremblay is naturally a fine child actor given the right material. Leaning into the socially conscious side of this season’s picks, this episode only tenuously feels like a part of the same package. Is it just us, or is it getting hard to laugh about our Presidential situation?

Episode 6, “Six Degrees of Freedom”

“Six Degrees of Freedom,” The Twilight Zone. CBS.

I like my spaceflight as expansive and large feeling as space itself. Here, it feels vacuous and sucked in. The crew of a spaceflight mission realizes they are the last people on earth, just as they are set to take off for another planet. There is intrinsic loneliness to the concept. It does not read as very funny or broadly compelling. “Six Degrees of Freedom” feels like a great setup for the episode we should have gotten. Like much of the season’s run, the show finds itself pitted with large concepts and small to medium-sized executions. Here, the subject demands more than the show delivers.

The crew vocalizes their concern. They talk about the artifacts of human history. Would they ever hear new music? Were they duped into believing in the catastrophe of nuclear war by a War of the Worlds-esque broadcast? This outcome poses the most interesting situation but is not followed to its logical conclusion. Instead, we arrive at an unlikely point of an ending – that will not be spoiled here – where we question if the show has as much functional commentary as something like Black Mirror or only wants to dip its toes into social issues as excuses for telling sci-fi tales.

“Six Degrees of Freedom” plays like a pilot to a show with more to say. In its own arc, it does not establish very much. We do not get enough emotional context to feel for or with the characters. The smallness of space plays toward something of an unearned resolution, making us question more interesting outcomes, like was this a human experiment all along?

Episode 7, “Not All Men”

Not All Men
“Not All Men,” The Twilight Zone. CBS.

“Not All Men.” That internet nutshell that causes a diversion from worthy feminist perspectives. The episode is directed by the talented Christina Choe (Nancy, 2018) – with any luck we’ll be seeing more from her – and takes the issue of misdirected masculinity to a horrifying conclusion. Some meteors have landed and all the men around Annie (a talented Taissa Farmiga) have lost their way. What starts with one man mistreating her on a date, unfolds until the patriarchy itself becomes a simmering cauldron of resentment and hate.

The director ably twists their narrative with a good spine and pointed premise, finding life and value in their abstract concept. “It’s just the meteors, and it’s just the men.” The women within this world have to navigate an ultra-difficult world of unhinged men who hold and withhold power and have created a system where only they take advantage. The plot does not always land its socially conscious messaging. Yes, it’s another extremely obvious leap toward a subject that does need to be explored. When it does, it’s one of the more effective entries of the first batch.

Choe is an extremely gifted director. She proved in Nancy that she could frame discomfort and interior thoughts, as though she directs like a suspense writer. She can elevate tension out of nothing and pries a sensitive subject into an extremely watchable horror vignette that runs hot until it’s dry and out of steam. At risk of mansplaining the entire thing, I’d just like to recommend watching this one.

Episode 8, “Point of Origin”

“Point of Origin,” The Twilight Zone. CBS.

Where is home? If the answer is easy, “Point of Origin” reminds us, we are blessed with a certain privilege of having a place to call our own. The tightly wound episode unravels as an interdimensional exploration of our ownership of spaces. The episode suggests something very promising upfront. It is hard to tell when CBS has cut to commercial, as the episode blends commercialism with a bludgeoning of social messaging.

It’s become apparent some later episodes have not received the same budget as others. Much of “Point of Origin” seems to take place in the empty room of a warehouse. In terms of set design, it does not have any. The acting is also staid and unconvincing of its central premise. Where it could dive deeply into the big immigration issues of today – like several of these episodes – it feels content only asking the question, and leaving us there.

“Point of Origin” occasionally comes around to worthwhile social messaging. (It is almost a cheat within the series, that if you are politically aligned with it, then the episodes will be satisfying in at least one way.) There is not much ground left to cover once it takes a turn for the extraterrestrial. Of all the episodes, it leaves the most food on its plate.

Episode 9, “The Blue Scorpion”

“The Blue Scorpion,” The Twilight Zone. CBS.

A. Well. Regulated. In the back half, The Twilight Zone returns to the premise of “The Comedian” with a fantastically acted interconnected showpiece. Chris O’Dowd occupies the space of the episode with a haunting charm. He is an actor that fills the screen with his emotions. The story meditates on the nature of our gun laws, once again, considering the premise of “a well-regulated militia,” and how it has come to mean any man can have a handgun.

Chris’s character is dealing with the death of familial loss. He’s been left a note and a handgun with the titular Blue Scorpion insignia engraved. Bullets loaded into the gun are dispensed with the names of people they might be intended for. Not helping matters, it reads his name, “Jeff,” and everyone he meets is also a “Jeff,” from dogs to passersby, he’s surrounded by a world that’s already been marked by the accursed bullets.

This is the note the series feels like it’s intended to go out on. An episode with strong characterization and a properly developed, intellectualized approve to modern problems. Where “The Comedian” set the series up, “The Blue Scorpion” knocks down all the pins. It feels like it best understands the ethos of what the show wants to do, the hammering ending pouring out its soul before us. A clever and important episode of television.

Episode 10, “Blurryman”

“Blurryman,” The Twilight Zone. CBS.

The new The Twilight Zone posits it’s never too early to deconstruct the show. The first season be damned, Peele’s new series does not only break the fourth wall, but it also shatters the premise of having one. It starts off neatly enough, with Seth Rogen and Zazie Beetz approaching the writing of a new The Twilight Zone episode. Replicating the allure of a beloved classic television episode is nigh on impossible. There is little room for failure, the broad shadow of the show’s history and it’s other attempts at revitalization hanging over your every move. The episode goes to extreme lengths to prove just how hard it is to make effective, new television out of a well-known conceit.

Jordan Peele arrives for his monologue but the message has become blurred. He cannot find the words anymore. The writers have hit their dead end. The episode unfolds in the most literal metaphor abuse since Peele’s last effort with Us, but without the directing savvy. The episode’s directed by producer Simon Kinberg and it feels like a producer’s episode too. Top acting talent may be attached, but it carries low artistry while trying – at least, nobly – to aspire to the same level as the sum of its parts.

Zazie Beetz wanders around haunted by the ghosts of the past, disassociating and losing her grips with the material world. There is a lot of wasted time until a gut punch of a finishing moment comes with the absurd, unthinkable reveal of the ghost. They really did something here. The ghost is the original host of the show, Rod Serling. They cannot escape the ghost of the past. That is the premise and the metaphorical meaning of the whole thing. It feels negligibly cheap and like a big final episode trick that indeed, has written the confirmed second season into a corner. Where do you go, after you’ve already visited The Twilight Zone? After it aired, CBS enabled an option to watch the series all in black and white, which would make this episode fundamentally confusing and meaningless when it makes the switch at the end. A bizarre corporate idea to drive nostalgia, the episode already does not mean anything on its own. The exasperated and overdrawn metaphor cannot hold up even within the shortest runtime of the series, casting its own shadow of doubt over the back half of a frontloaded show. It has either opened the door and now we’re exploring a new dimension, or they’ve wasted a special opportunity to really do something next season.

Jordan Peele’s The Twilight Zone has a lot of odds going against it. A Super Bowl dominating spot that promises a subversive new world of television. A back catalog of franchise shows that have explored all manner of social consciousness and the deterioration of the mores that society abides by. Righteously, it picks away at the subjects of the day, and either lands with an emphatic splash or a deafening thud. The show is certainly top heavy, the first few episodes potentially justifying a month’s subscription or trial for CBS All Access, while the rest just hope you might stay around to finish it out. There are moments where it feels like all of the budget has gone to its actors and can’t be found on the screen. Rather than Jordan Peele’s The Twilight Zone, it has become an actor and producer’s show, this early on, rather than carrying the feeling of an auteur-driven curation of fantastic anthologized stories. Already renewed for a second season, The Twilight Zone does hold the most potential for sophomore improvement, maybe of any show going. Maybe Peele can get in there and direct an episode? It certainly needs an anchoring aesthetic and throughline, the state of woke-ness always in flux, the goal posts shifting week to week, it does not feel like this is a show that will age with grace. And on a network like CBS All Access, does it even exist forever? Is it the weird corporate brand that it seemed so eager to subvert at the Super Bowl or a fine art piece that challenges the conventions of the form? Find out next season, on The Twilight Zone.


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