Jordan Peele Revives the Strange Mind-Bending World of ‘The Twilight Zone’
They don’t make them like they used to, but Jordan Peele sure tries with a new revival of “The Twilight Zone.” It isinevitable that the first impulse for a viewer will be to make comparisons with Rod Serling’s iconic original series. “The Twilight Zone” is a tough act to resurrect considering its massive impact on television, with everything from “The X-Files” to “Black Mirror” following in its footsteps. Peele, alongside Simon Kinberg, developed and produces this CBS All Access version, which functions as both an homage and an update. The experiment doesn’t always deliver, but when it does it manages to capture that eerie feeling of reality getting completely bent out of shape.
The first two episodes set the tone. Peele takes over for Serling and hosts each tale. He steps in front of the lens in the trademark wardrobe of suit and tie, introducing what we’re in for. First we get “The Comedian,” in which a club comic named Samir Wassan (Kumail Nanjiani) tries to inject political commentary (mostly about gun rights) into his act but nobody’s laughing. Moping at the bar, he meets a mysterious, apparently legendary comic played by Tracy Morgan. The veterans’ advice to Samir is that no one finds important topics funny. They want to chortle to idiocy, like stories about pets defecating on furniture. Reluctantly Samir takes the advice, but once he begins using real-life anecdotes or names in his routine, the people mentioned in the jokes begin to disappear. In the second offering, “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet,” the show updates a classic “Twilight Zone” episode about a man losing his mind on an airplane. This time it’s journalist Justin Sanderson (Adam Scott), who is catching a plane to Tel Aviv and starts listening to a podcast describing the disappearance of…his own flight. In attempting to follow each description in the podcast on what could cause a crash, he creates chaos in the cabin by trying to find suspects within the ethnically diverse passengers.
A major challenge in reviving “The Twilight Zone” is that so many of its heirs have already gone beyond its premise, along the way changing TV themselves. Chris Carter and Charlie Brooker are the true baton-grabbers from Serling, as well as Peele in his work as a film director. His new film “Us” surpasses anything in this show when it comes to capturing the surreal strangeness of the times. Yet, this is not an unenjoyable experience. By rendering tribute to the spirit of the original, “The Twilight Zone” still manages to be a fun mindbender. The iconic theme music is back, over trippy opening credits of swirling galactic matter and a door opening into a blinding, mysterious light. Even when the stories in the first two episodes lack more punch, they deliver as strange nightmares. “The Comedian” plays around with the enduring parable about seeking fame and then regretting cutthroat choices made along the way. The script gets a bit clunky with its political satire. For example it’s easy to assume even the most ardent activists would agree gun laws don’t make for funny club material. So is the episode suggesting serious discourse belongs outside of a comedy club? Or that the masses are too stupid so they require dumb humor to be engaged? Not clear. But the hour is still highly entertaining simply because of the scenario Samir finds himself trapped in. When he realizes his jokes have the effect of making people vanish, he immediately goes on social media to find all those bullies and losers from high school we wish we never met. Soon they become part of his routine. Even the college professor who spends a little too much time with his girlfriend is fair game. And what about the fellow comics at the club who have picked on him endlessly? You can imagine the rest.
Slightly weaker is “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet,” which is a sort of remake of the episode “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.” This story was first told in a 1963 episode and then redone in 1983 for “Twilight Zone: The Movie” (with a brilliantly mad performance by John Lithgow). Its original, famous premise involved a man sitting in an airplane, convinced a strange creature or gremlin was outside his window causing havoc. In a sign of how mechanical our imaginations have become, this new episode is all about Adam Scott’s journalist obsessively listening to a podcast. As the podcast narrator lists the different suspects in the coming crash, the journalist tries to nosing around the cabin, trying to interrogate Russians onboard, then two Sikhs. This might be an attempt at commenting on how we tend to discriminate based on prejudices or appearances, but it never quite takes shape. There’s more tension developed when Scott begins talking to a mysterious passenger who claims to be a disgraced pilot. The episode gets edgier when it climaxes in a violent crescendo in the cabin.
As host Peele is a worthy heir to Serling, evoking the same kind of sophistication and sense of the enigmatic. Credit must also be given for him taking on such a bold choice in reviving a classic series after winning an Oscar for “Get Out.” In general it’s a strong start, with a diverse cast, gothic look and atmosphere. Peele’s “Twilight Zone” merits more trips into its weird corridors.
“The Twilight Zone” season one begins streaming April 1 on CBS All Access with new episodes premiering every Thursday.