Submitted for Your Approval: the New Twilight Zone is Equal to the Old Twilight Zone
Picture this: you’re stuck in a time warp, which forces you to re-experience the same rehashed ideas over and over and over and over. Maybe until someone gets it right? Or perhaps no one ever will. Do you keep watching?
What if the show appears on a mysterious subscription-only station called, CBS All Access? What the hell is that? you may wonder. And why would they pay hotshot director Jordan Peele (here playing executive producer, co-writer, and host) and people like veteran X-Files writer Glen Morgan lots of money, to then limit the reach of their work to whatever schmucks subscribe to the paid app of a free TV station?
Some things simply make no sense in…The Twilight Zone.
The black-and-white Twilight Zone series ran for five seasons beginning in 1959, and since then has since been made into a full-color movie, plus two new, failed TV shows. I wouldn’t have checked this new version out myself if not for the addition of Jordan Peele as the brand’s spokesperson. With the former Key and Peele star and Get Out and Us director playing Serling’s narrator role, I became suddenly curious as to whether this fifth Twilight Zone vehicle might indeed, as the saying goes, put the pussy on the chainwax. Well, it mostly does.
Our country’s current passion for social justice makes 2019 the right time for The Twilight Zone to try again. Serling and company’s original tales often bent and cracked Aesop’s didactic fables, creating new, spooky allegories that challenged the viewing audience to question its own beliefs and definitions of morality. Some of the best original episodes dealt with anti-racist and anti-fascist themes. That needle needn’t move very far to make modern Twilight Zone mostly about race, identity, bigotry, etc. Though Peele did not direct any of the five new Twilight Zone episodes dropped so far (he co-wrote only “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet”), this new show fits snugly in Peele’s…zone.
For instance, the first (and dullest) episode follows a comedian who finally learns how to get laughs–except every thing and person he jokes about on stage disappears forever, erased as if it never existed. By casting Pakistani-American comedian Kumail Nanjiani, the episode seems to almost be about how American comedians of color must give up more than white comedians in order to succeed. Another episode, driven by an Asian bad guy (Steven Yeun, last seen getting his eyeball whacked out of his head on Walking Dead), revolves around space aliens, but also explores ideas about Inuit cultural identities.
The longest new Twilight Zone episode invents a magic video camcorder that can rewind time and space—except in 2019, the camera’s owned by a Black woman who’s thwarted from driving her Black son to his first year at an HBCU by a vengeful cop. No matter how she approaches the white cop, things spin out of control, he kills her son, and she must rewind time and try another approach.
This last story could have easily served as a drawn-out, full-length, inferior follow up to Get Out. But smashed down into the shape of 45-minutes, it feels very Twilight Zone. That is to say, it feels a little absurd. But in a good way. A familiar way, for fans of the original. It leaves unexplained how the Black lady got the magic camcorder and why the camcorder is magic at all. Nor do we ever learn why the comedian can suddenly disappear anything he jokes about. F a backstory, just give us the weird, with a morality chaser. And all is right in The Twilight Zone.
Watching how the new writers subvert, update, and pay homage to old, classic Twilight Zone episodes provides half the fun. The show’s fifth, most recent episode is a thoroughly clever re-envisioning of my favorite classic episode, “It’s a Good Life,” where a child with the power to shape reality using only his mind holds his whole town hostage with constant demands. The updated version, “The Wunderkind,” stars John Cho of the Harold and Kumar movies as a washed up campaign manager who discovers a pre-teen YouTube star running for president, and works to make the kid’s dream a reality. Eleven-year-old President Oliver Foley then proceeds to make wild demands of the nervous yes-men in his administration, and throw tantrums in a thinly veiled, pitch-perfect Donald Trump send-up. The kid even installs a golf green in the White House and cheats at putting and it’s…
One difference here: Jordan Peele doesn’t seem to delight in playing Serling’s host role. Maybe because he already gets enough attention these days, Peele doesn’t soliloquize like Serling and doesn’t milk his few moments of screen time for all they’re worth while expertly setting each episode’s tone. Peele seems to want to get it over with.
Otherwise though, this new Twilight Zone stays very loyal to the old Twilight Zone. These writers and directors definitely know where the Twilight Zone resides: in between the cracks in reality, cracks that, often, only one tortured person can see. The show was always meant to appeal to children’s sense of wonder. “Yeesh, did someone pull these scripts out of cold storage?” one Entertainment Weekly reviewer wrote, and I’d say the answer is yes! Yes, these are TV dinners! Just a thawed-out version of that thing we all liked from before! The only reason you might love the old Twilight Zone, but then dislike this new Twilight Zone, is because now you are 30 to 40 years older.