In 1959, writer Rod Serling invited audiences to take a weekly trip to a fifth dimension, a “middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition.” He called that dimension The Twilight Zone, and tales ranging from weird to the truly horrifying entertained audiences for five seasons. Serling opened and closed every episode with a wry smile, dressed in a suit and cradling a cigarette between his fingers. His writing and production work on the show helped shape how television depicted science fiction and the supernatural for decades to come. While CBS has attempted two revivals of the anthology classic (1985-1989, and 2002-2003), neither have quite matched the potent brilliance of the original series. Now, writer/director Jordan Peele is taking his turn at bat.
The new Twilight Zone revival debuted April 1st, with Peele filling Serling’s role as the stoic narrator. The premiere episode, entitled “The Comedian”, follows a struggling stand up comic named Samir. After a disastrous set Samir meets veteran comic JC Wheeler and asks for advice. Wheeler encourages him to inject personal material into his act. When he does, he gets guaranteed laughs but soon realizes that the subjects of his jokes disappear from existence in his actual life. After accidentally erasing his own nephew, Samir decides to instead use this ability to erase people he feels the world could do without. After erasing his girlfriend’s annoying mentor, she goes from being a successful lawyer to a struggling waitress, causing their breakup. Samir continues to unravel, even erasing a rival comedian, Didi. When his girlfriend confronts him during a set with the notebook full of names of people he’s erased, Samir realizes he’s became a fame chasing monster and erases himself from existence, restoring everyone he’d previously erased to life since he never existed to erase them in the first place. The episode ends with Didi completing a great set, meeting JC Wheeler like Samir had before her, and asking him for advice. Wheeler smiles, giving the audience some insight into his identity as Peele appears to wrap up the tale.
The second episode, “Nightmare At 30,000 Feet”, is based on the classic episode “Nightmare At 20,000 Feet” starring William Shatner. This version follows Justin Sanderson, a war reporter suffering from PTSD. While on a flight to Tel Aviv, he discovers an MP3 player with a podcast called Enigmatique, which Justin realizes is accurately depicting things currently taking place on the plane, except that the podcast is about a plane that disappeared and was never found. Justin begins using clues from the podcast to try save the plane, but only succeeds in angering crew members and other passengers. His only solace comes in the form of a passenger named Joe Beaumont, a former pilot who seems to be the only person who believes him. Joe assures Justin that if he can gain access to the flight deck, he can land the plane safely in Canada. The two team up and get Joe into the cockpit, only for Justin to realize via the podcast that Joe is the person who will crash the plane. After waking up on an island post crash, Justin listens to the podcast and discovers that all of the passengers survived except for him, and he was never seen again. The crash survivors then appear and kill Justin for causing the crash.
So far, Peele and company are keeping the odd, mercurial, and often ironic spirit of the original show intact. While “The Comedian” was interesting and engaging, “Nightmare At 30,000” came off as a pseudo predictable rehashing of the classic episode, albeit one where technology and PTSD replaces the nightmarish gremlin on the wing on the plane in Serling’s tale. Peele’s narrator might not be sporting Serling’s thin grin or cigarette, but he is certainly pulling off the mood quite well.
Jordan Peele has made a point of firmly planting his flag in horror and suspense with both of his feature films, and attempts to continue down that road with his Twilight Zone revival. Here’s hoping that as we continue to journey with Peele into that “wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination”, we continue to be intrigued and entertained.
That’s the signpost up ahead. Your next stop…