The New Twilight Zone on CBS All-Access: Not Perfect, But Very A-PEELE-ing

I’m used to writing “spoiler alert” on some of my articles about the original Twilight Zone, but it’s practically a joke. I mean, we’re talking about a series that debuted almost 60 years ago. And yet here I am, reviewing a new TZ, so it actually makes sense to warn people who may not have seen the initial episodes — or who are withholding judgment until they learn more about them.

So let me give you my impressions of “The Comedian” and “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet”. I’ll try to keep them, yes, spoiler-free.

WHAT I LIKE:

First off, this is a really handsome production. That’s not much of a surprise, of course, given the involvement of producer Jordan Peele, but for anyone familiar with the previous two reboots, it’s nice to see. CBS is finally giving TZ the respect it deserves. Gone is the cheap look of the TZ that ran from 1985-1989, and again in 2002. The cinematography and direction are feature-film-worthy.

And as you’ve probably heard, the show seems loaded with Easter eggs. For example, sharp-eyed viewers will spot Willie from “The Dummy” lounging in a scene from “The Comedian”. There are also in-jokes, such as the pilot’s name in “Nightmare”: Captain Donner. The director of the original episode? Richard Donner. (Here’s a spoiler-filled list of every Easter egg, courtesy of TV Guide.)

More importantly, Peele’s team seems to have a good grasp of what makes TZ tick. Is this Serling reincarnated? Of course not. As original TZ producer Buck Houghton once commented, “Basically, nobody understood what made The Twilight Zone work except Rod.” But I find this version to be much closer to the DNA of the original than the previous reboots.

Consider “The Comedian”. It involves an ordinary man who’s in a troubled place in his life. After a conversation with a mysterious stranger, he finds himself in possession of a power that at first seems to be the answer to all his problems. But he soon realizes that using it exacts a steep price – one that involves some soul-searching moral dilemmas.

In short, be careful what you wish for — and remember, everything comes with a price. What could be more Twilight Zone than that?

The ending, too (the final scene with the female comic at the bar) left me with a big smile on my face as a serving of cosmic justice began to unfold. Again, it felt very TZ-ish — though in an interesting twist, it seems to have been inspired by a Serling-penned segment of Night Gallery called “Make Me Laugh,” which also involves a hapless comedian getting a wish that backfires on him).

“Nightmare at 30,000 Feet” was a pleasant surprise as well. From the time the reboot was first announced, I’ve been urging fans to give the show a chance. Don’t write it off before you see it, I kept saying. Sure, there’s only one Rod Serling, but Peele is a talented man in his own right, so let’s see what he comes up with.

Then I heard they were doing a version of the Shatner-on-a-plane classic, and I groaned. Why a third version of a story we all know so well? Why not stick to original stories?

Fortunately, it’s not the remake that many of us were expecting. It’s more of a reimagining. Let me put it this way – there’s no gremlin anywhere. You’ll see nothing on the wing of the plane.

What you will see is an intriguing story that leaves you guessing the whole time. It has a terrific jump scare, too. I found it to be remarkably suspenseful right up to the end. Figuring out exactly what happened and why … well, that’s a little trickier. Like a lot of fantasy stories, it doesn’t exactly hold up if you think about it too much. But (for me, anyway), such mystery is part of the fun.

I also enjoyed Peele’s narrations. They’re very much in the style of Serling’s intros, lightly foreboding and even a touch impish at times, but not (mercifully) an impression of the great man in any way. The one in “Nightmare” was inventively handled, with Peele appearing not as a passenger on the plane, but on the video screens. It may strike some viewers as chutzpah for anyone to even attempt Serling-type intros, but I think it gives us more of a link to the original than the previous reboots gave us.

WHAT I DIDN’T LIKE

One thing that (somewhat) works against the new TZ is length. Like a number of other streaming-only series, the episodes are not all some uniform number of minutes. It’s not a half-hour minus time for ads, or an hour minus time for ads. Each episode has a different run time. “The Comedian” is 55 minutes, while “Nightmare” is 37.

I find this feature of streaming-only shows to be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it’s great that writers aren’t yoked to some set number of minutes. Rather than an over-packed half-hour, or a padded hour, you get an episode that’s exactly how long the writer felt it needed to be to tell the story he or she had in mind.

But this can also lead to bloat. Now, neither one of these episodes felt overly long to me, but that doesn’t mean they couldn’t have been told more concisely. Serling often had to edit himself (the result of dictating his scripts), and the result nearly always led to a tighter, more absorbing story.

The half-hour length, as Serling came to realize, was one of the original TZ’s strong suits. At the time the show debuted, the hour-long slot was considered the proper one for a prestige series. A half-hour? That was the province of comedies and other less-serious fare.

But it quickly became apparent that the half-hour slot was ideal for TZ. Serling and the other writers could quickly set up a catchy premise, develop it for a short time, then bang – come in with the twist ending.

Go longer than that (as they did for one less-than-memorable season on the original TZ), and you’d better have one incredible twist up your sleeve. The first two episodes of the new TZ don’t have that. The endings are fine … but for all their strengths, these stories lack the taut narrative structure that made the original such a classic.

Another thing they lack is a family-friendly aesthetic. These episodes are “TV-MA” — television’s equivalent of an R-rating. There wasn’t any nudity or explicit violence in the first two episodes, but you are definitely in for some R-rated language.

This is particularly true for “The Comedian”, which seems at times to be competing with “The Big Lebowski” for how many f-bombs they can cram in. I get that it’s set in a comedy club, but still — there’s a time and a place for rough language, and I don’t think it’s TZ (even a 2019 version). It seems odd for the production team to bend over backwards in so many other areas to honor the spirit of the original, then rely on a vocabulary that wouldn’t be out of place in an episode of “The Sopranos”.

The reviews I’ve read seem to be all over the place. Some critics love it, some hate it, and still others fall somewhere in-between. Based on the first two episodes, I’d say I fall in-between, but closer to the “love” side than others who think the series is just okay.

Launching a reboot of a beloved classic such at The Twilight Zone is an incredibly tough job. What we have so far is far from a bulls-eye, but it’s more on target than any previous reboot. Let’s see where this journey takes us.

***

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Hope to see you in some corner of the fifth dimension soon!

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About Paul

Fanning about the work of Rod Serling all over social media. If you enjoy pics, quotes, facts and blog posts about The Twilight Zone, Night Gallery and Serling's other projects, you've come to the right place.

Posted on 04/03/2019, in Twilight Zone (Peele) and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 22 Comments.

  1. So far I have seen only “The Comedian” since CBS has made it available on YouTube (legally, courtesy CBS). I liked it a lot.

    Yes, the language was rough at times, but, as you acknowledge, it is set in a contemporary comedy club. Is the original series now perhaps only “family friendly” mostly because it is 50+ years old? Serling held up a mirror to the culture of his day, and while I imagine, being the wordsmith and lover of language he was, he might not have included the amount of ugly swearing “The Comedian” did, he might have understood if not agreed with the choice to include it.

    In every other respect, though, it felt immensely “Twilight Zone-y” to me. An old supernatural premise that still managed to feel fresh and with mounting suspense and tension (my 17-year-old son watched it with me and said, “For a not very creepy idea, they sure made a creepy story!”), and a very clear and unambiguous moral judgment at the end.

    No, the ending wasn’t a “twist” in the “never saw that coming” sense, but it was really the best possible ending given the Twilight Zone’s sense of right and wrong. It had a sense of morally proper inevitability, even as I was kept guessing at what would actually happen.

    I was worried the episode would feel bloated at one hour, but I thought the length actually gave the script some space to ring a few unexpected changes on its central conceit (“butterfly effect” kind of stuff), and also allowed for slightly more nuanced characterization than a half hour might have allowed.

    I’m hopeful for this iteration of the Zone based not only on this episode, but on something Peele said in an interview with Entertainment Weekly about why “Black Mirror” hasn’t rendered the Zone irrelevant: “At its core, Black Mirror is cynical about humanity — that’s not a dig, I love the show. To me, Twilight Zone, no matter how dark the episode, is ultimately optimistic about humanity.” I think, in the way Samir finally resolved his situation, we saw morality prevailing in a very “Twilight Zone” way.

    • I love that quote, Mike. It’s exactly what I’ve been pointing out to anyone who claims that Black Mirror is a “modern Twilight Zone”. One can enjoy that show (I do too, at least up to a point) but still realize that philosophically, each is coming from a different spot. Much as I can mutter cynically with the next guy, I have to admit, my idealistic heart is with Serling.

      As for the language, it’s possible he’d be okay with it, but we can’t know for sure. I know he was no fan of over-the-top violence; in one of lectures in the early ’70s, he complained about all the killings in “The Godfather” and how they were portrayed. As far as I know, though, he’s not on record about whether coarser language in movies and on TV was good, bad or indifferent. At a minimum, I think it should be toned down, if only because it contradicts the classier tone of the original — which, I might add, showcased characters who expressed anger, fear and other emotions quite well without lobbing f-bombs and the like.

      My comments about the length were more of a caution than a complaint. As I said, both episodes didn’t feel TOO long to me, but some trims would probably help. I see a lot of bloat on TV and in movies these days, and I really feel that the art of rewriting and being concise (which TZ excelled at) is being lost. I’m just hoping the current writers try to curb any tendency to go long simply because they can. But hey, I’m all for fuller characterizations. You’ve seen me spotlight some of Season 4’s lesser-known episodes on this blog, and that’s just what I point out: More can mean less, but it can also mean more.

      Reviews of the new TZ are all over the place, but I remain impressed that they’ve gotten so close to the spirit of the original. I’m sure they’ll make adjustments that will give us an even more Zone-ish experience. Thanks for stopping by, Mike, and leaving a long and thoughtful comment!

      • Yeah. I don’t really agree with Black Mirror being a modern-day TZ. I’ve seen a few episodes and I was impressed by them from a creative standpoint, but the tone is so overwhelmingly bleak I can only take it in small doses.

  2. Victor De Leon

    I watched “the comedian” last night and thoroughly enjoyed it. loved seeing willie, hearing the intro (I really liked that they kept most of S1’s intro which is my fave), and tracy morgan was subdued and very mysterious. it was penned well and acted solidly. we are off to a good start, I feel. I am watching “nightmare” today, so I will return to read that portion of your blog post after! great write up, as always :)

    • Thanks, Vic! I’m glad you’re enjoying the new show. Considering that it’s incredibly easy to fail in a major way with such an assignment, I must say that I’m impressed that they’ve gotten as close as they have to the original. Of course there’s only one Rod Serling, but that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy someone else’s take on his legacy. :)

  3. Ceceliachurch

    Watched first episode; loved the “feel” of the show – the play of light and shadow, the camera-work. However, after I saw where the story was going (which was pretty quick), it just seemed long and drawn out…and the language didn’t help matters 🙄. Less is more.

    • Very true. With some trims for length and language, this reboot could definitely be better. I’m hopeful they will adjust as they go, so I’m willing to give them some time to get it right.

  4. Totally concur with everything you wrote, Paul. Funny, I seem to like the episodes better, now that I’ve read a first (yours) review of them.

    When I viewed last night, I thought to myself, “Argh! CBS streaming, you’re gone! These are a load of shite.”

    But, they really weren’t. Just like “Black Mirror”, I think these shows bear watching more than once. Densely packed, which is a good thing. And, like you, I did think “30,000” was suspenseful, right up to the end.

    Now to read the Easter eggs link!

    I wonder what Peele and Co. have conjured for us, next. And, on a last note, I think it’s a good thing that people are so divided on this reboot- it’s like that adage that hate is not the opposite of love…indifference is.

    • Glad you enjoyed the post, Beth! Funny — the reviews have been all over the place. Some have been quite positive, while others? Whew. Pretty bad. You could easily have read one of those first! But as you say, it beats indifference. At least everyone is talking about TZ — and for that, I’m happy.

  5. I haven’t seen these (yet), Paul, so I appreciate your observations. I’m sure, at some point, I will watch them, but I’ve been reluctant to add more streaming services. I am glad to see that they’ve done a good job with it.

    • Don’t blame you a bit there, Dan. Quite a few people have said they’d like to watch it, but are balking at having to sign up for another service. It’s funny — everyone used to celebrate cutting their cable service, but now, people are starting to suffer from subscription fatigue!

      • I literally switched from Netflix to Hulu to get season-4 of the Twilight Zone. I don’t watch enough TV to justify more. CBS has this and the new Star Trek, so I’m getting close. I need to look into what they have in the library I don’t have access to.

  6. David Walton

    I’m loving it so far. The production values are phenomenal, but used in service of suspense, suggestion and character work. The climatic scene in “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet” (not the coda) is on a level rarely seen even in modern television. It’s clear just how much thought went into giving the moment maximum impact, and it leaves quite an impression.

    There is one scene in “Nightmare” that would almost certainly have been cut for time if there were typical network limitations involved–whether it’s for the best that the scene made it in will be a source of debate for some time to come, I think.

    • Agreed, David. It all looks terrific, which was not true of the previous reboots. Even when they had some good stories, they had this cheapish look that was so prevalent years ago. It’s a treat to see TZ handled richly.

      I’m curious what scene you’re referring to in “Nightmare”. Consider this a spoiler-alert for anyone reading this who hasn’t seen it and plans to. What was the scene?

      • David Walton

        I was referring to the post-crash coda. The moment where the plane went down was such a perfect, chilling moment to conclude on. The coda didn’t add anything other than the shock value of a second karmic retribution for the reporter’s mistake. It really seems like the kind of thing that would have been cut for time (and should have been). It even (arguably) violated Serling’s rule of one miraculous happening per episode.

  7. I’m going to watch it, and I’m sure I’ll enjoy it, but I’m a little disappointed by the news that it’s full of profanity. I don’t mind profanity, but had the original contained any, I wouldn’t have been able to discover and fall in love with it as a kid when it aired late on Friday nights on our local PBS station. It was this old, mysterious thing that kept me on the edge of my seat. Kids and parents deserve a show like that, that they can enjoy together.

    • So true, Patrick. It’s not as if you can’t get all the R-rated elements you want — heck, they’re all over many shows and movies! There’s hardly any need to sully a TZ remake with them. Hoping they’ll tone it down in the episodes ahead.

      • I watched both and liked both. The comedian definitely could have benefited from a good trim down to thirty minutes. But a good solid TZ vibe all throughout. Had a much more refined look than the previous reboot with Forrest Whitaker. I saw both ending twists coming from a mile away, but that’s probably because I’ve watched so much TZ. Still liked them, great endings. I really like the concept of a comedian selling a little piece of oneself with joke. You can tell the episode was written by comedians. Speaking of which, it’s interesting how much emotional depth lies behind the masks that comedians wear. That’s why I think using (from the looks of the trailer)a lot of them is a smart move. Looking forward to seeing what directions this goes in.

  8. The first episode was OK, but predictable. The second was pointless — a guy tries to save people and winds up being killed by them? What sort of lesson is that? And, the racism and anti-blue bigotry of the third is sickening. I had hopes for this reboot and for Peele, but instead of dealing with the reality of black-on-black violence and with the overwhelming truth that the vast majority of shootings of black criminals (and, they are criminals — look at the facts) are justified, he instead goes for soft-focus propaganda. Serling was absolutely against racism, but he wouldn’t have approved of creating hatred of law enforcement and promoting outright lies. I’m so disgusted with the bullshit in “Replay,” I can’t even find words for it. https://www.complex.com/music/2016/07/kevin-gates-wont-support-black-lives-matter https://www.economist.com/node/21661382/comments

  9. Anthony Echevarria

    I haven’t seen “The Comedian” yet, but I have to agree that the length is a huge problem with them. They stretch the episodes too much to their breaking point, and then ruin any (or at least much) of the goodwill they had earned up until that point.

    So far, I’ve watched “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet” and “Replay”. Both of them were okay episodes, but “Nightmare” had the perfect ending when the plane went down, but then the ending ruined it. “Replay” got to just about the perfect point when the mother realized going home was the answer (and thus avoiding that horrible cop entirely in the first place), but once again, the following next 7 or so minutes sabotaged the episode.I have high hopes for the next episode, since it seems like a classic creepy monster episode with a lesson, like the old TZ did, but again, the length is really working against them. There’s no reason the episodes should be this length, they should be 25 – 35 minutes at the most, depending on thee story. Anything else is just stretching it. There’s a reason why the old TZ avoided doing this after season 4 in the first place!

    SPOILERS for those users reading…

    I’ve also noticed that because Jordan Peele is only marginally involved with this, they seem to be avoiding doing the twists that they should, and Jordan himself is backing away from more imaginative twists. The twist in “Us” was utterly derivative and dull, even though the rest of the movie was mostly good. The same case applies here. Did anyone else get the feeling that this was just some cosmic joke being played on the guy in “Nightmare”? It almost seems like there was some trickster god like Loki or something writing that podcast at times, or I almost felt that the pilot guy who was mysteriously skulking around would turn out to be something entirely different. Especially when he said he believed Adam Scott’s character about the podcast! That’s always a red flag. It didn’t help that Scott’s character himself was acting like an idiot, most of the time! But again, there was nothing supernatural besides the podcast. It was baffling! And with “Replay”, the racist cop almost felt like a Terminator at times! I honestly thought that he would turn out to be something supernatural, or that her use of the camera was affecting ‘his’ mindset also, and she was making things worse by rewinding over and over! How did he always know where to find them? Why did he feel that particular compulsion to go after them, even tracking them to another town? Why did he grow worse after she told him all about her family, and made an attempt to have him sympathize with her? These are questions that cannot be answered. It almost seemed like there was some other force punishing her, for not going home at the beginning, which already had my rolling my eyes from the very beginning! Why should it be a crime to disassociate yourself from your family, if you feel you have to? But otherwise, it was very well acted.I actually, really got into it. Again, there was just…something missing. I also thought they went too complex with the ‘route’ the uncle takes. A simple drive would have sufficed, and proven the point at the same time.

    I’ve gotta laugh at the guy above who thinks all hatred against cops is unjustified (living in a city where 50 – 65% of police really ARE that corrupt and horrible. I’m a Hispanic man. That’s not an exaggeration, it’s the honest, horrific truth.), but I think the episode needed something more. Again, it seemed to be leading towards something else, and then it just…stopped. To tell a moral lesson we’ve already seen play out in our reality over and over again. And of course, the racists watching aren’t going to be swayed, they’re just going to double down!! And say the teen deserved to be shot for bothering the cop, or not doing everything he asked of him immediately!

    Or, another possibility is that I thought the racist cop would be exposed as a criminal or a con man, or a murderous cop wanted for murder himself, and that’s why he was so brutal (maybe he killed his wife?), and that the lesson was to not trust everything you see, whether that’s cops, or an authority figure, or even just a camera that seems to be re-writing the future. But no, it’s exactly what it looks like. It’s disappointing. One twist, now that I think about it, could have also been if the mother had to sacrifice herself for her son, thereby making up for leaving her home in the past, and that was what she was doing wrong. There were so many different routes they could have gone with it…and they just didn’t.

    One thing I think is a problem is Simon Kinberg. One of the main writers is Simon Kinberg, not Jordan Peele. Simon Kinberg is a man who, if you know about his output, can deliver very inconsistent storytelling in his projects. He can deliver something masterful like “X-Men: Days of Future Past” in one year, and then deliver “X-Men: Apocalypse” the very next, wasting the X-Men’s #2 villain, and also ignoring the important social messages from the previous entry. I think Jordan Peele is going to have to step up and take control of this, and not let himself be afraid to put out some out there crazy twists! That’s what we’re here for, after all! You can’t play it safe here, man. Also, some of the best classic TZ episodes were stories adapted from already existing short stories! Perhaps they should go with that!

    They should also remake some classic episodes, ones that aren’t as well known, like “Number 12 Looks Just Like You” and “The Shadow Man” from the 80s series. “Number 12 looks Just Like You” was disturbing back in the 60s. It would be especially horrific today.

    I just discovered this blog today, but there’s a lot of interesting stuff here! Thank you for covering this new version of the show, and thank you for doing this unique collection of Serling’s work!

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