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!