The Latest Twilight Zone Reboot Gets Booted — What Went Wrong?

I’ve heard quite a range of reactions to the news that Jordan Peele’s reboot of The Twilight Zone won’t be back for a third season. Some Zoniacs are sorry it won’t be back. Many more are glad. Me? I’m somewhere in the middle.

This isn’t because I’m trying to be diplomatic. I’m genuinely ambivalent. There were elements I liked about the new version (one of which has nothing to do with the show itself). There were others I didn’t like. Most of them I touched on in previous posts about the series, and I summed them up after Season 1 in this one.

Curiously enough, the latest reboot wasn’t cancelled by the network, but by the creators themselves: Jordan Peele and his company, Monkeypaw Productions:

Why the kibosh on a third season? It’s hard to say, at least from the outside looking in. Maybe the pandemic made it difficult to get things rolling again. Perhaps they found themselves getting interested in other projects. Or it could be that we should take their statement at face value: They told their stories, it was fun, but now it’s time to move on.

I can’t help but wonder, though, if negative reaction to the series played a part in the decision. As you might imagine, I followed fan response pretty closely on social media, and every time the latest reboot came up, the opinions ran at least 80/20 against it. It may be that Peele and his collaborators were able to shrug this off, but hey, we’re human. I’d be surprised if that sort of negativity had no effect whatsoever.

So what went wrong? Let’s mention a couple of things that have come up previously, then get into some other factors we haven’t discussed before.

The episodes were too long. No, there’s nothing sacrosanct about the 30-minute length of all but 18 of the original Twilight Zone episodes (25 minutes, if you subtract time for ads). Some of the half-hour TZs feel a bit rushed, frankly, and most fans agree that many of the hour-long episodes (50 minutes minus ad time) — even ones that I like quite a bit — could use some trims. So the idea of having as much or as little time as you need to tell a story sounds good to me.

But there’s a reason the original Twilight Zone went back to the half-hour length after one season as an hour-long show. It’s impossible to tell the kind of short, snappy, twist-ending stories the Zone was so famous for when you make it too long. According to Buck Houghton, the man who helped Rod Serling produce the first three seasons of The Twilight Zone, by the 40th minute you have to be practically walking on water to keep an audience interested.

Mind you, that’s when it comes to the kind of fantasy/sci-fi series that TZ was. A straight drama doesn’t have to worry about that sort of thing. No one’s waiting for some big surprise at the end of a drama, so their expectations are different. But with a show like TZ, that’s not the case. We’re always anticipating the Big Reveal. And the longer the road to get there, the bigger that reveal has to be, or we’re disappointed. That’s why the 25-minute length was so ideal for TZ.

Ready for some irony? Serling wanted TZ to be an hour-long show from the start. But CBS was only willing to give him a half-hour slot, so he decided to make the best of it. How lucky he — and the rest of us — were that it worked out that way!

I’m not saying that Peele’s TZ had to hit the 25-minute mark. But many of his episodes got close to or exceeded the length of the original TZ’s 50-minute episodes. In this case, I believe, less would have been more.

This trend isn’t unique, by the way. Bloat is a problem with many shows and movies these days. Years ago, most movies had shorter running times (even many dramas were closer to 90 or 100 minutes, tops). But not anymore. To show you how much times have changed, consider the fact that MGM tried to pressure Alfred Hitchcock into cutting his legendary “North by Northwest,” which clocks in at two hours and 16 minutes. A run time of that today is nothing, but in 1959, one of the most famous directors in the world had to fight to keep one of his biggest hits intact.

The episodes shouldn’t have been R-rated. No, I’m not someone who thinks every last movie and TV show has to be squeaky clean. I certainly wish there were more PG-rated options for adults, it’s true, but there is absolutely a time and a place for “edgier” entertainment. For my money, though, The Twilight Zone isn’t one of them.

That doesn’t mean the episodes had to be G-rated. The original Zone isn’t that, and neither should any current incarnation. Something a bit more PG-13-rated would probably have been ideal: a bit of edge, but not enough to send a good chunk of your potential audience packing. Because that’s exactly what many fans, especially those with children, did. Remember, many diehard fans of TZ first encountered the show as kids, watching with a parent or grandparent. Quite a few who had hoped to watch the new version as a family had to change their plans.

As someone who wants the original Twilight Zone to continue attracting new fans, I was rooting for Peele’s show in part because I wanted it to help young viewers discover the original. I’ve heard from many Zoniacs who saw the ’80s TZ first, then sought out the original and became huge fans. I wanted that to happen again. But when you make your Zone more R-rated, you limit its appeal.

And for what? Sure, some fans don’t care one way or the other if it’s R-rated, but many do. Who would have tuned in to a more PG or PG-13 version of TZ, then gone, “Yeah, I was going to watch it, but I can’t stand a show that doesn’t give me two dozen f-bombs, some gore, and a sex scene or two, so I’m outta here!” Was it just to be fashionable? If so, come on — if there was ever a time to buck such a lamentable trend, it’s when you’re producing a new version of a beloved classic!

The episodes lacked variety. Think about the original Twilight Zone. Part of the fun is that the stories could take you any place or any time. You could be here on earth, or on another planet. You could go back in time a hundred years, or forward at least that far. You got serious stories, funny stories, heartwarming stories and heartbreaking stories. Some were stern, some were silly. So even though I genuinely liked some of the new episodes, I couldn’t understand why its scope was so limited.

Many fans who were frustrated with Peele’s TZ cited the fact that it felt preachy, a criticism that was often parried by fans who pointed out the fact that Serling was famous for scripts that made a statement about some social issue. For my money, both sides had a point. The problem, though, isn’t having a message, it’s how you do it — and how often.

The new TZ didn’t presents its messages in smooth allegorical form, the way Serling did — it took a more blunt approach. That’s very much in step with our 21st century, where angry denunciations are all the rage (pun intended), but what bothers me is that the in-your-face method is not effective. Serling was much more likely to hit his target because he often reached for a scalpel, not a blowtorch. You may have an important message to impart, but why alienate your audience?

As for “how often,” that goes back to my point about variety. Yes, Serling gave us tough, not-to-be-missed episodes like “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street”, “The Obsolete Man”, “The Shelter”, and “Deaths-Head Revisited”. But not every week. If the original TZ had been, essentially, “He’s Alive” each time out, it would not have been the classic show we’ve all come to know and love. We absolutely must have those episodes, yes! But we also need sweet ones like “One for the Angels”, “The Trade-Ins”, and “The Changing of the Guard”. We need purely scary ones like “Living Doll” and “The Dummy”. And so many others.

The episodes should have aired weekly on CBS’s regular channel. I think CBS made a tactical mistake with the way they handled the new TZ. Putting it behind a paywall was unwise. I know it’s the trendy thing nowadays, but people are fed up with being asked to subscribe to some new service all the time. When the new Zone debuted in April 2019, even in a pre-pandemic economy, many fans were telling me, “I have to pay for CBS All-Access to watch this? Forget it.”

Yes, it’s relatively cheap to subscribe. But remember, most people already have other subscriptions going to Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, HBO Max, Apple TV, Disney Plus … you name it. The list is long, and it keeps growing. So even if a new service is modestly priced, it’s still coming on top of several other services, and sooner or later, people are going to revolt.

As for when each episode aired, I think the old one-per-week model is best. That’s what CBS did with Season 1 of Peele’s reboot, and the weekly buzz was impressive. Fans had a chance to watch and discuss an episode before the next one came along. But then CBS decided to release Season 2 all at once. I realize this is pretty common nowadays, but I don’t really like the binge method of watching. The dump-and-gorge model makes it difficult to fan over episodes and to really enjoy them as a community.

I think that contributed to the lack of buzz for Season 2, which was much less than it was for Season 1. When I tweeted a few days ago about the cancellation of the show, some people replied, “There was a Season 2?” I even heard some people saying that last June, when Season 2 debuted and I was joining my friend Tom Elliot on his excellent TZ podcast to discuss episodes five and six.

So would a reboot that featured shorter stories, a more general-audience rating, greater variety, and a weekly roll-out have succeeded? To a certain extent, yes. I think it would have. I sincerely feel that it would have enjoyed a longer run and enjoyed more success. But as I said, only to a certain extent. Because in the end, when it comes to reboots of anything, we want the impossible: to feel the way we did about the original. And that’s beyond anyone’s power.

There are two aspects to this. One is that there’s something about a show, or a band, or a series of books, etc., that is absolutely of its time and place. The Twilight Zone, as timeless as it is, was something that could only have come about in the early ’60s. Any earlier, and it would have looked more primitive. Any later, and it wouldn’t have been in black and white, or featured the amazing actors that it did. In short, the stars aligned perfectly — but it can’t happen again.

To even call something The Twilight Zone is to set your audience’s expectations at such a high level that you’re almost begging for rejection. So do you go the Black Mirror route and call it something else? There’s something of a catch-22 at work here, because the same familiar name that helps you stand out in a crowded entertainment field and draws in viewers also virtually guarantees that most of them will feel let down.

That’s not to say we couldn’t get an enjoyable “modern re-imagining” of The Twilight Zone. But it’s an insanely tall order. Even Serling himself couldn’t do it today, I think. As for aspect number two, it’s this: Most of us grew up with The Twilight Zone. We saw it as kids and then saw it again as we got older and discovered new layers to it. But like Martin Sloane in “Walking Distance”, we can’t really go home again.

Even the most perfect reboot can’t recreate what it felt like to watch the original TZ. It’s too tied up with memories and feelings and impressions that are utterly unique to one time and place. That’s why when people see famous bands in concert, most of them expect the greatest hits and nothing else. They don’t care about some wonderful piece of new music the band’s done lately. Was that playing when they were in high school? No. So it gets ignored, regardless of its merit.

So my hat is off to Jordan Peele. He tried, and he did come up with some interesting and thought-provoking stories — particularly in Season 2, which partially corrected some of the problems I addressed above. But as Buck Houghton once said, “Nobody understood what made The Twilight Zone work except Rod.”

“Maybe there’s only one summer to a customer,” Martin Sloane’s father tells him. And it looks like there’s only one Twilight Zone to a lifetime.

***

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

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 02/28/2021, in Twilight Zone (Peele) and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 17 Comments.

  1. The original, and about 1/2 of CBS’s 1985 reboot. After those, the stories were there, but lacked the heart and soul of TZ.

    • I know what you mean. The Zone, as the quote from Buck Houghton indicates, was pretty much Serling personified. Given the way most fans grade the reboots, you’re being generous even saying HALF of the ’80s Zone would qualify; others either say some or none. But whatever the exact amount, the fact remains that Serling created something that defies duplication.

  2. This is a wonderful review or perhaps post mortem is a better word, Paul. You hit on so many ideas that resonate with me. It’s funny to consider that they ran out of stories to tell after 20 – about half a season by Serling standards. Maybe they lack his work ethic. Maybe they had a different mission.

    One of the things that I’ve been complaining about for years about tv and movies, is that nothing is left to the imagination. That plays into the R vs PG question. I always notice the various opinions of meaning (in Twitter) when the marathon runs. 60 years later, we still form our own opinions about the original episodes which have been analyzed to death. Serling left us room to enter the episode. Modern shows never seem to do this. Innuendo is replaced by in-your-face. The creators don’t seem to want anyone missing their point. I think Serling was happy if we thought about what he put in front of us.

    I didn’t like most of the new series. I don’t subscribe (my daughter does, so I watched while cat sitting). They didn’t leave me any room to engage – it was a view only experience.

    Thanks for a wonderful post. Thanks for putting ideas, observations and suggestions out here and letting us think about it. Well done!

    • Thanks for the kind words, Dan! It took me a couple days to sort it all out in my head, then get it down, so I’m glad it worked for you.

      I think you’re really on to something there with your comment about how Serling “left us room to enter the episode” comment. That’s a very perceptive way of putting it. In short, he didn’t tell viewers how to think — he laid it all out in a compelling story and invited them to do their own thinking. There’s a huge difference between the two, but over-eager writers today seem to confuse the latter with the former.

      One way or the other, I hope TZ will continue to thrill and inspire audiences for many more decades to come.

  3. bibliomike2020

    Thanks for a fair and even-handed analysis of the latest reboot, Paul. It’s clear you gave it a more than fair chance and actively engaged with it, which not everyone online did.

    I thought it was a mixed bag in terms of writing and execution, but some of them will stick with me – “The Comedian,” “Six Degrees of Freedom” (probably the high point of the whole series, imo), “Meet in the Middle.” “A Small Town,” and “Try, Try.” I also really enjoyed Jordan Peele’s presence as the Narrator.

    I think the weakest episodes were the ones that went way-meta (“Blurryman” and “You Might Also Like”), which is too bad, because I’m sure they were intended as love letters to the original.

    I think your conclusion of “one summer per customer” is about right. I can’t blame CBS for wanting to use the Twilight Zone branding, but it’s difficult enough to reboot a dramatic series with a continuing cast of characters and constant setting… “rebooting” an anthology has got to be next to impossible. And while it probably seems to most of us that “everyone loves the Twilight Zone,” the branding might get in the way of those who don’t, or who only have caricatured memories or impressions of it.

    • I really appreciate the compliment, Mike! Yes, I really tried with this one. As I indicated above, I truly wanted it to succeed. I know that if I were creating a new TZ, I’d want people to at least give it a try, and once it got going, I didn’t want to bail too soon.

      Since it DID get better, I’m glad I did, but I’ll admit that part of what got me to keep watching was because I knew that I needed to be in the loop — if only because people were going to ask me about it! Had I been a regular fan, I might have stopped at some point, but with my Twitter page and my blog, I didn’t think that was an option. I needed to be able to comment on it, so I stuck it out.

      I liked the episodes you mentioned, as well as “Among the Untrodden” and a couple others. And yes, the overly meta ones may have been well-intentioned, but I don’t think they came off as well as they must have hoped. Even the Easter eggs were fun at first, but after a while — eh.

      It’s a shame this reboot didn’t succeed quite the way many fans had hoped, but I’ll bet we’ll see another one at some point, especially since the network was interested in seeing it continue. Time will tell!

  4. Reblogged this on Phoenix Rising Art Enterprises Inc. and commented:
    Sorry this reboot didn’t have more time. Any effort to rework an idea with as strong a following as TZ has to have the one thing this reboot did not have, hundreds of options for the viewers ie cable, youtube, netflix, zoom, crowdcast, streaming…..

  5. I have not seen it and honestly I am not very interested. Why bother with a reboot anyway when the original was perfect. They already did it the right way the first time around.

    • No argument here! I didn’t mind checking it out, but simply out of curiosity. The original clearly set the standard.

      • I agree that it probably will spark interest in the original. At least some younger people who are unfamiliar with the show will now discover it for the first time.

  6. I’ve only seen 6 episodes of season 1 of the reboot and have to say that they have not excited me as much as the original series, Paul. Of the 6 episodes I’ve seen, The Wunderkind had me scratching my head as to why it had even been considered as a story. I loved the first episode, The Comedian, which had me wanting the rest of the other episodes to be just as good, but not all of them have.

    I’ve not seen season 2, but I think you’re right in saying that it would have been better releasing each episode one week at a time. Just like Rod did in the original seasons, I’d also have liked to have seen Jordan Peele gave us a sneak peek into the following week’s episode, but I guess that would mean every episode would then have to been shown in its correct order (not something I have witnessed on Netflix, etc.).

    I’m disappointed that this reboot has come to such an early end because I’m sure Jordan Peele and his company would have found many budding authors out there with stories that would have made fabulous episodes.

    • Yes, it’s a shame — no one can deny that there are some great stories out there that could be dramatized quite effectively. If you look at the authors who the original writers adapted, you can find hundreds of possible stories. Why anyone doesn’t try and mine the classics is beyond me.

      Your experience — trying Season 1, being unimpressed, and avoiding Season 2 — is not at ALL uncommon. A lot of people have said that to me. I have to admit, I watched S2 more out of a sense of duty (given my “job” here) than out of a deep desire to see it, so I was glad it was better.

      Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment, Hugh!

  7. Thank you for your comments and the time you put into writing this essay. I agree with almost all your points. There needed to be one driving creative force, and while Peele was interested, he was only interested up to a point. That’s not a knock on him, just a reality. He has other things he wants to do and accomplish, which is understandable. But for Twilight Zone to work, I think it needs a focused, driving force behind it with one main writer and few others focused on storytelling, and you just won’t find that today. Also, you probably need more than 10 episodes per season. You learn by doing and having 15 to 20 episodes per season would have given time to refine the skills needed to pull off such a show.

    • Good point. The fact that Season 2 was an improvement indicates that they were learning and getting better, so it’s odd that they then pulled the plug — unless, as I indicated in my post, the lack of positive feedback sort of made them throw in the towel.

      Your comment reminds me of something else I didn’t say in the post but have commented on Twitter: I can’t understand why Peele wasn’t more involved in the writing and directing of the series. Serling was all OVER the original TZ — writing tons of episodes and heavily involved in the production of it. I’m not sure why that wasn’t the case with Peele, given his fame as a writer and director.

  8. You explained very well why this TZ didn’t quite work. Now don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed both seasons and was disappointed it won’t be coming back. I thought Peele was an excellent host and I liked most of the episodes, but it was uneven (although you could say that about the original too). Sometimes it was too woke for its own good and the message was not subtle at all. But when it got it right, there were some really great episodes- Replay, The Blue Scorpion, Six Degrees of Freedom, Among the Untrodden, Downtime and The Who Of You.

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