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 present 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 had 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!