After his massive success with Get Out and Us, both of which combine genre storytelling with social commentary, Jordan Peele might seem like the perfect choice to reboot The Twilight Zone. But this update of the classic sci-fi/horror anthology series doesn’t carry any of the visionary thrills of his films, and Peele himself comes off more as a figurehead than a major creative force, at least in the four episodes made available for review.
Peele developed the new version along with X-Men franchise veteran Simon Kinberg and The Defenders showrunner Marco Ramirez, and serves as the host and narrator, taking over for Rod Serling. Peele doesn’t, however, have any writing or directing credits on the first four episodes, and he looks a bit awkward in his onscreen role, delivering hokey, pun-filled narration. This is the third time The Twilight Zone has been rebooted for television, and the initial episodes give the impression that its impact will be closer to the little-remembered 1980s and ’00s incarnations, rather than Serling’s iconic original.
Peele and the other creators pay extensive homage to the classic series with background references and Easter eggs, along with one episode that’s a direct remake of a Twilight Zone favorite. “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet” stars Adam Scott in the role originally played by William Shatner (and by John Lithgow in 1983’s The Twilight Zone: The Movie), a nervous airplane passenger who disturbs fellow fliers with his warnings about imminent danger to the aircraft. In both previous versions, that was a mischievous monster causing damage to the outside of the plane; this update has Scott’s character (an investigative reporter suffering from PTSD) listening to a mysterious podcast that seems to foretell doom for the flight.
The inclusion of a true-crime podcast gives the episode a modern twist, but like a lot of the up-to-the-minute elements in the new show, it doesn’t really add much resonance to the story. Scott channels a bit of Shatner's intensity, and there’s some decent suspense in his increasingly frenzied (and futile) efforts to avert disaster, but the twists and modifications don’t quite pay off. That ending is also indicative of another problem with the new show, which is that episodes frequently feel padded, due to modern episode run times.
The majority of the original Twilight Zone episodes were just 25 minutes long, but the first four episodes of the new series run between 36 and 54 minutes, and even the shorter ones get repetitive. Twilight Zone episodes are little morality plays, and were often based on short stories, and their simple messages can end up belabored and clunky if they’re stretched out too long. The worst offender in this regard is “The Comedian,” which stars Kumail Nanjiani as a failing stand-up comic who makes a Faustian bargain with a strange benefactor played by Tracy Morgan. Suddenly, he’s getting tons of laughs, but at the expense of some of the most crucial parts of his personal life.
Once Nanjiani’s Samir starts experiencing the consequences of his success, it’s pretty obvious where the episode is headed, and yet it takes nearly an hour to get there. The ironic surprise twists that often ended the best Twilight Zone stories are less effective when they are telegraphed for throughout an overlong episode. Not that there are any particularly memorable or shocking twists in these new episodes, anyway.
The most topical of the four episodes is “Replay,” starring Sanaa Lathan as a lawyer taking her teenage son (Snowfall’s Damson Idris) to college. On the road to the school, they encounter a racist cop (Glenn Fleshler) who flags them as targets for harassment seemingly because they’re a black family in a nice car. The supernatural element comes from an old camcorder that has the ability to turn back time, and no matter how often Lathan’s protective mother rewinds to before they come into contact with the cop, their trip always ends in tragedy.
The social commentary here is didactic and poorly thought out, and it doesn’t fit particularly well with the supernatural aspects. However, at least “Replay” is ambitious, and points to a direction for the new show that isn’t just a retread of what The Twilight Zone has already done (and done better). Due to decades of Twilight Zone imitators and disciples, including current shows like Black Mirror, Serling’s formula doesn’t have the freshness it did 60 years ago, and the creators of the new incarnation haven’t quite figured out how to address that.
Despite Peele’s comedy background, there’s little humor in these episodes (even the one about a comedian), and the best of the first four is the most playful. “A Traveler” stars Steven Yeun as a sinister stranger who shows up at the police station in a remote Alaskan town on Christmas Eve, and stars sowing disharmony among the residents. Yeun is fantastic as the dapper, smooth-talking villain, and the episode, written by X-Files veteran Glen Morgan, has an X-Files/EC Comics monster-movie vibe that keeps things entertaining (even if it does, of course, go on a bit too long).
Thanks to Peele’s rising star, a cast full of familiar faces and an enduring brand name, this new Twilight Zone has received plenty of attention, but just last month another genre anthology with Peele as co-creator debuted online to little fanfare. YouTube Premium’s Weird City has its own parade of famous guest stars, and with its shorter, more concise episodes and greater emphasis on humor, it fits Peele’s sensibility better. It’s too bad this bloated, plodding anthology is the one that will end up with far more viewers.
Hosted by Jordan Peele, The Twilight Zone premieres Monday, April 1, on CBS Access with its first two episodes, "Nightmare at 30,000 Feet" and "The Comedian," before settling into its regular Thursday slot on April 11.