There’s no doubt that Jordan Peele is one of the modern masters of the horror genre. His 2017 film Get Out was a runaway success and is truly one of the cleverest pieces of horror in recent times. When CBS announced that they were reviving chilling classic The Twilight Zone through their streaming service, they revealed it would be executive produced by Peele through his company Monkeypaw Productions – and really, who better to get involved with the show than Peele?
The revival finally hit the airwaves in Australia this week, when the first four episodes dropped on Good Friday. Broadly, the new show is a fantastic follow-up to the original. Each episode is very watchable, but only three are worth watching again.
From here on out, this post is saturated with spoilers!
“The Comedian” tells the story of Samir Wassan (Kumail Nanjiani), a struggling comedian. After floundering through yet another terrible set, he meets legendary comedian JC Wheeler, who advises him to find the humour in his own life and share that on stage. But it comes with a caveat – once you give parts of yourself to the audience, those parts aren’t yours anymore. This totally and obviously telegraphs the rest of the episode and as a consequence subsequent twists came as little surprise. We see Wassan discover his comedy can erase people from time, we see him try to use it for good, but ultimately he uses it for his own selfish ends. It’s only when he ruins his girlfriend’s life, by jealously erasing her mentor from history and changing her life from high-flying lawyer to low-flying waitress, that Wassan realises it’s time to slow down. Eventually, JC Wheeler appears again at the end of the episode and makes his proposal to another up-and-coming comedian and the cycle begins again.
Ultimately, this episode is solid but far too long. Samir Wassan is an objectionable cretin, and we feel very little sympathy for him as his life spins out of control at the whim of his own jokes – Nanjiani does a very good job with this role. But with a runtime of almost an hour there is excessive padding in this episode, and considering how predictable it is, it’s just unnecessarily long. I was relieved, however, to see the stories are still bookended by a smartly-dressed narrator. Jordan Peele himself appears in the mould of Rod Serling, creator of the original show, to deliver sardonic bookends to the story. These snippets are incredibly appealing and I found myself grinning stupidly throughout.
In “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet”, we meet Justin Sanderson (Adam Scott), magazine columnist. Sanderson is on his way by plane to Tel Aviv for work, having recently suffered a PTSD-related breakdown. On board, he finds an old MP3 player which contains a podcast telling the story of the mysterious disappearance of Northern Goldstar Flight 1015 – the very flight he is on! Believing the story told in the podcast, Sanderson becomes more and more deranged in his attempts to make the flight crew listen to him to try and avoid a tragedy. Eventually, Sanderson becomes the reason the plane crashes, as he enables an insane former pilot to get access to the cockpit, take over the controls, and crash the plane into the ocean. Scott’s understated, “Oh, he was the pilot.” is one of the great moments of the episode.
This is a much stronger entry in the new series and more than makes up for the lacklustre beginning. A story inspired by the classic Twilight Zone episode “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”, this updates the story to our electronic, terrorism-fearing age. Paranoia is the overarching theme, with extra searches being performed on Sanderson in the airport, a live stream of the cockpit interior for passengers to watch for their “peace of mind”, and a variety of colourful characters aboard the plane. The obvious takeaway is don’t assume the obvious. Sanderson’s mind leaps straight to terrorism when he learns of his flight’s impending disappearance, and his suspicions leap straight to anyone aboard who is not a strait-laced white American. Ultimately, he was right about the terrorism, but wrong about the cultural background of the perpetrator.
Submitted for your approval is “Replay”, the tale of Nina Harrison (Sanaa Lathan) and her old camcorder. When she discovers that the rewind button on the camera has the power to rewind time, she uses it to try and avoid confrontation with a racist white cop (Officer Lasky, creepily played by Glenn Fleshler) who is preventing her and her son Dorian (Damsoin Idris) making their way to drop him off for the start of his first college year. However, Nina soon learns that confronting the past she left behind could be the only way to get past the cop, and stop him from harming her son.
Another strong episode, which ties into themes explored by Peele in Get Out, especially the frequent harassment of black Americans by some white cops. But it also examines the importance of family, and of community. One person alone is not enough to change the path of the future, but when families and communities band together for a common goal, positive change will result. The power and ubiquity of modern recording media and social media is also on display in this episode – Officer Lasky finds it much easier to try and stop Nina and Dorian from using the bulky camcorder to film his harassment, versus later on when a crowd of black students films his harassment using their phones.
The final mystery presented is that of “A Traveler”, who appears in a locked police holding cell on Christmas Eve and begins to turn the small town population of Iglaak, Alaska against each other.
There are some brilliant and intriguing tensions in this story. The cultural differences between the indigenous Inuit population and white Christians is a source of tension established very early on. The police captain Lane Pendleton (Greg Kinnear) and his Sergeant, Yuka Mongoyak (Marika Sila), are on opposite sides of that coin (Yuka being of Inuit descent) but there is also a tension there caused by his pomposity despite his incompetence in the face of her cool, calm ability. The mysterious Traveler (Steven Yeun) is a preposterous but well-employed analogy for social media and “fake news” and its ability to divide modern communities like nothing else. His smug self-assuredness goes along with the certainty that people portray on social media when delivering opinions as facts. There’s a nod to the resurgence of Cold War tensions that never really went away, and to day-to-day American paranoia. The whole thing with aliens from outer space is a fun twist in this new version of the show which until this episode has dealt largely with psychological/supernatural phenomena.
The most obvious comparison to be drawn with this show is Black Mirror. There’s certainly a number of similarities, aside from the social satire and thriller elements. There are plenty of Easter eggs and links between the stories, and they do seem to occur in a shared universe, just like in Black Mirror. I know I already prefer The Twilight Zone though – despite the MA rating of the show I don’t think anyone will be doing anything as unpleasant as having sex with a pig like in Black Mirror.
One of the great things about Jordan Peele is his passion for casting minority actors in his work, and The Twilight Zone is no different. I’m looking forward to seeing lots of new talent in this show – so far the performances have been really strong and there is sure to be more to come.
The show also looks and sounds very impressive. The cinematography is second to none; “A Traveler” especially felt like a very competent horror film. The music is ambient and not distracting, and complements anything happening on-screen. There is definitely a repeating stylistic conceit of episodes opening with songs which begin non-diegetic and slowly become diegetic, and then episodes ending with that same song starting diegetic and becoming non-diegetic.
On the whole, I’m really excited about this new Twilight Zone. There are apparently six more episodes in this first season – I hope there will be many seasons to follow!