Generally regarded as one of the greatest anthology series ever made, The Twilight Zone originally ran on CBS between 1959 and 1964. The show’s creator, Rod Serling, who also wrote most of the episodes, would deliver monologues at the beginning and end of each episode on themes of fate, justice and free will, highlighting the allegories and morals of that week’s story. At a time filled with bland family friendly programming, The Twilight Zone’s subversive, grown-up science fiction confronted viewers’ deepest fears without ever succumbing to nihilism.
As with so much of the best sci-fi, it tapped into real public anxieties of the time: around the Cold War, McCarthyism, the Space Race, racism and government conspiracies. Down the years several attempts have been made to recapture the magic of the original show: a 1983 film is unfortunately most famous for the grisly on-set deaths of three actors; a mid-’80s TV reboot lasted just three seasons; and an even less successful 2002 reboot was cancelled after just one.
These adaptations were not totally devoid of artistic merit though. Forrest Whitaker brought a natural gravitas to the role of the narrator in the 2002 series, while the film contains a delightfully unhinged John Lithgow performance. The ’80s series harnessed the creative talent of Wes Craven, George RR Martin, Harlan Ellison, Morgan Freeman and Helen Mirren for some memorable moments, with episodes ‘Shatterday’ and ‘Dealer’s Choice’ holding up particularly well. But no revival has managed to live up to Rod Serling’s lofty standards.
There have been several similarly themed contemporary anthology series. Electric Dreams and Jordan Peele’s own Weird City were both swiftly forgotten but Black Mirror has sustained its popularity, pushing the boundaries of what a television show can be. Thematically, of course, Black Mirror is steeped in technophobia, but more significantly there is a grim cynicism in the show that can’t be found even in The Twilight Zone’s most twisted nightmares. Black Mirror looks at the world through a warped lens and doesn’t possess the dark whimsy of Rod Serling’s fifth dimension.
With all that in mind, the latest iteration of The Twilight Zone has a lot to live up to. It has certainly got the right credentials, with red-hot Peele in Serling’s role as series producer and narrator, plus an impressively diverse, high-profile cast. Peele makes for an impeccable host, adopting Serling’s signature cadence while bringing a world-weary intensity to proceedings. Unlike his esteemed predecessor, he narrates from within each piece, appearing in diners, comedy clubs or and in-flight entertainment screens.
Premiere episode ‘The Comedian’ sees Kumail Nanjiani play a stand-up comedian whose politics get in the way of him actually being funny. After bombing on stage one night he takes advice from a legendary comic, expertly played by the irresistibly charming Tracy Morgan, which inevitably has Faustian consequences.
Elsewhere, ‘Nightmare at 30,000 Feet’ is a remake of the classic and much parodied episode ‘Nightmare at 20,000 Feet’. In the original, William Shatner is the sole passenger aboard a plane who can see the gremlin that’s ripping the engine to shreads. The 2019 version, aside from adding 10,000 feet, has Adam Scott finding an Mp3 player with a podcast detailing the disappearance of the flight he is currently on.
‘Replay’ sees Sanaa Lathan take her son to a prestigious university only to run into a racist state trooper, played by a terrifying Glen Flescher. The encounter ends in tragedy and, despite her camcorder’s ability to rewind the incident, it seems impossible to escape unscathed. Finally, ‘The Traveller’ is set at Christmas in an Alaskan police department where a mysterious, sharply-dressed Steven Yeun seeks a pardon from Greg Kinnear’s police captain.
There is much to admire in each episode, namely some beautifully cinematography and solid performances from Yeun, Lathan, Morgan and Damson Idris. ‘The Comedian’ is particularly gorgeous, the whole thing seemingly lit through sapphires with timeless neo-noir styling throughout. ‘Nightmare at 30,000 Feet’ and ‘The Traveller’ both make use of their claustrophobic settings to anxiety-inducing effect. The show as a whole works extremely well and the contemporary themes seamlessly integrate themselves into Serling’s distinctive style.
That said, there are some worrying tendencies on display. Virtually every episode feels overlong with unnecessary exposition slowing the pace. ‘Nightmare at 30,000 Feet’ and ‘The Comedian’ both end on an underwhelming note and could have shed the final few minutes (and final twists) for more impactful conclusions. The series also seems overly enamoured with its own mythology, while the abundance of Easter Eggs and references to the original series are both distracting and self-congratulatory.
Yet this revival hits far more than it misses. Future episodes feature John Cho, Taissa Farmiga, Seth Rogen and, most intriguingly, Jacob Tremblay as a child running for president in a send up of Trump’s campaign. The Twilight Zone remains a safe space to explore the world’s worst nightmares.
Published 2 Apr 2019
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