(Editor’s Note: Spoilers for Season One of The Twilight Zone ahead)
The Twilight Zone isn’t good, certainly not what the product of a long-dormant television show and the mind of Jordan Peele should be capable of producing. While some didn’t appreciate the political messages in his films like Get Out and Us, it’s hard to deny that they were well shot films.
#1: The Comedian
The Comedian is an episode that could have easily been cut in half. Directed by Owen Harris (Secret Diary of a Call Girl), The Comedian starts out with a great lesson to actual comedians: Nobody wants to hear a comedian make political points. Samir Wassan (Kumail Nanjiani) is a struggling comedian because his act is just a political rant about gun owners and the second amendment. He meets JC Wheeler (Tracy Morgan) who tells him to write about his life.
As far as Twilight Zone episodes go, the premise isn’t horrible. Samir has a lot of success joking about his personal life, but quickly finds out that anything he jokes about is erased from existence. The lesson? If you want to make it big in comedy, you have to make personal sacrifices.
Problem is, Samir never becomes funny. Through some mystical super power, the fictional audience eats up whatever he’s throwing out. The real audience? We’re left wondering what’s so funny. Samir’s act goes from talking about his personal life and becomes a hate-fueled power trip as he erases everyone that he thinks has wronged him.
As a 30 minute episode, this could have been perfect. The Comedian is 57 minutes, a melodramatic slog that repeats the same five minutes over and over again as the audience shouts “we get it, he erases people.” The original Twilight Zone became creatively bankrupt in Season 4 when the writers were forced to push out hour-long episodes. The reboot reminds us right off the bat why that doesn’t work.
#2: Nightmare At 30,000 Feet
Nightmare At 30,000 Feet premiered alongside The Comedian and is…better. Directed by Greg Yaitanes (Heroes, House M.D.), this episode is a modern take on an episode that even people who didn’t watch Twilight Zone are familiar with. It’s the William Shatner episode with the gremlin on the plane.
Episode star Justin Sanderson (Adam Scott) is traveling by plane and suffering from PTSD as a war zone journalist. He discovers an MP3 player in his seat pocket that contains a podcast biopic about an airline that went missing, only to realize that it’s talking about his airline.
Nightmare At 30,000 Feet introduces two tropes that will be a running theme going forward in the first season of The Twilight Zone: Unnecessary cruelty and treating the audience like we are all morons. The script of the podcast reveals the twists before they even happen and even goes back at times to remind us of what just happened, like the writers were either so caught up in their own brilliance or thought maybe we didn’t understand what happened the first time around.
There’s also the idea that the Twilight Zone is acting as some sort of cruel demon, as it gaslights Justin Sanderson into acting the hero and ironically makes him the cause of the plane’s crash, ultimately ending in the survivors murdering Sanderson and evidently nobody ever talking about it (since as the podcast notes he is the only person not found). Twilight Zone episodes have always had an ironic twist, but they never went out of their way to this extent to torture someone before ultimately just killing them.
Compare it to its muse: Nightmare at 20,000 Feet with William Shatner. The episode ends with Shatner stealing an air marshal’s pistol and nearly killing himself to shoot and apparently kill the gremlin on the wing of the plane, thus saving the people on board. As Shatner is carted off to the loony bin, the camera pans over to show a very much damaged plane. Outside of Shatner, only the audience knew that the gremlin was real. The episode assures us that everyone else will know shortly enough.
Episode 3: Replay
Episode 3: Replay continues the unnecessary cruelty of the Twilight Zone.
Brought to us by the man, the myth, the legend, Gerard McMurray, Replay tells the story of Nina Harrison (Sanaa Lathan) driving her son Dorian (Damson Idris) to college. At a diner, Nina realizes that her family camcorder has the ability to rewind time and only she realizes it. The two encounter a racist state trooper by the name of Officer Lasky (Glenn Fleshler) who continues to appear and harass them no matter how many times Nina reverses time.
Presumably for casting reasons the episode turns Officer Lasky into a super villain. No matter what change of course Nina makes, Officer Lasky is always there to ruin their day. The core premise is fine: You can’t escape institutional racism by simply taking a different road.
It’s the last half of the episode where Twilight Zone goes from clunky dialogue to outright convoluted storytelling, starting with Nina and Dorian getting back in touch with their slave roots and being shepherded literally through an underground railroad tunnel to the school, culminating in a confrontation with the police where Nina delivers a “then they all clapped” style monologue. In case any of you morons didn’t get the themes of the story.
Episode 4: A Traveler
A Traveler was written by X-Files writer Glen Morgan, which might explain why this episode feels more faithful to the Twilight Zone style than its predecessors which were written by writers of hip hop magazines, Rick and Morty, and the X-Men films. It also stars Steven Yeun and marks one of the first live performances since his character Glenn was killed in The Walking Dead.
A Traveler sets up its premise smoothly and without beating it into the viewer’s head. We are in small town Alaska as our titular hero Sargeant Yuka Mongoyak (Marika Sila) is hauling her drunk brother Jack to jail to sober up. All is fine as Jack will be served a nice Christmas dinner and since he’s the only person spending the night, he’ll be pardoned as part of the station’s tradition.
All goes topsy turvy when Yuka finds another man mysteriously appears in the cells. Legally named A. Traveler, the man claims to be a time tourist who came back to witness the station’s Christmas party which is apparently famous in the future. Though the rest of the group takes him in instantly, Yuka immediately is suspicious of the man and sets to work investigating him.
A Traveler winks at the camera and basically says “in case it wasn’t clear, this is about colonization by white people.” Iglaak is a small town invaded by white Americans to set up a military base and the Inuit locals just sort of had to deal with it. The story leaves a lot to question, like whether the Chief was actually a Russian spy. The inevitable alien invasion similarly leaves a lot to question, as A. Traveler promises great things for the Inuit locals and even Jack surmises “it might be better with your people in charge.”
#5: The Wunderkind
If I can give The Twilight Zone one consistent A+, it’s their catalogue of actors.
The Wunderkind is the grease trap of the first half of Twilight Zone’s first season. In case the analogy of A. Traveler didn’t hit you hard enough, The Wunderkind pitches a story about a literal spoiled child rising through the ranks to become President of the United States. He accomplishes this thanks to the work of Raff Hanks (John Cho).
The entire episode of Wunderkind is shown through flashback, as Raff Hanks is dying on the operating table waiting for the most obvious “twist” in the season so far. It starts off with his failure to ensure the reelection of James Stevens who looks a lot like Joe Biden and also happened to be the most unpopular president in American history. Raff discovers Oliver Foley (Jacob Tremblay), a popular Youtuber and Fortnite vlogger, and manages his campaign to become President.
Oliver unsurprisingly wins, a plot point that expects the audience to ignore that whole age requirement in the constitution. Thankfully the episode gets past that barrier by not mentioning it at all. Oliver’s promise of free video games, less Star Wars movies, and less war hits well with the public.
If anything positive comes out of this episode, Jacob Tremblay has a great acting career ahead of him. Normally child actors in television series are barely passable, but Tremblay puts on a convincing role of a child who can be sweet and lovable in one moment and then immediately turn on a dime to become the sadistic, spoiled, (powerful) child the next. Oliver’s presidency takes a spoiled child and puts him in the White House where he refuses to have his physical, abuses social media, throws tantrums constantly, accuses anyone who questions him of treason, enacts illegal executive orders, and claims to be the greatest at everything (like golf). Do you get it yet? HE’S AN ANALOGY TO TRUMP.
The Wunderkind could only be more blunt if Jacob Tremblay’s character was named Tronald Dump. Despite this there are some truly tense moments in the episode, such as when Jacob and Raff are playing golf and Jacob tries to force Raff to show his allegiance and accept that Jacob hit a hole in one (he didn’t). It’s reminiscent of moments like the four lights with Star Trek’s Picard.
CBS hopes that The Twilight Zone will bring in subscribers for their All Access subscription. Had the show been part of the CBS network, it would be a passable show to take up half an hour to an hour on a weekly basis. Instead CBS expects customers to fork over nearly the cost of Netflix or Hulu for a small handful of exclusive shows that aren’t that great on their own, let alone having to pay for an extra subscription for the privilege to watch them.