Twilight Zone revival falls short of Rod Serling's classic series
Preview: New take on Rod Serling's classic series needs to get better fast
The door to The Twilight Zone has swung open once again, and the man holding the key to the latest revival of Rod Serling’s classic anthology series is Jordan Peele, writer and director of the hit horror films Get Out and Us.
The series made its US debut on Monday. The first two episodes were released on the CBS All Access streaming service, with new instalments to follow weekly.
You can take it as a given that The Twilight Zone will be shown in Ireland and Britain soon enough, although there’s no news as yet on which channel or streaming service might pick it up.
The original Twilight Zone ran from 1959 to 1964 and is one of the greatest and most influential TV series in history.
It was revived by CBS from 1985 to ‘89 and again, for a single season, on the now defunct UPN network in 2012. But this new iteration is the most hotly anticipated yet.
As The Twilight’ Zone’s creator, producer, host, narrator and head writer, penning 97 of its 156 episodes, Rod Serling — a liberal who was politically active in the civil rights and anti-war movements — frequently clashed with network sponsors and broadcasting executives over their reluctance to let him engage with serious issues like racism and war.
His answer was to smuggle serious commentary on social issues past the network censors by hiding it inside The Twilight Zone’s tales of horror, science-fiction and surreal Kafkaesque nightmares, without sacrificing the entertainment value.
One especially memorable 1960 episode, ‘The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street’ — about how a sudden and mysterious power outage causes suspicion, panic, paranoia and, finally, deadly violence to spread through a cosy suburban neighbourhood — is as powerful a mediation as any you’ll find on how the fear of the other, the alien, can promote a mob mentality.
With Get Out and Us (itself inspired by The Twilight Zone episode ‘Mirror Image’), Peele revealed himself to be a modern master of existential horror spiked with social commentary and macabre satire. He should be the perfect choice to shepherd a renewal of The Twilight Zone. And yet, the opening two episodes, which I’ve seen, are terribly disappointing.
The first, ‘The Comedian’, is a bog-standard Faustian pact story. Kumail Nanjiani plays an achingly unfunny, politically correct stand-up who’s encouraged by a legendary comedian (Tracy Morgan) to incorporate stories about real people from his own life into his act.
He does so, and becomes an immediate success. The drawback is that anyone he mentions — his dog, his nephew, a couple of rival comedians, his girlfriend, all the people who bullied him in school and college — immediately cease to exist in the present, past or future. It’s too long (55 minutes) and the denouement never less than predictable.
The second episode is 20 minutes shorter, but only slightly better. ‘Nightmare at 30,000 Feet’ is an unwise reworking of one of the most famous Twilight Zone instalments, ‘Nightmare at 20,000 Feet’. The original starred William Shatner as an airline passenger, just recovered from a nervous breakdown, who sees a terrifying creature (a “gremlin”) on the wing of the plane, pulling off panels and ripping out wires. None of the other passengers, including his wife, can see it.
The new version adds some altitude, but takes away everything that made the original great. Instead of seeing a gremlin, a PTSD-suffering journalist (Adam Scott) starts listening to a podcast about the mystery surrounding a passenger plane that crashed months before, except it happens to be the very plane he’s travelling on now.
Once again, the payoff is obvious well in advance, and the episode is made worse by the addition of a foolish, double-twist postscript.
Peele follows Serling’s lead by producing, hosting and narrating the series, but has left the scriptwriting to others. Maybe his special magic is what this Twilight Zone is missing.