I hoped for better: Jordan Peele’s Twilight Zone

I doubt I’d have bothered with CBS’ latest revival of THE TWILIGHT ZONE if Jordan Peele hadn’t been the man in the Rod Serling role (including serving as narrator). Given how good Peele’s Get Out and Us were, he seemed like the right guy to deliver Twilight Zone stories tailored for the 21st century. But whether it’s the different requirements for a TV series from a movie or too much network interference, Peele didn’t pull it off.

He’s not unique. The first attempt to remake Serling was the 1983 Twilight Zone — The Movie which had one memorable story (a remake of  Nightmare at 20,000 Feet) and three “meh” ones. This led to a 1985 CBS series I remember as pretty good, though it’s quite possible I’m erasing the bad stuff. Then there was a completely forgettable UPN revival nearly 20 years ago.

And no, I’m not biased by nostalgia for the original series. I love it but even before I started rewatching it the past few years, I had no illusions it was perfect. I remember many crappy episodes (Cavender Is Coming, Mute, Steel) but the good outnumber the bad and every season has some great episodes. After watching six of the ten-episode first season of the new version I found no great, two good and four bad. That’s not a win.

The first episode, The Comedian, runs an hour, which was a mistake: as the original’s  S4 showed, some stories fail simply by being stretched out. The title comic is Samir, who wants to do political humor but flops with it. Then a legendary comic advises Samir to draw on his life for material; the audience loves this approach, but whenever he talks about his dog, his nephew, a coworker, they vanish from existence. In fact, they never existed and only Samir remembers them.

There’s obvious potential here for a metaphor about creative people mining their own lives for material, or how someone with ambition can discard people in their life on the climb to the top. Instead, this tries to fill the hour by going in too many directions; at one point, Samir pulls a Death Note and starts erasing abusers, drunk drivers and other people, but then we’re off in another direction. The story never has the punch it might have.

To give Peele credit, Nightmare at 30,000 Feet doesn’t simply remake the original story about a man seeing a monster destroying the wing of a plane. Instead, nn investigative journalist discovers the Weird Mysteries podcast he’s downloaded to listen to is talking about a mysteriously vanished flight … that’s the exact flight the protagonist is on. Can he figure out what’s happening in time to avert catastrophe? Not a bad concept, but it never built up enough tension for me.

Replay was one of the good ones. Black lawyer Nina (Sanaa Lathan)is driving her son to college when she discovers rewinding her old camcorder can rewind time. This comes in handy when a bigoted cop starts harassing them, but no matter how many times Nina tries changing how she deals with him, nothing can neutralize the threat.I think it’s the best of the ones I watched.

But then comes A Traveler, set in a rural Alaskan police station where Captain Pendleton (Greg Kinnear) shows a suitably Christian compassion by letting one prisoner out of jail; as he doesn’t have anyone this year, Sgt. Mongoyak (Marika Sila) arrests her brother just so Pendleton can free him. But it turns out Mr. A. Traveler (Steven Yuen) is already in jail, claiming that as a YouTuber who covers extreme tourism, he’s there to witness the annual release. Is he telling the truth? Of course not, but the results make it impossible to care.

Wunderkind isn’t good but it was amusing. Failed political consultant Raff (John Cho) spots an 11-year-old, Oliver (Jacob Tremblay), running for president on YouTube. Everyone likes his simplistic proposals so Raff launches a campaign to put Oliver in the White House. Oops: who’d have thought a temperamental, selfish brat running the government was a bad thing? Why yes, I do think this has a point about politics, but it’s not executed well-enough to work. It hand-waves Oliver being too young to get elected and can’t decide if he’s a brat or a child sociopath.

I’d have stopped there but Not All Men sounded too interesting to pass up. Annie (Taissa Farmiga) goes on a date with her coworker Phil but stops short of sleeping with him. Next morning at work, their boss transfers her current project to Phil, telling her she’ll rise farther as his assistant. Coincidence? Then things get really nasty when a meteor shower unleashes the local male population’s worst impulses; can Annie survive? Can she trust that the guy who says he’s not infected is safe?

This is at its best dealing with the little annoyances women have to put up with (“You’d look really cute if you’d smile.”) and the challenge of figuring out what’s really going on (is Phil punishing Annie for not putting out, or is it just their boss favoring the white guy?). The outright violence isn’t as interesting, and I couldn’t buy the reveal the meteors were a placebo, a rationalization for the guys losing control — why would anyone assume the rocks had that effect? Still, it was interesting enough that in another era I might have kept watching. But these days there’s too many alternatives to give this more of a chance.

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One response to “I hoped for better: Jordan Peele’s Twilight Zone

  1. Pingback: Why do we return to the Twilight Zone? | Fraser Sherman's Blog

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