The third reboot of the quintessential anthology series, The Twilight Zone, premieres this week on CBS All Access, and while many have groaned the fact that the series is receiving a new iteration, there is a good reason why it has come around again.
The original series entered into the collective unconscious in 1959, making its host, Rod Serling, a household name, and drawing its audience in each week for a different story blending elements of science fiction, horror, and psychological thrillers into stories with a trademark twist, and in many cases, a moral.
Serling and his writers rarely shied away from social issues and the collective fears of society addressing everything from the fallout of nuclear war to the fear of the “other” and how it could turn even the most rational of human beings into a monster.
That original series ran for five years with heavy-hitters like Richard Matheson and Jerome Bixby providing source material and scripts for the show.
The series was revived again in 1985 and later in 2002 each attempting to re-create the magic of Serling’s original.
Which brings us to 2019 and CBS’s brand new attempt at recapturing the magic that graced the screen in 1959.
The series opens with a double header on April 1, 2019.
“The Comedian,” sees Kamail Nanjiani, an “issues” comic trying desperately to make his routines both socially relevant and funny. He’s failing miserably, of course, until a chance run-in with a legendary comic (Tracey Morgan) garners advice that is highly effective but comes with terrifying long-term results.
Nanjiani is brilliant in the episode, and his descent into the rage and frustration of countless failures bursts open like a raw wound.
Then there’s “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet,” which takes the familiar story of the original series, updating it for 2019, placing an investigative journalist (Adam Scott) on a plane where he listens to a podcast detailing how the flight he is on will mysteriously vanish in a matter of hours.
Sanaa Lathan (Blade) delivers a potent performance in “Rewind” about an African American woman attempting to take her son to college who discovers that her old-fashioned camcorder can reverse time when she rewinds the tape inside. It is, perhaps, the most haunting and tense of the first four episodes, and one that will stick with you long after the credits roll.
Steven Yeun (The Walking Dead) brings an interesting, sinister quality to his role in The Traveler, about a man who mysteriously appears in a small town in Alaska on Christmas Eve to be “pardoned” by a local sheriff (Greg Kinnear) and soon begins sowing seeds of discord among the town’s residents.
Hosted by Jordan Peele, who also serves executive producer on the series alongside Carol Serling–an accomplished writer in her own right who was married to Rod from 1948 until his death in 1975–the new series wades deeply into the pool of issues of identity, human nature, and social justice echoing Serling’s own penchant for these types of stories. It has, of course, been updated for 2019 and its commentary can be a little more heavy-handed than the subtlety of Serling’s original.
In fact, in “The Comedian” the moral of the story is about as subtle as an ice skating elephant in Central Park. Still it lands well, and considering the tone of the rest of the episode, its blunt nature feels almost necessary.
Moreover, one could easily argue that genre audiences in 2019 respond less well to subtlety than those in 1959. We’ve seen this repeatedly with films like The Witch garnering critical praise while loud portions of the audience remarked that it was “boring,” “not scary,” and “not real horror” due to its quiet storytelling style.
One almost has to wonder the tightrope that the creators of the new series walked in attempting to appease fans of the original series while creating something that more modern, younger audiences will appreciate and latch onto. It can’t have been easy, and not all of their attempts are successful.
The ending of “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet” is uneven at best, and feels more like the beginning of a new episode rather than closure for the story they were telling.
Still there are plenty of nods to the original.
Composers Marco Beltrami and Brandon Roberts created a musical soundscape that sounds like the musical cues of Serling’s original. You’ll hear plenty of bongo and brass cues here along with some slight updating to the series’ theme.
The writers also threw in plenty of Easter Eggs for those who know the original series well.
One small example you’ll find comes in “The Traveler” where a character is named Ida Lupino. For those unaware, Ida Lupino was an accomplished writer, director, and actress who not only appeared in the original series, but she was also the only woman to direct an episode for Serling in that original series, when she took the helm for the classic episode “The Masks.”
At the end of the day, this new Twilight Zone exists in its own world with its own stories to tell, even when those stories are inspired by those that have come before it.
To die-hard fans of the original series, I would say there are still plenty of things in this new iteration for you to enjoy, but you won’t if you go into it expecting exactly what you’ve had before. Take those expectations and put them firmly in your nostalgia box where you hold dearly onto cherished memories of what was, take Jordan Peele’s hand, and walk into something that can be.
You will be challenged. You will ask questions. You will look at the world differently, and hopefully see it through the eyes of someone that may not be be like you.
That is, after all, what The Twilight Zone is about.
Tune in tomorrow, April 1, 2019 on CBS All Access for the first two episodes!