Spoilers for 2019’s The Twilight Zone reboot.
About a year late, in relative isolation, I watched the first season of Jordan Peele’s reboot of The Twilight Zone. When the show came out I was intrigued, feeling that Peele’s twisted and dark humor seemed perhaps the most appropriate vehicle to attempt any sort of reboot of the iconic original series in 2019.
Alas, it’s pretty bad. There are good moments, but they’re almost always ruined by something. The show collapses under the weight of its attempted undertaking: the inherent enormity of such a resurrection, particularly right now. This feels kind of inevitable. But, like any pop culture event, it distills something very true about the moment.
What it exactly it distills, I’m not sure. I can say that the show demonstrates both the craftlessness endemic to much of today’s entertainment — the hegemony of acting style, irony-saturated speech, repetition of plot devices — and the inescapable nostalgia that underlies the cultural moment.
Let’s consider a couple of episodes. What piqued my interest last year was the second installment, “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet,” a redo of the classic William Shatner-fronted episode, and the closest to a direct remake this series attempts. The plot of the remake is as follows: author Justin (Adam Scott), who has recently suffered a nervous breakdown, is on transatlantic Flight 1015 and finds an MP3 player in the pocket in front of his seat.
He turns it on to find a podcast called “The Mystery of Flight 1015” (this podcast is produced by the Whipple Corporation, a reference to “The Brain Center at Whipple’s” from the original series, one of a number of similar easter egg homages). As Justin listens, he discovers that the podcast describes the disappearance of the very flight he’s on. In my opinion, a worthy premise. How does it fall apart?
Part of it is pure poor cinematography. Apparently as a way to pay homage to the original series, Jordan Peele and his showrunners insist on strange, awkward and jarring camera angles throughout (in some episodes, including this, more than others). This often makes the show difficult to watch. It frequently feels like a joke, a B-movie, poorly produced. Whatever was intended by the technique, the attempt pretty much falls flat.
But then there is the basic stupidity of the plot, a recurring problem throughout the series. In his attempt to avert a disaster, Justin ultimately causes it by helping a rogue ex-pilot break into the cockpit — who proceeds to intentionally crash the plane. Fine. Good twist, appropriate to The Twilight Zone. But the episode isn’t over! Justin wakes on a beach and, finding the MP3 player in the sand nearby, finishes the podcast. There he learns that all passengers from the plane ultimately survived the crash and were picked up six months later by a cargo ship — save for him, inexplicably — and then we watch as he is beaten to death by the other passengers, who blame him for the disaster.
Frankly, the brevity of this very silly addendum bears specific mentioning because its pointlessness and poor writing ultimately feel quite representative of the show’s failures overall. It is unnecessary, awkwardly elongated, compulsively literal. As with the style of filming, I found myself wondering, is this a joke?
Also, the ending felt at best like a moral stretch, at worst useless. And in this the remake consistently veers most seriously from the original. It is true that some episodes of the new series do make, or attempt to make, relevant social points. But the dark justice of Rod Serling’s universe is largely disappeared, replaced in the reboot by a universe that is simply dark and cruel. Whatever moral pretensions it has are usually skin-deep. It felt to me, lazily, and blandly, like the universe of this cultural present. And perhaps particularly the universe of all the shit horror films that have come out over the last couple decades.
While the new series is not consistently frightening it feels more indebted to the contemporary horror genre than to the complex ambiguity of reality that defined the original series. And let us also not forget that the original series frequently had levity, with some episodes downright goofy. Peele had a shorter run to make his show of ten episodes, even if at 40-50 minutes apiece they are longer than the originals. But there is very little lightheartedness. When it is attempted, the tone mixes awkwardly with a pervasive but monotonous darkness. The weight that Serling was able to convey in 27 minute episodes is evaporated in favor of another Black Mirror-type series with only the name of and frequent allusions to the iconic classic setting it apart.
If this is harsh, it is true that the episodes that do touch on social issues in some meaningful way are sometimes better. But often their best moments are the casual ones, like the indirect banter between the indigenous sheriff’s deputy (Marika Sila) and the casually racist, essentially colonizing white Alaskan sheriff (Greg Kinnear) in “A Traveler.” The plots usually ultimately suffer from the same weaknesses described above: absurd literalism, ironic and unbelievable acting. The stories feel at times boring, at other times silly.
It is arguably the final episode of the series that best encapsulates these limitations and the weakness of the series as a whole. In the finale “Blurryman”, Peele breaks the fourth wall in a Rod Serling-style intro to announce that he’s not happy with the episode, and calls on writer Sophie (Zazie Beetz) to fix it. We learn Sophie is a diehard Twilight Zone (original series) fan, and watch as she works on the rewrite, reviews past takes, and notices a vague, blurry figure in the background on a number of earlier shots.
Sophie becomes haunted by this “blurryman” both in her own life and on the set, and enters a sort of waking nightmare. Finally, realising she needs to confront her fear, she meets the blurryman in the library taken from classic episode of The Twilight Zone, “Time Enough At Last.” There, as the blurry figure steps out of the shadow, it is revealed that he is a CGI Rod Serling! And he speaks to Sophie (in, I guess, a computer-generated impression of Serling’s voice), opens a door, telling Sophie “we have work to do,” and together the two of them walk into the Twilight Zone itself, as the reanimated and computerized Serling provides the final voiceover of the season.
Now I feel the need to describe this in full because I was frankly shocked when I saw it, though I guess I should not be, since they now put on concerts with holograms of dead musicians. But the cynicism of this finale felt all too fitting for 2019. The nostalgia underlying the whole concept of rebooting The Twilight Zone is literally personified by a computer-generated Serling. Not to mention that the ambiguously conceptual Twilight Zone is literalized into a place that Sophie and Rod can enter. Ridiculous.
But there was also something deeply sad about this, as we watch an artificially reanimated Rod brought back to life. It struck me as an ultimate indictment of the creative failures of the present, and our clinging need for nostalgia. We can apparently do nothing novel now: we seek past comforts that are gone (and through computers we have found one more way of insisting they are not gone, they can be brought back).
And perhaps most disturbingly: this also felt like the only way to end the series. The show’s repeated homages to the original (a Willy ventriloquist doll in season opener “The Comedian”, the references to “Time Enough At Last” in “Blurryman,” etc), its literalness, its acting laced with the shallowness that is endemic of so much of television today, its half-hearted attempt at making The Twilight Zone for Now. How else could it end but through a ridiculous re-invocation of the past? Let’s just give the people what they want, they concede pitifully. Namely, the original, or some version of it. In its final moments, the show throws its hands up, admits it was all a joke, and buries its heads in some cosplay of the past.
This is particularly distressing given the blantant apocalypticism of the world today, as it seems entirely conceivable that a new version of The Twilight Zone could meaningfully portray the strange psychic space we currently inhabit. Nuclear war, disease, social chaos, capitalistic greed; the dominant themes of the original are alive and well – not to even mention climate change. The ongoing pandemic is only the most acute, recent, and immediate manifestation of the pervasive sense that we are at the end of history.
And yet somehow a show with themes interlacing all of this, based on one of the most iconic shows of all time, could just miss the mark and wind up reinforcing the cultural stasis of the present. (And frankly, I found myself surprised Jordan Peele was okay with all this, given the solid other work he’s done. If nothing else, it just seems lazy).
So the new Twilight Zone, which may have had more potential, is ultimately one that reflects more than anything the stagnation of the time in which it was created. That of a bored, nostalgic, creatively exhausted, backwards-grasping society.
If you’re stuck inside, if you’re feeling nostalgic. If you want to absorb this piece of cultural homogeneity, or just see if I’m right, check it out. But you’re better off just watching the original.