Jordan Peele revisits 'The Twilight Zone' with mixed results
There's the signpost up ahead, once more. "The Twilight Zone," one of the great pillars of television art and holiday marathons, is back, on CBS All Access, the Columbia Broadcasting System's weirder cousin.
Jordan Peele, who produces and presents, stands in for the original series' host and creator, Rod Serling, wrapping the series in his own already well-developed brand of incisive uncanniness ("Get Out," "Us").
The series has already been revived twice, first from 1985 to 1989, also by CBS (all I remember from that version is the Grateful Dead performed the Bernard Herrmann theme music) and again in 2002 by UPN, with Forest Whitaker hosting. The 1983 film version, in which Steven Spielberg, Joe Dante and Jon Landis expensively remade three episodes from the original, just made me want to watch TV. And it's been remade again, in a way, under another name, as Netflix's "Black Mirror," the success of which may have something to do with this latest return to life.
Still, there is a reason that this is "The Twilight Zone" — beyond that CBS owns the title — and not "Jordan Peele Presents," even though Peele will be the name that brings in some viewers. "Zone" is a known brand; airing from 1959 to 1964, the original was a tradition, a way of interpreting the world.
It arrived well into the Cold War, a little after the launch of Sputnik and encompassing the Cuban Missile Crisis — what we might call the Peak Bomb Shelter Years. It was an age of paranoia and prejudice but also of hope. Its message, broadly speaking — which finds expression in Peele's version as well — is that we are limited, fearful creatures who sometimes follow our better angels. (But, mostly, the monsters are us.) (Though sometimes it's them.)
In "Nightmare at 30,000 Feet," a quasi-remake of the famous "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet," Adam Scott's airborne journalist goes from civility advocate to hectoring nervous wreck as he tries to keep his PTSD down (he had some bad times in Yemen) on a seemingly jinxed flight. It's an Escaping Fate story of the sort familiar from time-travel tales or, for that matter, "Oedipus Rex," with a mysterious podcast player standing in for the Delphic Oracle.
In "The Comedian," a Be Careful What You Wish For story, Kumail Nanjiani plays a stand-up comic who ditches unsuccessful political humor to mine his life for laughs after a barstool discussion with a famous older comic (Tracy Morgan, who should do more straight acting). We quickly understand it to be a deal with "a" if not, strictly speaking, "the" devil. The catch is that what gets him laughs onstage disappears from his life offstage. Well, artists do sometimes trade life for success. Nanjiani does a nice turn, but nothing about the milieu is persuasive. And I knew he'd start wishing people into the cornfield.
"Rewind" shares a title and a supernatural device with a first-revival episode — a magical video camera turns back time when it rewinds tape. A terrific Sanaa Lathan plays a mother dropping off her son (Damson Idris) at a historically black college while a state trooper (Glenn Fleshler), less a character than a political point with legs, finds a way to harass in every new timeline.
"He's always there," says Lathan's character, suggesting a metaphor. "We can't get past him." The climax is too blunt for real drama but not uncalled for. "For some evils, there are no magical permanent solutions," Peele says in his afterword, "and the future remains uncertain, even here in the Twilight Zone."
"X-Files" alumni Glen Morgan wrote "The Traveler," in which Marika Sila plays an indigenous Alaska state trooper on a dark and snowy Christmas night, laboring unhappily under Greg Kinnear's self-satisfied sheriff. A stranger (Steven Yeun) mysteriously materializes inside a locked cell and stirs up suspicion at the town Christmas party. Of the episodes I've seen, this is the one that screams Serling. The specter of Russians across the water feels like a nod to the Cold War old days.
The episodes are well cast; the performances are good. Every episode looks great, each with its own palette and atmosphere; that they're in color rather than the noir-expressionist black and white of the original does not make them any less creepy.
Most do generate suspense, if only because they're built around likable characters — and likable actors — you suspect bad things might happen to or who might cause bad things to happen. (Because. You. Are. In. The. Twilight. Zone.) I felt plenty tense — at least, until I worked out an ending, which I did halfway through half the episodes, almost as if I were the Oracle at Delphi.
After that, it's just a matter of waiting for the show to catch up. But I've waited in worse places.