Fear and loathing in The Twilight Zone – the reboot
Like many a sci-fi geek, I grew up watching The Ray Bradbury Theater, Ripley’s Believe It or Not, the original X-Files, the far-too-short-lived V, Lexx and Fringe. But before all of those marvellous mind-bending shows, there was The Twilight Zone and its famous intro…
It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition; and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call The Twilight Zone.
Possibly the most famous anthology series ever made, with five seasons and 156 episodes – 80 of which were written by the show’s host Rod Sterling – the original Twilight Zone encapsulated the fears of the Boomer generation. Much like Black Mirror is a reflection of the fears of Millennials, who can still remember a time before the internet, technology and smartphones.
It stands to reason then, that this – the third reimagining of The Twilight Zone series since the original – is a depiction of the night terrors of a new generation. And with Jordan Peele cast as the narrator, you can be sure of just that.
While Peele’s work as a comedian and comedy scriptwriter forms the bulk of his career, since directing the psychological horror movie Get Out (2017) and the unsettling, just-as-horrific Us (2019), he has earned himself a reputation as a modern Mr Sterling. Meaning, he’s great at telling stories that make the hairs on our arm prickle, the kind of horrors that happen in broad daylight and are all the more scary because they could just be true.
Along with Peele comes a fantastic ensemble cast, which includes Seth Rogan, Adam Scott and Gregg Kinnear to name but a few.
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A traditional Twilight Zone tale crosses multiple genres, with standalone episodes steeped in slow-building drama, futuristic sci-fi and ominous thrills, as well as themes like dystopian futures, time-travelling strangers and flying saucers.
The first episode, The Comedian stars Kumail Ali Nanjiani (who you’ll recognise from The Big Sick and Silicon Valley). It’s a portrait of a struggling artist who discovers just how far he’ll go for the fame and recognition he thinks his talent deserves. It’s also exactly the right episode to kick off the first season of the new Twilight Zone, where the protagonist finds himself in a role where he’s thinking “Wait? Did that just really happen?”
Look out for a cameo by Tracy Morgan.
Nightmare at 30,000 Feet is next and is the only episode co-written by Peele. It’s based on one of the most famous Twilight Zone stories of all – yes, the one where a passenger sees something monstrous on the wing of the plane, but no one believes him! Adam Scott shines as the jittery journalist who is convinced that something is horribly, horribly wrong on his flight.
Replay is the first episode that touches on a decidedly modern theme: the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Sanaa Lathan plays the mother of a college-bound son (Damson Idris), who crosses paths with a racist state trooper who’ll stop at nothing to disrupt their lives.
Then it’s back to regular Twilight Zone territory with The Traveler, in which a man mysteriously appears in the locked cell of an Alaskan outpost on Christmas Eve – just in time for the captain’s annual tradition of pardoning a prisoner. What are the chances? Kudos go to Steven Yeun (Walking Dead) and Greg Kinnear as the captain, as well as Inuit actress Marika Sila, who deserves more screen time.
While the season finisher Blurryman is my favourite episode of Season 1, the award for the most unsettling goes to The Wunderkind. John Cho (Harold & Kumar, Star Trek) is the campaign manager for the wholesome and heartfelt Oliver, an 11-year-old YouTuber who wants to be the next President of the United States. It’s terrifying because, well… America (points at headlines).
Six Degrees of Freedom is good-old traditional space-fi. A crew on a mission to Mars begins to turn on each other, while captain Alexa Brandt struggles to maintain order. If it feels familiar, it’s because you’ve seen this plot so many times it has lost its flavour. Its only redeeming point is the twist at the end.
Of course, there’s a twist at the end – this is the Twilight Zone.
If the title of Not All Men is not enough of a clue, in this episode the men of a local town begin acting violently after a meteor shower, deftly explaining away hundreds of years of systematic patriarchy. Sisters Rhea Seahorn (Kim Wexler of Better Call Saul) and Taissa Farmiga (American Horror Story) must fight to survive while the authorities figure out what’s going on.
In Point of Origin, when Anna Fuentas (Zabryna Guevara of The Handmaid’s Tale and New Amsterdam) asks if she can use her mistress’s address on a form, the well-to-do and fashionably benevolent socialite Eve Martin says yes. Then ICE drags Anna off and before you know it, Eve and her family are being interrogated by Homeland Security. When they’re finally released, everyone gets to go home – except Eve who is suspected of being an illegal alien. Gasp!
A quick sidebar: It’s in grappling with social issues like the immigration crisis that this modern-day Twilight Zone sometimes falls flat. Yes, by all means, devote an episode to shedding light on the situation, but then consider if a Twilight Zone plot-twist or “moral of the story” type ending does it justice or softens its punch.
Bless you, Chris O’Dowd and your smiling Irish countenance – although he’s not doing much smiling in The Blue Scorpion. Jeff Storck is down on his luck; his wife is divorcing him and his father’s committed suicide. Leaving him a house and a rare revolver. A revolver that he can’t stop thinking about. And is it just him, or is everyone in his life suddenly called Jeff as well? What is going on?
And the award for the most meta episode of television goes to Blurryman. Jordan Peele plays himself as the host of the Twilight Zone, and the effervescent Zazie Beetz (Atlanta) plays a writer on the show, who is struggling to script one of those classic Twilight intros to an episode, as spoken by the narrator.
She’s a massive Twilight Zone geek and, fittingly, is being haunted by a very Twilight Zone-y boogieman: the blurry man. As if this episode isn’t self-aware enough, it doubles down on the meta vibes by referencing Time Enough at Last, an episode from 1959 where a henpecked bank teller finds himself in a world without people or clocks or anything at all. Seth Rogan makes an appearance as the lead character in Zazie’s Twilight Zone episode. Inception!