UK TV review: The Twilight Zone: Season 1 and 2
Ivan Radford | On 27, Oct 2020
“You’re travelling to another dimension. A dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind.” That’s the sound of Rod Serling’s iconic introduction to The Twilight Zone being rebooted, retooled and revamped for the Facebook and Instagram era. Stepping into Serling’s shoes? None other than Jordan Peele, the shrewd mind behind the creepy, timely, scathingly observed social thriller Get Out.
It’s a prospect that’s enough to get any fan of his or the original series excited. The Twilight Zone, after all, was the topical satire of its day, smuggling political messages and social critiques into McCarthy-era living rooms in the form of science fiction. Famed for its twists and turns, all wrapped up in bundles of eerie storytelling no longer than 30 minutes, The Twilight Zone was a genre-bending classic with a playful wit and ambitious scope. The biggest surprise twist of the all-new The Twilight Zone, based on the opening episodes, is that it may not always have much to say at all.
Season 1 begins with Nightmare at 30,000 Feet, which follows a passenger (Adam Scott) as he listens to a podcast on a flight that predicts their eventual disappearance. A magazine journalist with a nose for investigation, he can’t resist the chance to work out what’s really going on – and it’s no spoiler to say that his nosey behaviour doesn’t go down well. Freaking out air hostesses, passengers and himself alike, the episode does well to tap into modern anxieties about flying and safety, but compared to the original story it’s inspired by, which starred William Shatner and explored trauma and PTSD, it’s a quick flight that lands a little thin on the ground.
The same is true of Episode 2, The Comedian, which sees Kumail Nanjiani (The Big Sick) play Samir, a stand-up whose failing routine suddenly gets supercharged by a mysterious figure and an equally mysterious power. A guest turn from Tracy Morgan brings a nice dose of menace, while Kumail is eminently likeable as the would-be comic who faces a dark cost to achieve fame and success. But the Faustian theme is one that’s as old as “Knock, Knock” jokes, even with its more contemporary setting, and if the episode is trying to say something about the challenge of political comedy today, it’s not a particularly clear message.
There’s more substance to Replay, which sees a woman use a time-travelling video camera to avoid a racist cop – a neat fusion of genre tropes and real life context to produce a tense piece of telly. That episode shows promise for the series to embrace the same role as its predecessor in this new decade. The directors all bring a slick, glossy quality to the episodes, while the cast are uniformly convincing, with Adam Scott in particular making his somewhat cliched character feel genuine.
Season 2 mostly operates in similar territory, with a mixed bag of uneven outings. When it works, such as Episode 3 (The Who of You), it’s a hugely fun ride, as we following a body-swapping actor across town – leading to memorable turns from Mel Rodriguez and Billy Porter. Episode 6 (8) is an enjoyably cheesy creature feature, complete with B-movie effects bringing to life an intelligent underwater theatre (spoiler: it involves tentacles). Episode 8 (A Small Town) has fun with a power-crazed handyman who discovers he can exert God-like powers over a model village.
Some episodes get by on the strength of their cast, with Jimmi Simpson elevating the sophomore opener Meet in the Middle, which follows the aftermath of a psychic connection between a lonely dating app user and a mysterious woman. Lovecraft Country’s Jurnee Smollett-Bell shines in Episode 4 (Ovation), about a singer who discovers a price to her skyrocketing fame, which is directed with dark wit by Ana Lily Amirpour (A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night).
Others can’t quite get over their own ideas, from Episode 2 (Downtime), written by Jordan Peele, that explores the notion of reality and identity in our digital age but can’t quite find its footing, to Episode 5 (Among the Untrodden), which plays with a Carrie-like premise but ends up having to explain everything in a clunky exposition dump at the end. You Might Also Like, Season 2’s finale, goes even more retro with the closes the series has come to the original Twilight Zone yet, and the result is a satire that lacks teeth and is undermined by its dated, awkward comedy.
Peele pops up at the beginning and end of each episode as a suitably enigmatic and imperious narrator. But even his seal of approval can’t stop The Twilight Zone feeling like it’s fighting an uphill struggle, as it not only returns to our screens in the age of #MeToo and Donald Trump, but also returns to our screens in the age of a growing number of anthology series, from Inside No 9 to Black Mirror. The former, which also uses genre trappings to tell twisted, funny stories, sets the bar very high for any new TV compendium, and The Twilight Zone struggles to meet it, particularly in terms of tight pacing. Black Mirror, meanwhile, manages more disturbing darkness in the horror of its more immediately modern concerns.
The result is an impressive-looking, if lightweight reboot, which is still finding a way to build its own voice both independent of and respectful towards the original show.
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