TV: The Twilight Zone (2019): Episodes 1 and 2 - Reviewed

Jordan Peele solidified himself in recent years as a fantastic storyteller, with the Oscar-winning Get Out and his most recent endeavor, Us, sweeping theaters everywhere now. It would only seem natural that he would find himself in a project such as a Twilight Zone reboot. The third such remake finds the anthology series with a host of guest stars in a modern setting, naturally, and for the most part the tales told retain the spirit and aura that the original series held together so well and consistently. CBS’s All Access streaming service released the first episode online for free and the second one for subscribers last night, so already we’ve gotten a healthy double serving of what is to come.

Episode 1: The Comedian

Laugh, and the world laughs with you; Weep, and you weep alone. – “Solitude” by Ella Wheeler Wilcox

The opening story in this anthology remake proves effective at capturing a little bit of that old magic that Rod Serling put into his stories, even if it does lose itself in its own ambiguity for the sake of it. Real-life standup comedian and Oscar-winning writer of The Big Sick Kumail Nanjiani guest stars in the pilot; concerning a failed comedian who spends his nights unsuccessfully trying to entertain bar crowds. His opening joke (repeated multiple times throughout the episode) is painfully unfunny, almost trying to draw comedy from outright public controversy or sensitive hot button topics. One night after a mysterious encounter with a stranger (an enigmatic Tracy Morgan) he finds that jokes about his own personal life and the people he knows starts to draw laughs from the crowd. 

It’s a slow and unconvincing start, but once you start to realize where the bizarre reality lies within the story, that’s when the real Twilight Zone magic starts to show itself. It’s a better-made human drama that successfully implements the aura of weirdness that made Serling’s series so endearing over the years. Perhaps it’s that bit of star power added into these guest starring episodes that will lend some more power to performances than what may initially be seen on standard television- only time will tell how well this series will stand on its own.

But that’s another great thing about this Twilight Zone reboot: the myriad of possibilities from its lineup of A-list guest actors should add a much-needed bit of spice to an already fascinating series. 

Episode 2: Nightmare at 30,000 Feet

One of the most popular episodes of the original series, Nightmare at 20,000 Feet has found itself the subject of numerous parodies throughout the years and still remains one of its most effective and terrifying takes on psychological horror. Its 2019 update Nightmare at 30,000 Feet takes the story to the new millennium (and an extra 10,000 feet higher) in a more original story than you’d think. A man’s podcast begins describing his flight in detail and predicting events that will happen, seemingly forewarning him that everyone on the plane will be dead in a matter of minutes. What follows is a kind of tense set of happenings not unlike the Liam Neeson vehicle Non-Stop, but somehow far more engaging.

The guest star this time around is Adam Scott (Step Brothers and Krampus), delivering a considerably more convincing performance than the first episode. It’s interesting to note how cowriters Peele and Marco Ramirez tweak the story into modernization and change certain aspects of the base plot to have it less of a remake and more of its own thing. If more episodes of this Twilight Zone saga prove to be great spiritual updates of some of the better parts of the original series, then maybe there’s potential for an effective series that successfully capitalizes on its source material. New stories will be more than welcome, of course, but I believe that loving nods to some of the best fan-favorite episodes would be fun to watch, at least in an experimental sense (like Van Sant’s Psycho remake but, you know, actually good). 

Nightmare at 30,000 Feet should be regarded as a proof of concept for this series: a fascinating example that there is some truly great potential that can be gleaned from this remake if its concepts are executed efficiently. With people like Jordan Peele behind the scenes, there’s no doubt that this should be a successful endeavor on his and CBS’s part. The opening sequence alone in each episode feels modern yet familiar, nothing is lost from the original’s charm that made that intro so thrilling to watch at the start of each and every episode. Peele being the host/narrator of the episodes should offer a more familiar face to viewers as well; and his presence has even proven more than effective at carrying these stories as they air or premiere on our screens. 

It’s possible that this series will experience its fair share of mishaps- the original series did once in a while, after all, and “The Comedian” wasn’t exactly the best episode to kick off the series with- but there have been plenty of television series over the years that have overcome weak introductions. I, like many others I would assume, have some faith in this update, and keeping Serling’s name as creator of the show adds that hint of authenticity that makes it that much better to watch. It’s clearly the loving labor of many a fan of the original; and with a tremendous amount of talent and inspiration behind the scenes of its production, it’s probably safe to say that we shouldn’t have too much to worry about in its effectiveness. 

-Wes Ball