Imagine a Twilight Zone episode that goes something like this: An individual regularly takes to the internet in the hopes of making himself heard, railing against everything from the “hatefulness” of Democrats to the degradation of modern society. All he wants is an audience. But then the hapless individual complains on Twitter that the new CBS All Access reboot of The Twilight Zone is yet another beloved cultural property that’s been ruined by leftist cultural warriors. Finally, his wish has come true: He goes viral, and is subsequently roasted by journalists and internet celebrities and comedians with millions of followers. He’s dragged so mercilessly, in fact, that the individual eventually has to set his profile to private—depriving himself of the one outlet he had for communicating with the world.
Versions of this scenario did actually happen recently, as disgruntled viewers responding to new episodes of The Twilight Zone found themselves given short shrift for expressing dismay that the update, produced by Jordan Peele and Simon Kinberg, is too “political.” The Twilight Zone, of course, has always had something to say about the state of the world—not since the time of Jesus himself have center-left parables with clear moral lessons been so efficiently disseminated. Rod Serling devised the concept for the show precisely because 1950s network producers were so skittish about overt political messages in the wake of McCarthyism. On television in 1956, Serling later wrote in his book Patterns, “to say a single thing germane to the current political scene was absolutely prohibited.”
Sci-fi, though, was a different story. By wrapping his ideas in allegory, Serling could scotch the censors and say exactly what he wanted about totalitarianism, mass hysteria, prejudice, selfishness, conspiracy theorists, hate. Each episode of The Twilight Zone had a distinct message enunciated in Serling’s narration, making the moral of the story clear for even the most careless viewer. In “The Obsolete Man” (1961), a fable about a librarian in a futuristic state that has outlawed books, Serling observes how the “iron rule” of dictatorships is that “logic is an enemy and truth is a menace.” In “The Brain Center at Whipple’s” (1964), a story about a factory owner who replaces all his employees with technology, only to suffer the same fate, Serling notes that “there are many bromides applicable here: ‘too much of a good thing,’ ‘tiger by the tail,’ ‘as you sow so shall you reap.’” The Twilight Zone is essentially Aesop with a 20th-century imagination. It’s also timeless.
Oddly enough, these morals are missing from the new series, which features an on-camera Peele in Serling’s role. So is the element of grim justice that both The Twilight Zone and its modern heir, Black Mirror, have always held at their core—the kind of karmic inevitability that sees an SS captain subjected to the same torture he meted out to prisoners, or a woman sentenced to endure the fear and violence of an angry mob after committing a horrendous crime herself. Serling’s The Twilight Zone is defined by its twists, but not a single thing happens in the new series that you won’t be able to predict, at least from the four episodes made available for review. This isn’t really a reboot; it doesn’t even qualify as fan fiction. With the exception of one superior episode, “Replay,” it’s hard to conceive that an artist as prodigiously talented and thoughtful as Peele is creatively involved at all.
I attempted to decipher the messages that the first four episodes might be trying to convey, but only ended up stumped. The premiere installment, available for CBS All Access subscribers, is titled “The Comedian,” and stars Kumail Nanjiani as a stand-up, Samir, whose politically charged routine keeps bombing with audiences. (Which, really? This is the era of John Oliver eviscerations and Hasan Minhaj and Nanette.) After one especially disastrous set, Samir randomly encounters an elusive comedy great (played by Tracy Morgan), who tells him the secret to success: He has to put more of his personal life into his act. “The audience don’t care what you think,” Morgan’s character says. “They care about you.”
Samir tries riffing on new subjects—his dog, his nephew, his high-school bullies. There is, of course, a cost to those he brings into his act, and the more successful Samir gets, the more he ends up losing. Certain themes that recur in the episode seem ripe for picking at: whether comedy counts as art, how comedians can offer insight into the human condition, whether comedy is about making people laugh first and foremost. But they’re left floating in the ether, while Samir goes through a series of superficial realizations about his own grandiosity and the Faustian bargain of fame. The question of what we’re supposed to take away from his story is a perplexing one. Is it that putting your personal life into your art is bad? (Because if so, I say again, Nanette.) Is this an elaborate rant about contemporary audiences being too shallow for insightful truths? Because that’s not what Serling thought.
This particular reboot has another problem, something that bedevils virtually every streaming show: Its episodes are way too long. Serling’s The Twilight Zone tied its stories up neatly within 30 minutes, including space for commercials. The brevity of the format dispensed with extraneous waffling—there was no time, for example, to show a comedian delivering the same joke about the Second Amendment five separate times. But there was space for a surprising amount of world-building (Serling’s narration did a lot of work here), and for a tidy one-act play that zips along. “The Comedian,” by contrast, is 54 minutes long. (It’s worth remembering that in 1963, The Twilight Zone’s running time was stretched to 60 minutes, but after one season the change was swiftly reversed.)
“A Traveler,” another new episode that runs longer than 50 minutes, suffers more from this extended storytelling time than most, given that its twist is apparent from the minute a mysterious man in a suit (Steven Yeun) appears in a remote Alaskan prison cell on Christmas Eve. The questions of who this man is, where he came from, and what he wants should be the most urgent issues underpinning the episode. But because the story devolves into a series of yawning subplots—a police deputy’s (Marika Sila) odd relationship with her brother, her antagonism toward her narcissistic boss (Greg Kinnear)—there’s very little tension surrounding the newcomer, who identifies only as A. Traveler. Yeun (Burning) is magnetic as the enigmatic interloper, and the episode has intriguing subtext about colonizers and the colonized that seems to beg for more overt allegorizing. But Peele’s closing narration, the part that’s supposed to explain to viewers how to interpret what they’ve just seen, is opaque. (“There’s no difference between myth and mistruth” means nothing no matter how you slice it.)
The best of the four new episodes, “Replay,” functions so well because it incorporates tension into its setup. Nina (Sanaa Lathan), is taking her son, Dorian (Damson Idris), to college, a fictional HBCU called Tennyson. Dorian wants to be a filmmaker and to inspire people with the stories he puts into the world. But it’s the camera Nina wields, an old-fashioned camcorder, that seems to have profound power after she discovers she can use it to rewind time.
This is the kind of slightly hokey, completely implausible, suspend-your-disbelief scenario that The Twilight Zone has always aced. It’s easy to imagine, say, a character played by Burgess Meredith discovering a clock with similar qualities in a 1960s-era episode, and then trying (and failing) to go back to his glory days, imparting a valuable be-careful-what-you-wish for message about nostalgia along the way. But in “Replay,” the camera itself isn’t the point so much as what Nina uses it for. Throughout the episode, she’s plagued by a racist highway cop, Officer Lasky (Glenn Fleshler), who poses grave danger to Dorian, and no matter how she tries to escape or placate him, there he is. “He keeps pulling us over, again and again and again,” a desperate Nina says in one scene, “no matter what route we take, how nice or mean we are … There’s nothing I can do.”
The episode is so powerful because it forces audiences to feel the frustration and fear that Nina feels, but also the inevitability of antagonists like this one. No matter how hard Nina tries to get Lasky to see her as a person, to buy him a slice of apple pie and tell him about how proud she is of her son and how much he means to her, Lasky can’t be swayed. Fleshler communicates his impotent rage, his petty tyranny over a stretch of highway, his racism. In Nina’s hands, the magical camcorder feels like a device that might help her escape what Lasky represents, but it turns out to be less powerful than something else she’s been ignoring. Cameras, the episode makes clear in one of its most resonant moments, aren’t enough.
“Replay” shows what a modern Twilight Zone could really be, offering the kind of sociopolitical analysis Serling excelled at, but without the folksiness of 1950s television. For the most part, though, the new series feels like anthology storytelling by the numbers, more concerned with Easter eggs and recurring themes (“Lasky” is also the name of a street in “The Comedian,” and the number 1015 repeats across episodes) than with trying to emulate what the original show did so well—making audiences see the world with more clarity.
“Nightmare at 30,000 Feet,” a dismal episode starring Adam Scott, is the worst of the four, a clunky, cutesy “what if” story about a magazine journalist on a flight to Tel Aviv. The story is loosely inspired by a vintage Twilight Zone episode with William Shatner, in which a man recovering from a nervous breakdown sees a gremlin on the wing of his commercial plane. Scott’s character, Justin Sanderson, is similarly recovering from PTSD after reporting in war zones, but when he takes his seat on the plane, he finds a mysterious audio device in the seat pocket in front of him. It plays him a podcast, seemingly from the future, that investigates the mystery of how the flight Sanderson is on ended in tragedy.
Forget the corniness of a podcast that portends the future, or the improbability of a world in which magazine journalists fly first class. The episode has no tension, no investment in any of the characters. You might be less curious about how the plane actually goes down than in how the producers managed to nail the production of the fake podcast itself—the smug, omniscient narrator and the clinky background music. But more damaging is how totally unclear it is what the episode is supposed to do. Serling’s original episode interrogated preconceived ideas about anxiety and mental confusion; his central character has no credibility because he’s suffered a nervous breakdown, and seems to fear being crazy even more than he fears actually being right about the gremlin. The new “Nightmare” has none of this subtext. “In his final moments, Justin Sanderson made the case that he did everything he could to avert disaster,” Peele opines. “But in the end, he was an investigative reporter unwilling to investigate himself, until it was too late.” Bromide salad. Cliché. Fin.
What’s strangest of all about the reboot is its defiant lack of darkness, its unwillingness to even scratch at the human psyche. This could be a possible response to the fact that Black Mirror already exists, and that its creator, Charlie Brooker, had The Twilight Zone at the forefront of his mind when he created it. The new Twilight Zone isn’t frightened of what technology is doing to us, as Black Mirror is, nor is it particularly concerned with Serling’s great preoccupation—how humanity has always found ways to torture itself. It has none of the indelible eeriness or the subconscious probings of Us, Peele’s most recent film, which is itself inspired by a Twilight Zone episode. Nothing feels sinister. Everything feels safe. In a world so weird that it’s frequently likened to a bad computer simulation, this Twilight Zone is blandness stretched into an hour-long format, storytelling that feels oddly neutered before it even begins.