The following is a spoiler-free review of the first four episodes of The Twilight Zone on CBS All Access. While we won’t spoil any twists or big revelations, we will tell you the premise for the purpose of discussion. Be warned.
Rod Serling’s original The Twilight Zone certainly wasn’t the first anthology horror/sci-fi/fantasy series, but it’s the reason we still have them. After a massive upsurge in the ’60s, anthology genre shows have ebbed and flowed throughout the decades. We’re seeing a resurgence again, thanks to Black Mirror, a major acolyte of The Twilight Zone. It was only a matter of time before the O.G. returned. CBS All Access’ newest Twilight Zone has added a few new dimensions, but hasn’t quite captured the magic of the original.
The series officially premieres on April 1 to the streaming service, but we’ve seen the first four episodes. There are clear indicators that the new Twilight Zone‘s creative team–most visibly executive producer and host Jordan Peele–want to keep the structure of Serling’s original but make the stories more topical than universal. Given Peele’s big screen track record, there’s more demand for a socially impactful tale. Based on the episodes at hand, it all depends on the execution.
The show’s conceit has always been to put regular people–generally unremarkable–[in supremely strange scenarios, often where they’re the only one to know something’s strange. The first four Twilight Zone episodes all feel very familiar in that regard. A struggling comedian gets the chance to be funny, for a price; a nervous flier learns of a terrible fate that will befall his flight; a woman discovers her father’s old camcorder can rewind time; a mysterious strangers appears in a remote police station on Christmas Eve. Each on paper feels like it could be right out of 1959.
There’s a slavish devotion to the Serling original in a lot of the presentation. The exact Marius Constant theme music from seasons two through five is used here for the opening and closing titles. Director of photography Mathias Herndl’s moody visual are not what 1960s TV could have mustered, but they evoke the noirish black-and-white whenever possible. And Peele himself is effectively doing a Rod Serling impersonation as our narrator, from the black suit to his pattern of speech. Where they shake up the formula is where the show gets interesting, for better and worse.
I didn’t love the show’s first episode, “The Comedian,” written by producer Alex Rubens, a veteran of Community and Key and Peele. It finds Kumail Nanjiani as a political comedian who can’t get a laugh at his home comedy club. He meets his idol (played by Tracy Morgan) one evening who gives the advice to give all of himself on stage. “No one cares about your mind. They want to know you.” As soon as our hero begins talking about his life, the laughs come immediately. But, since it’s The Twilight Zone, there’s a twist: whatever he talks about on stage ceases to exist in real life.
The original series always started normally and then rose to a frenzied pitch as the strange premise plays out. Then the infamous twist ending would turn everything on its ear. “The Comedian” only has its premise, and a solid central performance from Nanjiani, but it’s a story that can be explained entirely in a couple of sentences. It lacks the narrative punch of Serling or Richard Matheson’s best script and instead feels like we’re just waiting for the twist.
The same can’t be said for the second episode, “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet,” a nominal redux of one of the most famous Twilight Zone stories. Adam Scott is a nervous flier who learns of a “monster” of sorts, but instead of merely being “something on the wing,” the threat comes in the form of a true crime podcast, told in the past tense, about the disappearance of the very flight he’s on. This one keeps the audience guessing until the very end.
Episode three, “Replay,” feels like another extended metaphor, but handled much better than the first. Sanaa Lathan stars as a mother driving her son (Damson Idris) to college through rural America. She learns she can rewind time via a camcorder, which is good because a white state trooper (Glenn Fleshler) keeps pulling them over, with bad results. It’s a much more topical episode than The Twilight Zone ever really did, and one absolutely borne of the same real-world issues that informed Peele’s Get Out. The episode, however, lacks the same punch.
And finally, we have “A Traveler,” in which Steven Yuen plays a sinister, pinstripe-suited man who somehow ends up in the holding cell of an Alaska police station on Christmas. He knows a lot of dark secrets about the townsfolk, which puts the captain (Greg Kinnear) and his deputy (Marika Sila) very ill at ease. This episode has a particularly chilly air, directed with claustrophobic paranoia by Ana Lily Amirpour.
So far, The Twilight Zone reboot is approaching greatness, but is not quite there. The first four episodes have the spark of originality that made the franchise what it is, but at this point it has too much reverence for the tropes to really make its mark. Simply adding the F-word because you can doesn’t immediately make it edgy.
Of the original series’ 156 episodes, 92 were written by Rod Serling and the show bears his unique, Kafkaesque point of view. This new Twilight Zone doesn’t have its own stamp yet, merely aping Serling’s, but it has potential. The changes and updates, even when not perfectly executed, are where the show can shine going forward. It just needs to step out of its creator’s large shadow.
The Twilight Zone begins streaming weekly on CBS All Access April 1.