The new Twilight Zone updates the style of the ’60s classic while keeping its deeply moral core, Adam Goodall writes.
In ‘Replay’, the third episode of the new Twilight Zone, a young black man wonders why his mother doesn’t want to visit her brother. “Damn, Mama,” he asks, put out, “aren’t you interested in me knowing about my family? I haven’t seen Uncle Neil since Kaepernick took the ‘9ers to the Superbowl.”
The reference to Colin Kaepernick, the NFL quarterback blacklisted for taking a knee during the national anthem in protest against racial injustice and police brutality, is a reminder that The Twilight Zone is a fundamentally moral series. Much like in Rod Serling’s earthshaking original, each of the stories in this new anthology takes place in a world where injustice is addressed and hubris is punished; a world where there is a right, there is a wrong, and there is a lesson to be learned.
A lot of ink has been spilled about the moral core of Serling’s work in the lead-up to this reboot, developed by Jordan Peele (of Get Out, Us and Continental Breakfast fame), The Martian producer Simon Kinberg and former Daredevil showrunner Marco Ramirez. I’m not going to spill any more – I just don’t know the originals all that well. But if the first three episodes of their new Zone are any indication, Peele and company have not lost that core. Each episode is a little morality play.
The first episode, ‘The Comedian’, tells the tale of an excruciatingly high-minded comic named Samir (played by Silicon Valley’s Kumail Nanjiani). After bombing on stage one night, Samir meets a comedy icon (played by Tracey Morgan) who makes an irresistible offer: start telling jokes about the people in your life, and you’ll kill on stage – but whoever you joke about will be erased from existence.
In ‘Nightmare at 30,000 Feet’, Adam Scott plays Justin Sanderson, an investigative reporter on his way to Tel Aviv for a story. During take-off, Sanderson finds a mysterious media player with a podcast cued up – a podcast predicting the disappearance of Justin’s flight in one hour.
(Fun fact: ‘Nightmare at 30,000 Feet’ is produced by Glen Morgan, the writer behind another mystery about someone who has a premonition that their plane will have an accident and tries to save everyone on board, Final Destination. I love Final Destination and most of its sequels – in 2016 I wrote and performed a play about Morgan’s magnum opus, Final Destination 3 – so this shit is like my catnip.)
Episode three, ‘Replay’, is all about Nina. Nina discovers that her father’s hardy old video camera has the power to reverse time. So when she and her son Dorian are stopped by a racist police officer who tries to shoot Dorian, Nina hits rewind so that she and Dorian can try again… and again… and again.
Nanjiani and Scott are both well-cast in their roles as unremarkable middle-aged men reacting poorly to their impossible circumstances. Nanjiani carefully draws out the selfishness and pettiness that churn away in Samir’s gut, sweating and snapping at friends and enemies. Scott, meanwhile, conducts his ad hoc investigation with this kind of apologetic confidence. He always looks and sounds like he’s defusing a situation or making up for a mistake, even though he never is. He’s an investigative reporter and he knows he’s in the right.
Sanaa Lathan is particularly powerful and present as Nina, a mother who’s been wrestling with her identity forever. She acts like she’s never had a chance to rest in her life. Even when she’s having lunch with her son, a time when you’d think she’d be relaxed, she nods and raises her eyebrows and talks about her past like she’s exhausted by trying to escape it, like she hates that it keeps catching up to her. Nina has to go places in this episode, pursued by a policeman through every timeline, but Lathan never stops reminding you of where she’s come from and how big that looms in her mind.
Samir and Scott and Nina are all anchors; they’re meant to keep us steady in this off-kilter ocean of time travel and divine judgment. Directors Owen Harris (‘The Comedian’), Greg Yaitanes (‘Nightmare’) and Gerard McMurray (‘Replay’) make that clear in how they choose to shoot these characters. They place them in the doorways of cavernous rooms, or they fill the frame with them, shooting them tight under the chin, or they give us several different angles in quick succession, jumping across sight-lines in a really disorienting way. Harris is the most obvious about this – Samir is constantly being swallowed up by the apartment his partner has paid for, the comedy club he doesn’t belong in, the street where he’s a nobody.
These choices, and others like them – the way Yaitanes plays with the sound mix in ‘Nightmare’, dropping out the plane nose the moment the headphones go on, or the absolutely phenomenal make-up work on Officer Lasky (Glenn Fleshler) in ‘Replay’, with his blue lips and freezer-cold skin – are all about building a sense of dread, creating the feeling that comeuppance is coming, that judgment will soon be handed down.
But we don’t live in a world where that comeuppance is always deserved, where that judgment is always just: cruel comedians succeed just as often as kind ones, planes can disappear no matter who’s on board, and Colin Kaepernick hasn’t played a game since he got blackballed in 2016. Jordan Peele’s Twilight Zone often struggles to reconcile this with its own firm sense of morality. Is the Twilight Zone just a mirror image of our world where justice actually works, or is it more than that?
This is why ‘The Comedian’ ultimately bombs. Harris and scriptwriter Alex Rubens don’t use their indulgent hour-long runtime to say anything much. Once Samir starts using his powers to play at the role of petty comedy tyrant, disappearing people he doesn’t like, the episode settles into a tortuous cycle of on-the-nose dialogue and repetitive character beats. You know where this is going and Harris and Rubens have no interest in taking you anywhere else. ‘The Comedian’ doesn’t have a melody to play, only a single note about the importance of listening to others and acting with compassion, especially when you’ve got a microphone and an audience. It drags.
‘Nightmare’ has similar things to say – Justin’s hubris, his refusal to actually sit down and listen to people, is ultimately his downfall – but all of this plays out in the context of modern air travel and all the political anxieties tied up in it. Justin jumps the gun on his premonitory podcast again and again, profiling people based on their race and gender and appearance and hiding his arrogance and recklessness behind a veil of deferential civility. Like ‘The Comedian’, this parable ends the way you’d expect a parable to end – punitive, a little too cute for its own good, satisfying in a grim kind of way – but it’s brisk and does a good job of updating Richard Matheson’s original short story for an age of pervasive airport security and leery true crime podcasts.
‘Replay’ is the real gem in this first batch. McMurray (who also directed the superb finger-on-the-pulse horror film The First Purge) and writer Selwyn Seyfu Hinds take a simple time travel device and use it to illustrate the ever-present fear for black Americans that some day their child will walk out the door and never come back, brutalised or killed by a racist who’s wearing a uniform that automatically lets him off the hook. Nina obsesses over ‘trying again’, doing it right this time, but almost every time, no matter what she does, the minotaur with the badge finds her and tries to murder her son. Each encounter is tense, gut-wrenching in a way that the other two episodes never reach.
But ‘Replay’ isn’t bleak. Like I said, Peele’s Twilight Zone is fundamentally moral, and ‘Replay’’s third act is optimistic, even triumphant. But this episode is also complicated, and it doesn’t let the audience just walk away with a pat, positive ending. Ultimately, ‘Replay’ is the perfect example of what The Twilight Zone can be in 2019, of what the best science-fiction is and always has been: thrilling stories of the uncanny that aren’t shy about ripping into society and interrogating the injustices that define it.
The Twilight Zone drops on TVNZ on Demand today. You can watch it right here.