The Twilight Zone: Reimagined For Modern Reality
I love The Twilight Zone. I have since I was about 7 years old and my aunt showed it to me during one of our many weekends together. She has always been into weird things, and it’s because of her that I’m into weird things. I can still remember sitting on her couch late at night, tucked under a blanket with her, eating popcorn and sharing the way I thought the episodes would end. She already knew how they went but she never spoiled any of them for me, she let me be immersed in this black and white world that was old to her but new and fantastic to me. And I fell in love with it.
Which is why when it was announced that Jordan Peele would be rebooting the Twilight Zone, I was a bit torn. On one hand, I have seen all the old reboots of the Zone including the movies and they are less than stellar. But at the same time, Jordan Peele hasn’t made anything that wasn’t less than stellar. So as apprehensive as I was, the excitement at the possibility of a new Twilight Zone that could rival the original outgrew my weariness and I’ve been waiting patiently for months.
For its premiere, we got two episodes of Peele’s Twilight Zone and because of my insomnia, I was able to catch them the moment they came out. Tucked under a blanket just like when I was 7, I entered a modern version of The Twilight Zone.
In the first episode, we follow hopeful stand up comedian Samir (played by Kumail Nanjiani) as he bombs a show and barely gets any laughs. His jokes about the 2nd Amendment and how horrible we are as people fall flat, they aren’t what the audience is looking to hear. Dejected and thinking he’s in the wrong business, Samir has a drink at the clubs bar. As he questions whether or not he’s actually funny, he meets the famed comedian JC Wheeler (played by Tracy Morgan) who tells him that he has to look inside himself and give in order to get the laughs he wants, he will gain the fame he’s chasing after but the audience is going to connect and take from him in return. However, all Samir hears is that he’s going to be successful and the two men toast their drinks to it. His next set is exactly as Wheeler said it would be, successful. The audience gives him big laughs about his dog named Cat and they cheer loudly for him at the end of the night. Samir has the best set he’s ever had and is almost instantly addicted to it. He loves the sound of the audience laughter and soon he has to decide just how much of himself he’s willing to give just to be able to keep the applause going. A classic Twilight Zone conundrum.
Following the nostalgic Zone vibe, episode two of Peele’s reimagining is perhaps the one I was most nervous to see. “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet” is a modern telling of the classic Twilight Zone episode Nightmare at 20,000 Feet. An episode that is highly regarded by all and the one that gave William Shatner a boost in his career. Many think it’s Shatner’s best episode but it’s not that title belongs to the Nick of Time episode, but that argument is for another article. 20,000 Feet is a classic though and the judgment on this new version will be critical and hard.
Justin Sanderson (played by Adam Scott) is hoarding a flight across the Atlantic Ocean to Tel Aviv. He’s taken a job he promised his wife he wouldn’t but as an investigative journalist, he’s got to work where he can. It should be a simple, easy, stress-free trip. However, when he finds an MP3 player with a podcast titled “The Tragic Mystery of Flight 1015” in his seat, things get complicated quickly. Justin is saddled with the knowledge that this plane is going to disappear into thin air at 11:15 pm and takes it upon himself to be the one to stop it. Guided by the seemingly all-knowing podcast and with the help of a mysterious ex-pilot named Joe (played by Chris Diamantopoulos), Justin must try and convince everyone that they are in danger. And the lengths that he goes to try and prove his claim, may end up being the reason the plane goes down in the first place.
As an avid Twilight Zone fan, I admit that I’m biased towards the new version. Both because I’ve been wanting a modern Zone show and because I have so much admiration for Jordan Peele. I know that my heart will love the new Twilight Zone regardless but I still want to be able to look at it with a critical eye. It’s important to me to be able to see flaws, give honest feedback and review the show for what it is.
With “The Comedian“, it’s nice to have our lead be a brown-skinned man. And to have those around him brown skinned as well. Samir wasn’t a token character, this was his story and his trip to The Twilight Zone. It’s not the first excursion I would have gone with but I understand why this one was chosen to be the opening episode. After all, Jordan Peele is a comedian. It’s how he got his start and this episode takes a look into what it’s like to have brown skin and want to make people laugh. Samir struggles to be a great comedian because he doesn’t want to talk down on others. He doesn’t want to recycle harmful jokes because we already know he has been on the receiving end of those jokes before. Samir believes that you can be truly funny without being offensive. Which is a concept we as a society are really struggling with today. Can a person make a joke that is not at the expense of another person? A lot of people don’t think so, but Samir does. He just picked the Twilight Zone as the place to try and prove it.
As a whole, I appreciated the references, homages and the tone this episode sets more than I enjoyed the episode itself. The wall in the comedy club that has a massive photo of an old audience is very The Shining like and at the end of the episode I was shook at the way it was managed to be looped back around. Also, as an homage, JC Wheeler is an accumulation of several characters from the classic Twilight Zone. He makes deals that on the surface level seem harmless but are actually concrete in the harm they’ll cause. He reminded me most of Fats Brown from “A Game of Pool“, an episode about a man who wanted to be the best pool player in the world and was willing to do anything to hold that title. To be fair, Wheeler’s deal isn’t as sinister as Fat Brown’s is but the connection is still there. As great as the characters of this episode were, it’s the tone of the episode that really sold it for me. Peele has made it clear that this reimagining won’t shy away from the fact that the reality we are in now feels like it’s been one long Twilight Zone episode. Which means the actual Zone itself will be different now, darker and perhaps more violent; it has shifted just like we as a society has shifted.
Out of the two new episodes, I actually preferred “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet“. Not to say there’s anything wrong with “The Comedian“, because there isn’t, I just found 30,000 Feet to have that true Twilight Zone feeling. But that’s because it’s based so closely on such a classic episode. I really enjoyed the fact that there was no monster on the wing of the plane in this version, the enemy was on the inside. The chaos came from humans and the individual need to do what we think is the right thing. Justin wasn’t crazy, he was doing what he thought was needed to save lives. But it was in his righteousness that the Zone found its home. It found just enough space to expand and give Justin the signs he thought needed to take action, no matter if the actions were necessary or not.
I always think of the Twilight Zone as its own character and this episode solidifies my thought process behind that. Justin was picked by the Zone, probably because of his journalism on Civility but he was picked nonetheless. And within the span of an hour, Justin passed the Zone’s test but paid the price for it. As everyone who enters the Twilight Zone and plays its game does.
Personally, I’m very excited for the new Twilight Zone. It is weird to watch the episodes in color but I think that’s just the elitist fangirl in me. After the first 15 minutes of “The Comedian” the fact it was in color was easy to get over. I was also worried about the fact the episodes were an hour long. In the past, the hour-long Zone episodes always lost themselves and never quite found their way back, Sterling often tried to stuff too much in them. Which is why all the most talked about episodes are thirty minutes, save for one or two. But our new reimagining doesn’t get lost, it stays on track and makes the hour seem like minutes. Which is always great. I also, really appreciate the fact that the characters are allowed to curse. It’s a small detail but one that I really like.
I think the show and the concept it’s upheld for so long are in good hands with Jordan Peele. Of course, there will be naysayers and those that say he’s ruining the beauty that Rod Sterling created, however, it’s not lost on me and it shouldn’t be lost to everyone else that when The Twilight Zone first premiered back in the 50’s the audiences of then didn’t like it either. The show was constantly on the verge of being canceled and no one took Sterling seriously until he started winning awards for it. Now though, it’s considered one of the best shows to ever be put on television. I have a feeling that down the road ten years from now, people will be saying the same of Peele’s reimagining.