'The Twilight Zone': TV Review

The Twilight Zone-Steven Yeun-Publicity Still- H 2019
Robert Falconer/CBS

A limp mess that lacks things like surprises, scariness, originality and pacing, Jordan Peele's reboot isn't even on the level of a weak 'Black Mirror' episode.

Most of the twists in the latest unneeded remake of the legendary The Twilight Zone series, this time for the CBS All Access streaming service, are either weak or predictable. For many people, the biggest and most unpleasant shock will be finding out that executive producer and narrator Jordan Peele, he of the scare fests known as Get Out and Us, didn't write or direct any of the first four episodes sent for review and, less depressingly but certainly more weirdly, his version of the Rod Serling narrator ends up seeming like a bit from Key & Peele, which probably wasn't intended. (And yet four times in four different episodes it produced a laugh, so apologies.)

The Twilight Zone desperately needs Peele to take the reins, but at this point it's probably too late. If you already subscribe to the service you can find out, with no small amount of horror, just how bad these four episodes are. They manage to take plenty of good actors and give them nothing, leaving them slipping around in vanilla. Even writer Glen Morgan, who has done excellent work, especially in the original X-Files series, can't bring any of these episodes to life.

At least CBS All Access has a show or two — Star Trek: Discovery and The Good Fight — that appeal to disparate and loyal audiences, because if you had to sell a subscription on the merits of the highly anticipated flop that is The Twilight Zone, this lifeless approach would not be the way.

All four episodes are bad, but the first two are terrible. "The Comedian" leaves Kumail Nanjiani, who is both funny in comedies and likable in dramas, left with nothing to work with but bad material and sagging, belabored plot (the latter an unfortunate hallmark of all four episodes sent for review). The premise is so thin in "The Comedian" that it's not even worth trying to explain. All you need to know is that it's laborious to get through and the fact that it's based on a stand-up comic and there's not one funny joke in there, nor one believably true moment, is troubling.

Let's just say that his jokes kill (get it?), but the sheer boredom and clumsiness of that episode will choke you out long before it mercifully ends.

Again, this has nothing to do with Nanjiani — who wouldn't accept a chance to star in a Twilight Zone remake headlined by Jordan Peele? Based on the star power of this series, every other actor in town said yes. Wait until the ones who weren't asked get to see the bullet they dodged.

In the second episode, "Nightmare at 30,000 Feet," which updates one of the most famous episodes in the show's history by adding 10,000 feet and also making it 10,000 times more dull, Adam Scott is the paranoid passenger on a doomed flight who finds out about his impending death by listening to a podcast (hey, we've all died in that scenario) conveniently found in a retro player in the seat-back pocket in front of him. 

Here's the problem ultimately facing the remake of this famous franchise: It doesn't have to improve on the classic because nostalgia mostly prevents that, as does trotting out four shockingly uninspired episodes. No, the series that The Twilight Zone is competing with and will be compared to isn't its namesake — it's Black Mirror. And let's be clear (and blunt) about that right up front: Whatever you think is the worst Black Mirror episode is infinitely better than any minute of all four of these episodes (and Amazon's recently canceled Philip K. Dick's Electric Dreams was also vastly superior in every way). 

So yes, something went very, very wrong here.

Normally there would be no need to watch further — if those first two episodes are what CBS All Access wants to lead with then it probably has nobody in place to course-correct this disaster, but there still was an interest to see if maybe the next episode would be better. 

"Replay" certainly starts off better, but again there's a nagging element of convenience to it. In "Nightmare at 30,000 Feet," one of the many structural problems that stood out was trying to sell viewers that a commercial airline would have cockpit cameras filming the pilots. That is just an astonishingly bad cheat. It's tossed in there like such a thing happens all the time and immediately even a half-awake viewer will know that they will see something terrible happen in the cockpit, played out on their seat screens and the plane's overhead TVs. It's so obvious you wince. In "Replay," the protective mother (Sanaa Lathan) of a college-bound kid has a gigantic old-school camcorder and the moment she pulls it out, well, you know it will be the magic creation that fuels what follows.

And what follows isn't that bad — it's the most overtly political of the new Twilight Zone episodes, exploring how African-Americans (especially young men) are frequently the victims of police violence and shootings. Mixing that with a sci-fi element is at first the most creative thing The Twilight Zone does, but the episode quickly gets larded with clichés and repeatedly falls from its soap box — good intentions done in by the overly obvious. 

And yes, once past that third episode, well, why not see if a Hail Mary was coming?

It wasn't.

"A Traveler," starring Steven Yeun (The Walking DeadBurning) as a too-nice and too-weird character to be trusted and Greg Kinnear as the easily duped police chief of a remote Alaskan town, devolves almost immediately. First, the episode tips that it's going to be about aliens, and when Yeun's character arrives, your bored, slow response will be "He's an alien." And yes, he's an alien. There is barely an attempt to make that some kind of reveal, so let's not kid ourselves.

This episode also falls into a lazy trick, where a drunk is put into a basement jail cell on Christmas Eve — downstairs, out of the way, empty (though clean and kind of cool-looking). Everybody upstairs is drinking and celebrating. Anyway, when the drunk is next checked on (his sister is the deputy), the shock is that, whoa, hey wait, some dude in a pinstripe suit and hat is sitting in a cell two cages over from the drunk. How did that happen? It's 2019 and pretty much everyone watching will be saying out loud, "Don't open that cell." But even before that, the writers want the presence of Yeun as the dapper soon-to-be-revealed alien to be the cool part. Maybe they also want it to be scary? Or just odd? Either way, 10 out of 10 deputies would then pull their gun realizing something not right has just happened. And while there's a minute or so of "WTF" discussions in "A Traveler," mostly there's just discussions — as in the cops talk casually to the dapper stranger, who wasn't there 10 minutes ago. That's not even trying. And then, yeah, they let him out.

It would be nice to let you know that all kinds of scary hell breaks out after that, but it doesn't. Boring breaks out. And then when it looks like a confrontation might end the episode, it doesn't. The episode just meekly ends.

And that's your first four Twilight Zone offerings. Who wants to pony up for a subscription?

Cast: Kumail Nanjiani, Tracy Morgan, Adam Scott, Chris Diamantopoulos, Sanaa Lathan, Damson Idris, Glenn Fleshler, Steve Yeun, Greg Kinnear, Marika Sila
Executive produced and narrated by: Jordan Peele
Premieres: Monday (CBS All Access)