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[This story contains spoilers for episodes one and two of The Twilight Zone, “The Comedian” and “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet.”]
CBS All Access’ long-awaited Twilight Zone reboot has finally hit the streaming service with two episodes, both of which lean heavily into the storied past of the series. The Jordan Peele-created and -hosted show has the weight of his 2018 Academy Award win, Us‘ recent record-breaking opening and the legacy of The Twilight Zone’s past sitting on its shoulders.
But from the first two episodes, it’s clear the creative team is keen to deliver on the satirical promise of the show. During the reboot’s recent PaleyFest panel, executive producer Win Rosenfeld said, “Let’s be clear, we aren’t doing any remakes.” Yet both of these episodes — including a new take on one of the original show’s best-known installments — draw heavily from the series’ history.
Episode 1: “The Comedian”
Kumail Nanjiani (The Big Sick) stars in this parable about Samir Wassan, a political comedian who fails to make his audience laugh. That is, until he meets an enigmatic and legendary comic, played by Tracy Morgan, who offers him some helpful and perhaps Faustian tips. After Morgan’s character tells Samir to spill his guts onstage as a way to connect with his audience, he offers Samir a sinister warning: “Once they connect to it, it’s theirs, and once it’s theirs, that shit is gone forever.”
Soon enough, after another failed joke about the Second Amendment, Samir begins to joke about things close to him, beginning with his dog, which brings the house down. Of course, when Samir returns home to his girlfriend to tell her about his first successful set, he references the pet which inspired him, and lo and behold, she has no idea about the dog and claims they never had a pet at all. Sadly, Samir doesn’t learn his lesson, and the next night he makes a joke about the young nephew he brought with him -— but once he leaves the club, the young man is nowhere to be seen, and again Samir is the only one who can remember him.
When Samir realizes his power and the fact that no one believes his predicament, he begins researching people that he went to school with who’ve done terrible things, wielding his power with terrible aplomb. But after a moment of madness in which he makes a joke about his partner’s mentor in an aim to disappear the man whom he sees as romantic competition, he finds his world turned upside down. The man he wrote out of existence also helped his girlfriend become a lawyer, and now she’s working in a diner and the pair’s relationship is in dire straits.
As Samir becomes ever more desperate, he eventually decides to use his power on himself in a bittersweet and redemptive ending, right before we see Morgan return to lure another comedian into his thrall and, ultimately, destruction.
“The Comedian” takes inspiration from an episode of the ’80s Twilight Zone reboot called “Take My Life … Please!,” which saw a comedian steal a joke from a colleague and gain massive fame before dying and ending up in a purgatory that saw him having to share the most embarrassing, shameful and distressing moments of his life. The episode pushes the idea into the 21st century, offering up a reflection on the contemporary idea of celebrity and the pressures of living publicly.
In an age of social media and reality television, we’ve seen the concept of fame shift and evolve, and Samir discovers the pursuit of it becomes ever more cannibalistic as stars attempt to share every moment of their lives to stay relevant and in the public eye. When The Hollywood Reporter spoke to showrunner Simon Kinberg, he explained that this was exactly why he felt that “The Comedian” was a necessary addition to The Twilight Zone. “I think that we live in a world now where it doesn’t take a lot to become a celebrity and a lot of the time all that it takes is compromising or sacrificing a lot of morality and decorum,” he said.
It’s something Samir falls into almost immediately as he tells crude, personal jokes about those that he loves. It’s not hard to see the parallels between Samir’s situation and the way the pursuit of celebrity and fame can alienate loved ones whose life and personhood can become collateral damage.
Fans of Japanese animation and manga may find something unexpected in the episode. Once the second act begins, Samir’s story appears to take a large influence from Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obat’s popular series Death Note. The story follows a young man, Light Yagami, who finds a book that gives him the power to dispatch anyone on Earth simply by writing their name on its pages.
It is incredibly similar to Samir’s powers, though his victims don’t die gruesome (if natural-looking) deaths as in Death Note. It’s when Samir begins to truly realize the breadth of his new omnipotence that the episode really revels in Death Note‘s influence, with moments like the comedian poring over his computer to find (un)worthy people to write out of history, which look nearly identical to early moments of Death Note where Light does exactly the same thing.
Peele, an anime fan, called the groundbreaking film Akira “one of my favorite movies” during an interview where he explained why he wasn’t taking on the chance to helm the struggling U.S. remake.
Episode 2: “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet”
Adam Scott features in this reimagining of one of the most famous Twilight Zone episodes ever made. In this version, Scott plays a famous investigative journalist, Justin Sanderson, who shortly after recovering from a nervous breakdown has to take a flight, which turns out to be doomed.
Once on the plane, the writer finds a strange MP3 player that happens to feature a podcast from the future about the fate of the very flight that he’s on. It turns out that the plane disappeared in the middle of transit never to be seen again, and as he listens to details of the strange story slowly coming true, he realizes he’s the only person who can save the day.
Justin’s ever-escalating paranoia leads him to alienate the flight crew and all his fellow passengers as he slowly accuses them of having something to do with the crash. His liberal ideals quickly fall foul to his fear as he begins to accuse people based on their race, appearance and whatever the headphones he’s listening to tells him.
Justin’s only ally is an ex-pilot, Joe Beaumont (Chris Diamantopoulos), who believes the journalist’s ever more desperate pleas. After the air marshal arrests Justin, he enlists Joe to invade the cockpit, revealing the code which will allow him to take over the plane. But this is The Twilight Zone, so it turns out that the man who would damn the jet and its passengers was of course the one that Justin let into the cockpit. As the episode ends, it is revealed that every passenger survived the crash — except Justin, who they claimed was never found. But, of course, we see the reality, in which the survivors kill the man they blamed for their fate.
The original Twilight Zone episode which inspired this entry was the William Shatner-starring “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” which saw a man terrorized by a monster on the wing of a plane. It’s an iconic story which has been riffed on by The Simpsons and remade by George Miller in the Twilight Zone movie.
One of the things that the best episodes of The Twilight Zone have always done is take a seemingly everyday thing and make it terrifying, and in “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet” the show zeroes in on the true-crime podcast trend. Scott’s episode highlights the addictive nature of such stories, taking the idea to an extreme.
A key critique of some such podcasts is the way that they can systematically erase the victims of the crimes to center the killers, or the fact that they sometimes do the opposite, dissecting the people harmed by the crimes to the point of disrespect. Justin falls into the trap, pre-emptively accusing, insulting and disregarding the other passengers on the plane to the point where he ends up actively causing the disaster he thought he was trying to stop.
This exploration of these pertinent topics hints that the future of The Twilight Zone will likely be reflective of its past with a modern twist.
New episodes of The Twilight Zone will stream Thursdays on CBS All Access, starting April 11.
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