tv review

Jordan Peele’s The Twilight Zone Reboot Is Timeless, Modern, and Fittingly Political

Jordan Peele. Photo: Robert Falconer/CBS

Picture, if you will, a legendary and seemingly indestructible intellectual property created in 1959 by a fellow named Rod Serling. An eloquent Jewish playwright raised in then-Waspy Binghamton, New York, he sympathized with underdogs, the misunderstood, and the persecuted. As a writer-producer in early television, he was pushed out of live theatrical drama because his politics were too confrontationally left wing, only to realize, like intellectuals in authoritarian countries behind the Iron Curtain, that you could speak truth to power if you swaddled your lessons in metaphor and symbolism. As the creator of the most famous anthology program in TV history, he served as the series’ on-camera narrator, a hard-boiled shaman in a suit and tie, raising and lowering the curtain on a number of modern parables, his summation always ending with some variant of a phrase both playful and ominous: “in the Twilight Zone.

Enter Jordan Peele, an actor turned filmmaker who went from the sketch series Key & Peele to the staggeringly profitable horror satires Get Out and Us, whose knack for turning genre to political ends made him the logical heir to Serling’s legacy. CBS had already tried reanimating The Twilight Zone several times. The show originally ran on the network for five seasons. It was resuscitated as a 1983 film, produced by Steven Spielberg and narrated by Burgess Meredith, which is now remembered mainly for two things: George Miller’s remake of a classic 1950s Zone episode, the Richard Matheson–scripted “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”; and the gruesome on-set deaths, in a John Landis–directed installment, of two child actors and star Vic Morrow. There was a mid-’80s version narrated by Charles Aidman and an early-aughts UPN version hosted by Forest Whitaker. All produced episodes that held their own against Serling’s originals (which were remade and reinterpreted alongside the new stuff), but none had the same impact. And the recent resuscitation of the anthology format (most strikingly via Netflix’s Black Mirror) made yet another incarnation feel less necessary.

Any worry that this new Zone, which premieres on the streaming platform CBS All Access, would fail to measure up vanishes the instant you hear Peele’s voice chime in at the end of a pre-credits cold opening and then see him on-camera. Peele is always revealed sharing the same space as the episode’s characters, which makes him seem even more of a trickster god than his predecessors. He’s as skilled a comic actor as he is a suspense filmmaker — a baroque chameleon in Peter Sellers mode — and he understands how to channel Serling while inscribing the host-guide role with his own artistic and political signatures. Impeccably tailored in dark suits, Peele speaks in an alert but inflected voice, as if possessed by someone else (with the initials R.S., most likely). It’s the voice of a master storyteller who’s so in control of both his physical and aesthetic aspects that he can make you laugh by playing things straight — and who appreciates the source material he’s reinterpreting yet isn’t shy about adding his own preoccupations.

So we get plenty of references to classic Zone episodes (the original gremlin from “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” appears in the form of a child’s toy), plus some deep-dish film-and-TV-history name-drops (a single episode includes characters named after pioneering filmmaker Ida Lupino, horror master Jacques Tourneur, and Twilight Zone theme composer Marius Constant).

But this Zone (which lists seven executive producers, including Carol Serling, Rod’s widow) never entombs itself in nostalgia or fan service and makes a point of pulling Serling into 2019. This incarnation is as of-the-moment as Serling’s original, from the more varied filmmaking styles on display to the use of profanity and frank sexual language. Most striking of all, however, is the show’s political vantage point: The new Zone looks at paranoia, class disparity, artistic anxiety, xenophobia, racism, and other hot-button topics from the perspective of an outsider who had to fight for his piece of American pie, in contrast to the more abstract, theoretical diagnoses and warnings of Serling, who was as woke as a rich white guy could be in the middle of the 20th century but was nevertheless incapable of taking a ground-level view of the problems his series identified, even in the imaginative safe space of The Twilight Zone.

The best and most characteristically Peele-ian episode is “Replay,” starring Sanaa Lathan as a lawyer taking her wannabe-filmmaker son (Damson Idris) to a historically black college, taping moments of their journey with a 1990s-era camcorder. Seemingly inspired by a 2003 episode with a similar plot, this one is a meditation on the role of the camera as a witness in battling police brutality, as represented by a uniformed state trooper (Glenn Fleshler of True Detective). In a gloss on the Groundhog Day scenario, which has become increasingly common in pop culture, the son keeps dying at the hands of the cop; the camera can rewind and start the story over again and serve as an official witness, but it never seems to have any positive effect on the young man’s fate — a bleak reading underscored by the retro technology. The whirring analog camera is redolent of the videotaped beating of Rodney King, after which the officers accused of brutality were acquitted despite the recorded evidence. This is a haunting story about the power of storytelling to capture previously ignored facets of human experience, but also a cautionary tale about the impotence of camera-as-witness in the face of state-sanctioned oppression. The trooper evokes the hitchhiker in Sterling’s original series, a Grim Reaper figure, but also the description of the original Terminator as a monster “who doesn’t feel pity or remorse or fear.” It doesn’t matter whether the African-American characters treat the white policeman as a scary, faceless other or approach him as a fellow human being; he is ultimately indifferent to their fate.

Although none of the other episodes made available for review have the impact of this one, they all have their own prickly personalities. And they’re subtly and pointedly political in a different way from Serling’s, acknowledging how race plays on perception and self-perception. “The Comedian” — which is not based on a Zone episode but has the same title as a Serling-scripted live TV play about a self-loathing stand-up comic — gives Silicon Valley’s Kumail Nanjiani the chance to play a would-be George Carlin who is political but not funny and who learns that the path to success lies in mining his own life for material. As is always the case on a show like this, newfound insight comes at a price: Every subject he works into his act, including his loved ones, will disappear. Nanjiani’s character takes advice from an older African-American comic (Tracy Morgan in his best non–30 Rock performance); the upshot is a great leveling of the worst kind, a curse-like metaphor for what happens to comedians of every cultural background after they decide that nothing in their life is off-limits.

“Nightmare at 30,000 Feet” is a riff on the great Matheson story that has already been told twice (notice how the new title adds 10,000 feet — talk about raising the stakes), but this time the main character is an investigative journalist (Adam Scott) who stumbles upon a discarded mp3 player playing a podcast that narrates the destruction of the flight he’s on. This time the gremlin isn’t on the wing of the plane; it’s between the hero’s ears. And rather than being a Cassandra on the bridge, warning of terrors that others can’t see, the panicked flier is an entitled white busybody who makes his own paranoia the centerpiece of a potentially life-ending melodrama.

A Christmas episode set in a tiny Alaska town composed of white and Inuit residents is the most traditionally Serling-like of these early installments, but it allows Greg Kinnear to do an unsettling, faintly devious send-up of the affable modern cowpoke types that made TV stars of Andy Griffith and James Garner. And it gives Steven Yeun a shot to play one of those courtly and terrifying drifters who smell faintly of sulfur — roles typically earmarked for legendary Anglo character actors like Max von Sydow and James Mason (spoiler alert: Yeun nails it). That this series has already figured out that it can be political simply by virtue of the stories it tells, the points of view it adopts, and the actors it employs is further proof that magic can happen in The Twilight Zone. 

An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that “Replay” is the first episode of The Twilight Zone revival. In fact, the series kicks off with “The Comedian” and “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet.”

*This article appears in the April 1, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

The Twilight Zone Is Timeless, Modern, and Political