The Twilight Zone
“The place is here, the time is now, and the journey into the shadows that we’re about to watch could be our journey.” So begins Rod Serling’s opening narration to “Where Is Everybody?,” the pilot episode of The Twilight Zone. Though it applies specifically to that episode, Serling could just as easily have been writing an introduction to the series as a whole. What makes the original series so enduring is a sense of immediacy, that however weird what you were about to watch might be, it could happen to you. The Twilight Zone went to some far-out places, but its primary concern was always humanity, and its situations always served as mirrors to those watching, however dark and distorted those mirrors could become.
We are now reentering The Twilight Zone, courtesy of CBS All Access and a producing team that includes Glen Morgan, Greg Yaitanes, Simon Kinberg, and Jordan Peele, who will also serve as host. This new version also opens with some words that might double as a mission statement for the series to come. (That is, if you count this episode, “The Comedian,” as the first episode. It’s premiering alongside another episode, “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet,” which we’ve also recapped.) “It’s crazy times, guys. Crazy times,” a comedian named Samir (Kumail Nanjiani) tells the audience of a comedy club named Eddies (no apostrophe) before launching into a routine about the Second Amendment and how its most fervent defenders tend to ignore the words “a well-regulated,” which takes up three of its 27 words. “That’s 11.1 percent!” he points out. “Imagine,” Samir continues, “you’re in a plane and halfway through your journey the pilot comes on and he’s like, ‘Hey folks, classic good news/bad news. Good news: we’ll be getting you 89 percent of the way there. Bad news: that puts as the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.’” It gets a few polite chuckles. But only that.
Samir’s a man who wants to say something with his comedy, and maybe even make a difference, and not just do bits about, in his words, “cats versus dogs, and New York versus L.A., and airline food and ethnic stereotypes.” The only problem: Nobody’s laughing. So when he stumbles into the chance to make a Faustian bargain after a disastrous set, he jumps at it. That the bargain is being offered by a hero doesn’t hurt, especially since it’s a hero nobody has seen in a while.
J.C. Wheeler is a legend who walked away at the height of his success. That he’s played with a relaxed demeanor by Tracy Morgan beneath a stylish cap makes writer Alex Rubens’s source of inspiration pretty clear. This is a fantasy version of Dave Chappelle, played here as a comic who disappeared only to return with a secret about how comedy works. Only problem, it turns out to be a pretty horrible secret: You have to give yourself away.
“You are a country with one export and you are that export,” he tells Samir. “Put yourself out there and you will get laughs.” But, he warns, “Once you put it out there, they connect. And once they connect to it, it’s theirs. And once it’s theirs, that shit is gone forever.” And so, after making another pass at the Second Amendment bit during his next set, Samir instead talks about his dog. And it kills. Then, when he returns home to his longtime girlfriend (Amara Karan), he discovers he now has no dog, and never did. That dog is gone forever.
It’s a clean, powerful metaphor, one that captures an issue any sort of artist faces at one time or another. How personal is too personal? How much openness is too much? Nanjiani, whose work includes the autobiographical film The Big Sick, locks into it, making it clear how reluctant Samir is to get personal and how gratifying it is when getting personal leads to laughs. Then, after a promising opening, the episode starts to lose hold of its metaphor.
Not at first, though. In the next sequence, Samir accidentally sacrifices his nephew Devon to the comedy gods, at which point he starts to catch on to what his new powers are and how they work, a horrifying revelation that forces him to contemplate what to do next.
That’s when things start to get a little confusing. When Samir talks about the Second Amendment, he’s decidedly unfunny. When he gets personal, he is. But when he subsequently starts to use his new power to get revenge on jerks and enemies, fueling his routine with old grievances and making their subjects disappear, he’s not funny, no matter how much the audience laughs. And where the idea of him losing elements of his personal life by sharing them with an audience feels true to what comedians do and the risks they take in doing it, that metaphor doesn’t extend to Samir’s subsequent uses of his comedy-fueled superpowers, whether he’s theoretically making the world better by eliminating a fellow stand-up who killed others in a drunk driving accident or getting rid of creeps from high school.
Or maybe it’s just a matter of the show trying to stretch it too far. The original Twilight Zone ran for five seasons. The least creatively successful one was the fourth, for which the network demanded that the previously 30-minute show be stretched to fill a 60-minute slot. The tight, twisty morality tales that worked in short form rarely worked as well at a longer length, tending to feel padded and formless in the stretch between the first and final acts. Though if it’s not clear if Peele and the others made the choice for creative or commercial reasons, the new episodes of The Twilight Zone opt for that fourth-season model. (“Nightmare at 30,000 Feet” is the tightest at just over 30 minutes.) Here, the pace drags, the premise gets needlessly complicated, and by the time the climax rolls around the ending seems kind of obvious (though Samir’s final fate nicely bookends the episode by echoing the opening shot).
Yet, even if the intrigue wears off more quickly than it should, “The Comedian” does a lot right. It stays true to the spirit of the original show without feeling confined by it. It layers topical references on top of the sturdy frame built by Serling’s show. It’s not the most promising start for the series, but it’s not the worst proof-of-concept exercise either. And besides, anthology shows are famously, probably unavoidably hit or miss, even the original Twilight Zone. And, based on the four episodes provided to critics, there will be more hits in the series’ near future. Lingering in this new Zone will pay off, just not right away.
Science and Superstition
• Peele steps into Serling’s shoes as an onscreen host and his manner is quite Serling-esque. He never breaks, but there’s a wryness to his delivery that suggests what you’re about to watch might be incredibly harrowing — but also pretty clever. With Serling, it was all in the eyebrows (with a little bit of help from the occasional cigarette). With Peele, it’s all in the eyes and the way he makes direct eye contact with the camera and never surrenders it. Does he blink? I’m not sure he even blinks.
• I dig the titles and theme song, both of which put a contemporary gloss on what’s come before without trying to change it that much. Then again, anything would be an improvement over 2002 UPN version, which used a version of the theme performed by Jonathan Davis from Korn.
• Like The Good Fight and Star Trek: Discovery (in its early episodes, at least), The Twilight Zone is quick to remind viewers they have entered a TV-MA zone via some rough language, including an F-bomb. It will be interesting to see if the show pushes the boundaries in other ways. Could we have a truly gory horror episode? Will there be explicit sex in this Twilight Zone? Probably not. But it could happen. This isn’t broadcast TV anymore, folks.
• These new episodes are littered with references to the old series, the most obvious one here being a cameo from Willie, the malevolent ventriloquist’s dummy from “The Dummy.” Did you spot others?
• Rubens is no stranger to comedy, or to some of his co-workers here. He’s worked on The Last O.G. with Morgan, served as a writer and co-producer on Key & Peele, and co-wrote the Key and Peele-starring Keanu with Peele.