The Twilight Zone
On the off chance you’re reading this before watching “Blurryman,” the season finale of The Twilight Zone, please stop, watch it, then come back to this piece, because you do not want to be spoiled on the first scene, a superb fake-out that’s also the single most delightful moment this season has produced. That’s partly because it doesn’t feel like a fake-out. Ostensible star Seth Rogen appears to be dug into his character, a writer struggling with writer’s block, trying to talk himself out of frustration and saying what every writer has felt from time to time (or more often): “Why do we act like imposter syndrome means that you aren’t an imposter?” Fortunately, he has a breakthrough: Start the story with a nuclear attack. Only — horrors! — by doing so, his wife (Betty Gabriel) reveals he’s caused a nuclear attack and soon the Reapers will be there.
Oh no! He’s blurred the line between fantasy and reality! Classic Twilight Zone stuff, really. Cue Jordan Peele’s wry introductory narration, with the moral of the story embedded (it’s about “a writer who, up until tonight, has never paid much mind to an artist’s social responsibility”), then cut … Peele doesn’t really care for the narration he’s been given. So, after some banter with Rogen and Gabriel playing themselves, he starts a conversation with the episode’s writer, Sophie (Zazie Beetz), leading to a long walk-and-talk in which he politely, but firmly, asks her to rewrite it and consider whether it’s “actually saying something we don’t want to be saying,” particularly in the line it draws between art and commerce.
Sophie sees a division there that Peele doesn’t. She grew up loving The Twilight Zone, but she argues it’s great because the show, and creator Rod Serling, elevated genre material by layering social commentary on top of what she thinks of as “campfire tales.” Peele, however, seems to suggest that there’s no “either/or” between art and commerce, between meaningful art and “stupid sci-fi crap.” At this point, we’re looking at a mirror within a mirror within a mirror — a conversation about what The Twilight Zone means between fictionalized version of its new host and one of its writers in a reality within the reality of an episode of the show they’re discussing. Inspired by Sophie’s childhood question of “When do we get to the Twilight Zone?”, it even has Peele explaining why Serling’s host segments were so central to the show, keeping them grounded even as each episode seemed to create a universe of its own. Heady stuff, but the script by Alex Rubens (who penned the far iffier season opener, “The Comedian”) and the direction by executive producer Simon Kinberg handles it all so gracefully it’s easy to sink into the way it bends fiction into “fiction” — and to stick with it as it takes a turn into full-on horror, at least for a bit.
As Sophie continues to struggle with her script, she learns about a mysterious blurred figure that’s shown up in one shot of the episode they’re filming, and apparently in earlier episodes as well. As her writer’s block intensifies, she starts to see the figure as she wanders through Twilight Zone sets (some recognizable from previous episodes). Before long, the Blurryman seems to be menacing her and, in time, reality starts to slip away from her entirely, turning into a kind of living ghost that no one else can see (shades of the very Twilight Zone-y ’60 cult film Carnival of Souls).
There’s a twist, of course, this being The Twilight Zone. And this being a particularly clever episode of The Twilight Zone — a kind of riff on classic Twilight Zone themes as filtered through Adaptation — the existence of a twist gets a comment. Then it twists again, reconnecting Sophie with why she first fell in love with the series and with storytelling in part by dropping her into the classic episode “Time Enough at Last” and, eventually, revealing the Blurryman to be none other than Rod Serling himself.
It’s clever, a touch sentimental, and a little heavy-handed in its defense of genre storytelling. In other words, it feels a lot like a classic Twilight Zone episode, even if it’s obviously the result of much fretting about how to make the new series its own thing while remaining true to Serling’s classic show. It makes a fitting capper for the season too, though it might feel self-indulgent for any other show. But The Twilight Zone means more than most shows to its fans, and the theme of powerful stories being able to change minds forever — be it Sophie’s or yours or mine or any other admirer who grew up watching the show — rings true, as does its reverence for the man who created the venue for all those stories.
It’s been an up-and-down run, this revival, mixing some outstanding episodes (“Replay,” “Not All Men”) with some memorably ambitious efforts (“Six Degrees of Freedom,” “Point of Origin”) with some real duds (though I’m in the minority in lumping in last week’s “The Blue Scorpion” with some obvious stinkers). But even the misfires have felt animated by a love for the original series and a desire to live up to it, so it makes sense to end this new batch with an episode that acknowledges that anxiety. With luck, the renewed show’s second season will be more consistent, but this first run has been more than worthwhile.
Light and Shadows
• Peele has done such terrific work as the show’s narrator that it’s a pleasure to see a bit more of him this week, and to see him lean on the old comic chops in his deadpan interactions with Sophie. “If you’re worried about anything,” he tells her, “you should be worried about the fact that you are in an episode of the Twilight Zone right now.” Indeed.
• The Rod Serling sticker on Sophie’s laptop is a nice touch.
• Maybe the cleverest touch of all: The whole episode ends up being a smarter, more drawn-out version of the episode within an episode, with Beetz’s Sophie in the Seth Rogen slot.