Next stop, the Twilight Zone

Jordan Peele revives classic series

By on April 9, 2019

Before “Black Mirror” was all the rage there was “The Twilight Zone.” Originally created by Rod Sterling in 1959, the series has been revived twice before, making this the fourth rendition. Its signature style of often creepy or disturbing standalone zeitgeist-based episodes is a recipe for success. This is repeated with the revival, including the tradition of both starting and ending the episodes by a narrator with Jordan Peele taking over for the late Sterling.

Photo from CBS Press Express
The revival aired on April 1 with the episode “The Comedian.” While the original series helped some rising stars such as Robert Redford and Carl Burnett gain recognition early on in their careers, the revival employs the opposite approach. Larger names such as Kumail Nanjiani, Seth Rogan and Tracy Morgan fill the screen in the first season. Ironically, it felt as though both Nanjiani and Morgan were outperformed in the first episode by lesser-known actors.

“The Comedian,” in classic “The Twilight Zone” fashion, finds a character getting exactly what they wish for then later begging to reverse their reality. Nanjiani, known for his breakthrough role in “The Big Sick,” lands yet another familiar role as Samir Wassan, a stand-up comedian. Nanjiani’s character is introduced to us essentially treading water with his routine. He’s decent enough to keep getting gigs but he lacks the ability to distinguish himself from his fellow mediocre comedians.

Things change for Samir once he’s approached by J.C. Wheeler, Morgan’s character who also plays a familiar role as a well-respected comedian. Samir is advised to begin digging into his own personal life for material and he when he begins doing so he begins seeing roaring laughter and is seen as an up-and-coming act.

For the way Samir and other characters spoke so highly of Wheeler, you would think other characters would notice or approach him but they did not. If you pick up on this while watching, you can draw some other conclusions about what’s happening later. If there was one flaw of the first episode it was that at times it felt a bit too predictable.

When Samir’s nephew goes missing after using him as material during one of his sets, Samir rushes to tell his girlfriend, Rena, that he cannot find him. Amara Karan, who steals the show as Rena has no idea who Samir is talking about. Rena and other characters begin behaving as if Samir is going crazy, which will be a recurring theme in the second episode later too.

Samir realizes that he has been given a power to receive astounding laughter when mentioning someone in his routine who then disappears and ceases to exist. Samir syphons through a mini hit list of targets to include in his sets, erasing people who bullied him growing up and pervert coaches from high school. As Samir builds up more and more fame, he finds himself losing grip on his relationship with Rena and creating rivalries with his comedian friends and is forced with making a tough decision about who to spare and who not to.

It was the second episode of the season however that really sold me as a viewer. “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet” is the first episode to be viewable exclusively on All Access. It is here where Peele and director Greg Yaitanes truly begin convincing fans to subscribe for the rest of the season. Its title is in reference to an iconic episode of the original series named “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.” It stars Adam Scott playing Justin Sanderson, a journalist who is embarking on a flight for a story.

As he settles in for the flight, he begins listening to a podcast about the disappearance of a flight. Eerily, the podcast includes some striking similarities to his own disposition on the plane. Sanderson has to begin separating the real from paranoia and finds himself approaching other passengers to police them on things such as a pair watching a movie on a smartphone.

The two men are Middle-Eastern and are annoyed by Sanderson pestering them saying, “We’re not terrorists.” It is very much like Peele to add in a racial component to his storytelling and it helped show just how wacky Sanderson was looking to his fellow passengers. There were a plethora of shots showing Sanderson from the perspective of other seats on the plane and puzzled reaction shots too.

The original “Twilight Zone” wasn’t exactly splendid on diversifying its cast back in the ’50s and ’60s, but just two episodes in Peele has already featured a family of Pakistani-Americans in the first and touched upon prejudices in another.

As is the case with every episode of “The Twilight Zone,” our protagonist fails to learn their lesson in time, as things get dicey for Sanderson when he is confronted by both flight attendants and the air marshal. Suspense builds for the audience as the journalist slips his headphones back in and presses play to continue listening. When the pressure becomes too intense to sit back anymore, he gets himself into even more turbulent trouble.

The series airs on CBS All Access, the company’s subscription-based streaming platform. For potential viewers who aren’t yet sold they offer free trials and “The Comedian,” the first new episode of “The Twilight Zone” is available for free on YouTube.

If Peele and the other producers continue building on their momentum of solid episodes with game-changing twists, expand I believe they will be able to put enough eyeballs to the screen to keep more episodes coming.

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