As a fan of the original Twilight Zone, I was excited to see a new version on CBS All Access. I’m a fan of the original and watch all the marathons. But it was very dated and in some ways limited. So here’s my Twilight Zone 2019 review.
As much as I loved the original, sometimes it was painfully obvious the show was made in the 60s. The stilted, wordy dialogue, the comically bad special effects. A colleague once told me that was because, “Back then, they had to rely on things like writing and acting.” And some episodes do that brilliantly, while others…not so much. The good news is the new show seems to have improved on the old one.
The first episode, The Comedian, is about a standup comic, Samir, who is really, really terrible at standup comedy. Despite spending years doing it, he has never, apparently, studied other people’s acts and tried to figure out what they were doing right that he wasn’t. Whatever, he’s about to enter the Twilight Zone and get his fucking wish anyway, thanks to the ghost of a dead famous comic who randomly shows up, tells him the secret to comedy is to use his own personal life, then warns him he will be giving away these things to his audience.
Assuming this is just a metaphor, Samir goes ahead and tells a joke about his dog, which gets lots of laughs. Then he goes home and discovers his dog is gone and his girlfriend swears they never had one. He can’t even find a picture of his dog to put up flyers. Yet despite this ominous turn of events that’s quite literally what the ghost guy warned him about, Samir proceeds to tell jokes about his nephew, who also, shockingly, disappears. Then he gets the brilliant idea to just start joking about people he hates, including everyone who’s ever pissed him off. (Gotta be honest, I’d do that too.) Although the ending was predictable, the dialogue was clever and the whole thing was so entertaining it didn’t really matter. The show also made some interesting points about how comedians and other creatives often do find their best material in their own lives—to the detriment of their relationships.
Nightmare at 30,000 Feet is a remake of an original TZ episode—you might recall the famous one where William Shatner is haunted by someone wearing the world’s worst Bigfoot costume and pancake makeup hanging out on the wing of an airplane. I was looking forward to seeing this done with modern special effects…and a lead who could act his way out of a paper bag. It did not disappoint.
In this version, the protagonist is a journalist who gets on the plane and finds an MP3 player with a documentary about…his flight. Flight 1053. As if it already happened. Hey, that’s not creepy at all! The journalist keeps thinking various people are going to cause the plane to crash as he continues listening to the ominous podcast. But no one listens to him—not the flight attendants, not most of the other passengers, not the air marshal.
I’m going to be honest here, this episode gave me the perverse desire to record a doom-and-gloom story about a downed flight and leave it on a plane for the next unsuspecting passenger. Oh wait, I can’t do that because I can’t afford to fly anywhere in the first place. Okay, one of my loyal readers please do it for me.
This episode is fleshed out much better than the original version, and has an added twist at the end. The acting was good and nobody in a hairy Bigfoot costume made a cameo on the wing.
Both episodes lost a lot of things I put up with in the original series. The lengthy monologues in which the protagonist details the main plot conflict, for starters. These were apparently popular in the sixties. Just have the protagonist explain the problem, the history of the problem, their childhood neuroses, blah blah, like they’re having a therapy session. Today you don’t see that. It’s 2019, if a viewer can’t figure out what the main conflict of the show is, they can go fucking ask someone in an online fan group. Subtlety is possible because the internet.
Which reminds me, the new version has profanity, because it’s on a streaming channel where the Puritanical pricks at the FCC don’t get a say. This adds to the show’s gritty realism—of course people are going to fucking swear when things go wrong! You see Bigfoot twerking on the wing of your airplane in real life, you’re dropping an F bomb or two, right?
Jordan Peele steps into the role of Rod Serling, the guy who shows up at the beginning and end to sum up the lesson the protagonist was supposed to learn…a little too late. (And it’s always too late in the Twilight Zone. ALWAYS.) He really has the delivery down and closes out each episode with that classic TZ ending.
As a writer, I’m always thinking about how to refine a story I’m trying to tell. I don’t always do it well, but I do try. Sometimes you can have an okay idea, but if you don’t take the time to refine the idea, to chip away at the rough edges and really bring what you’re trying to say into focus, it may just stay an okay idea. If you do take the time to sharpen it up—cut unnecessary words, shape up the plot, raise the stakes of the plot, better define the characters—you end up with a better product. The early TZ was a good show, but the new version takes everything that was good about it and just…makes it better.
My main complaint is that we only got two episodes, then waited ten days for the third, and presumably will get one a week in the future. Of course those asshats at CBS can’t just give us the whole season at once like Netflix. They want to force people to keep paying six bucks a month, the greedy bastards. And of course they release this show close to the end of the second season of Discovery, so I won’t be able to cancel my subscription when that’s over. (And yes, I pay every month for Netflix too, but it has TONS of stuff I want to watch, not just two shows.) It’s a diabolical plot to keep collecting my six bucks a month.
V. R. Craft is the author of Stupid Humans, a science fiction book series that asks the question, “What if all the intelligent humans abandoned Earth—and we’re what’s left? She is also the author of the political satire, Fail to the Chief, in which she envisioned the presidential election as a reality show… more of a reality show?