It has been some years since I have worked on my episode guide to The Twilight Zone. It has been a bit on the back burner, but tonight, by chance, I happened to see an episode of the 2019 version, and I feel I must review it.
A little thing about The Twilight Zone. After the original 1959 series, it was revived twice, in 1985 and in 2002. The 1985 revival, although featuring writers like Harlan Ellison, George RR Martin, and J Michael Straczynski, never made quite the splash the original did. The 2002 revival also didn't leave much cultural impact. The Twilight Zone, as a phenomenon, is tied up with the hopes and fears of early 1960s America, and despite having many talented people working on the revival, it hasn't quite found the right fit outside of that context.
The 2019 Twilight Zone is hosted and produced by Jordan Peele, who five years ago might have been an unlikely candidate for the position. Jordan Peele started out as half of the sketch comedy duo Key and Peele, doing simple, sometimes sophomoric comedy about slice of life topics. But even then, Jordan Peele worked both horror and social commentary into his sketches, which would come to the fore later when he wrote and produced the critically acclaimed horror movies Get Out and Us. All of which brings us to him helming the latest release of The Twilight Zone, which features hour long episodes released on CBS television's streaming service. Also, it is perhaps not a coincidence that the first episode is about comedy, and how it intersects with horror, since Jordan Peele, like Rod Serling, has shown a special aptitude for both.
All of that brings us to the first episode, which stars Kumail Nanjiani as Indian-American comedian Samir Wassan. Samir isn't very successful, especially since he thinks comedy should be politically and socially meaningful, and he can be very heavy handed when making his points. At the beginning, I was cringing along with him. After he bombs a show, he meets a famous comedian in the lounge of his club, who gives him advice: comedy is about him, and if he uses his real life, people will react. But once he uses material from his real life, it will belong to the audience, not to him. And so during the next show, as the audience stares at him as he tries to make a political point, he suddenly breaks into some middle-school level humor about his dog, and the audience laps it up. And then when he goes home, his dog is gone...and no one can remember anything about it.
Since this is The Twilight Zone, Samir soon learns that he has the ability to get laughs from the crowd at will, but only at the price of erasing his personal life from existence. While the original Twilight Zone took six episodes to get to Deal with the Devil, the 2019 revival opens with it. Beyond the obvious horror aspect, I couldn't help but think the show was making a point about the nature of fame and social media in the current day: when everything in our personal life is able to be harvested for commentary and public notice, it means that nothing has real value or meaning. It all becomes grist for the mill of the public eye. When everything becomes a target of ridicule and dissection, it ceases to be real, even if not in a manner as literal as in this episode. While it isn't clear exactly how overt Peele wants to make this point, it seems clear that some type of commentary was intended. This is, after all, the Twilight Zone, and this is, of course, Jordan Peele, who could make a social point in a two minute skit about LFMAO trying to leave a party.
And as a final note, the cinematography, and everything technical, is amazing. Even the non-horror scenes feel trepidatious, with Dutch Angles, odd lighting and camera movement that is subtly unsettling. While the original Twilight Zone showed some good technical work, it was usually stymied by the limited budget and limited technology. Here, the cinematography and sets look like they came from a movie, not a television show.