Jordan Peele‘s updated reboot of Rod Serling‘s classic speculative/science-fiction/social commentary series The Twilight Zone has finally premiered, after much build-up, and with a hype that is only reinforced by his two wildly successful social horror films, Get Out, and the more recent Us. The series premiere — a remake of the original series’ “The Comedian” — offers plenty of insight into both the strengths and potential weaknesses of the rebooted series.
The premiere stars Kumail Nanjiani as stand-up comedian Samir Wassan, a comic giving the same pointed, political commentary to bored guests who offer tepid chuckles. He’s unknown, growing frustrated and disillusioned by his lack of success, and is the definition of a nobody (whereas his girlfriend, Rena, played by Amara Karan, is a successful arbitrator). After a set one night, where he gets a playful dressing down by his colleague DiDi Scott (played with aplomb by Diarra Kilpatrick), he meets JC Wheeler (Tracey Morgan), one of the most successful current comics around, and asks for the secret to success.
The key to success, Wheeler says, is making the personal public, mining one’s personal life for material. The downside, he warns, is that once the private is made public, it is given away, never to return. Returning to his set, Samir breaks his set to freestyle a set about his girlfriend’s dog…only the return home later that night to discover that the dog in question no longer exists…nor has it ever existed. It exists only in his memory. At this point, the episode is nearly ten minutes into its 50-or-so minute runtime, and at THIS point does a dapper, well-dressed and even-toned Jordan Peele appear onscreen and open up with the narration.
As sleek and well-shot as this episode is (as one would expect from the director of Black Mirror‘s excellent “San Junipero”, Owen Harris), it suffers from pacing issues. Twice does Samir’s character come to the realization that by incorporating real people, by name, into his act does he erase them from all existence; and twice do we see the consequences of that ability personally affect him and Rena.
In addition, it seemed that an exorbitant amount of time was dedicated to Samir’s thrashing and disappearing of not only randos on the street and hecklers (which, yes, goes to show how petty Samir’s become as a result of his new skill), but rather than actively push the story towards its climax (which I predicted a good 20 minutes before it played out…and no, I don’t recall ever seeing the original, nor the Night Gallery version, either…); it seems to linger a bit on the pettiness of Samir which, yes, is the point, but the second act felt a bit like going in circles, which was a bit disappointing since Kumail and Diarra and Amara do great work, and the show…again…looks great.
It’s crispness and clarity, while great, took some getting used to in regards to “feeling” like the Twilight Zone, which has always felt and looked just barely this side of gritty; there’s always been a slight sense of otherworldliness to the original series that, for the time being at least, is missed. Likewise, the few current political references, in a few years, will likely make this iteration less timeless in the way the classic episodes are (and, no, I am not complaining about Twilight Zone, of all things “becoming political”: the show has that DNA in its veins; but there’s a difference between references to specific people or pieces of culture, and more general references that can come from any era. That’s the difference between a work that can be re-watched decades later, and work that is definitely of its time.)
Topical nature aside, the aesthetics themselves are very much of a very specific, HD-centric ea as well. Compare, for example, the exaggerated colors and grain to the similarly-toned Black Mirror; colors are either over- or under-saturated (or missing entirely); film stock exposed at varying level of grain exposure; only at the final comedy act of the episode were wide angle lenses employed to exaggerate audience faces…it’s a small quibble, but it’s an important one to notice when you’re looking to enter another dimension of sight and sound and mind, but it feels and looks like a high-def spec piece. And there’s something…off…about how many times characters say the word “fuck”. Much like how it threw me when Ensign Tilly said it in Star Trek: Discovery, hearing it from what is a classic franchise is going to take some getting use to.
The premiere is a good enough introduction to this reboot, and it offers a lot of strengths (the talent involved is insane; the production design — for better and worse — is sharp; and the topical updates are much needed), and a few missteps that hopefully get worked out as the season progresses. For now, it’s worth it to take the key of imagination and walk to that other dimension. 3.5/5 Dogs Named Cat.
The Twilight Zone is available for streaming on CBS All Access, and “The Comedian” is currently streaming on YouTube.