It’s hard to imagine any reboot of “The Twilight Zone” — even one by the talented Jordan Peele — approaching, never mind equaling, the original. As the blueprint for decades of entertainment, as TV’s first shot of social, political, psychological, and environmental self-reflection, as an early cultural reckoning with nuclear odds and cold wars, the first “Twilight Zone” will always be the best “Twilight Zone.”
I don’t mean that a new “Twilight Zone” couldn’t technically improve on Rod Serling’s baby, which originally ran from 1959 to 1964. If you watch or rewatch almost any of those 156 episodes now, on the show’s 60th anniversary, they can seem clunky, amateurish, and slow, very slow. Every now and then, a hint of Ed Wood rears its head. Made long before our high-tech production values and our neurotically fast editing, Serling’s focus was on concept, writing, and provocation. Very many of the original half-hours remain challenging and — with stories about racism, nationalism, fascism, groupthink, and ecological disaster — relevant, even while they look and sound like relics.
But “The Twilight Zone” was the first stone in the water, and the ripples are still everywhere on TV. You can’t compete with that kind of inventiveness and influence. Straying far from the moral surety of the likes of “Leave It to Beaver,” the anthology series ushered edgy science fiction into the mainstream, and countless shows from “Lost” and “The X-Files” to “The Walking Dead” and “Manifest” have since thrived on the heady, troubling premises it churned out. It was cutting-edge storytelling, the first weekly dive into the workings of the unconscious and the threats of the future; but these days, its notions are standard-issue plot material.
So forget about Peele’s “Twilight Zone” matching the power and impact of Serling’s “Twilight Zone.” That’s not the point of this review. The real issue is whether or not the CBS All Access show, which begins with two episodes on Monday, sparkles on its own. Based on the four episodes made available for review, the new “Zone” appears to be uneven, with both some nice tweaks, notably a more acute awareness of bigotry and terrorism, and — at an unmerited hour per episode — some frustratingly muddy storytelling.
Also, Peele’s presence as the Serling-esque narrator, posed with a glass of wine or another prop, lacks the kind of charisma that compels you to listen closely to his morals. His appearances are nicely engineered, so, for instance, in “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet,” a feeble, pointless remake of an original episode, he shows up on one of the plane’s TV screens to deliver his thoughts. But Peele doesn’t evoke the drama, pathos, and cosmic irony you might hope for from a host.
The best episode is called “The Comedian,” and it’s a literal take on the idea of a stand-up comic “killing it.” Kumail Nanjiani keeps putting nightclub audiences to sleep with his stage rants about the Second Amendment, until he makes a deal with an older comic — played by Tracy Morgan — that expands his popularity, but at quite a price. Without telegraphing a message, the episode operates as a rich metaphor about the power and loneliness of being an artist.
It also speaks to the human-scaled bent of the series, one of its best features. “Black Mirror,” currently TV’s most future-forward sci-fi series, takes our technological advances and exaggerates them to frightening levels; the “Twilight Zone” tends to rely on flaws in human nature to make its points. The allure of the devil, who doesn’t always look like we expect, is a theme that reaches back to the original show, as weak people succumb to the pretty superficialities of evil. In another new episode, called “A Traveler,” a demonic stranger — played by Steven Yeun — triggers interpersonal chaos, turning an Alaska state police Christmas party into a nightmare of ugly truths. That stranger knows how to split groups of people into warring factions, another familiar theme in the original series — in “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” most notably, in which neighbors turn on one another, much to the pleasure of invading aliens who’ve discovered the power of “divide and conquer.”
Another episode, called “Replay,” is promising — until it devolves into obviousness. Sanaa Lathan plays a mother taking her teen son to college, hyper-aware that as a young black man, he is a target for racist white cops. Magically, the rewind button on her video camera is equipped with the ability to undo any violence they perpetrate against her son. Get it? Her camera is helping her deal with aggressive white cops, just as cellphone cameras have driven home stories of police racism in recent years.
I’m looking forward to seeing more of Peele’s “Twilight Zone,” even with its early mixed results. I came across enough satisfying moments to inspire more mining for gold. Remember, you’ll need a subscription to CBS All Access to watch — I mean, to enter another dimension, a dimension of sound, a dimension of sight, a dimension of mind.
THE TWILIGHT ZONE
Starring: Adam Scott, Sanaa Lathan, Tracy Morgan, Chris Diamantopoulos, Steve Harris, Kumail Nanjiani, Greg Kinnear, Steven Yeun. On: CBS All Access. Two episodes premiere on Monday, April 1; new episodes will be available weekly on Thursdays beginning April 11.