Debuting auspiciously on April Fool’s Day, Jordan Peele’s take on the classic TV series “The Twilight Zone” has arrived on CBS-All Access streaming service. Peele is part of the sketch comedy duo of “Key & Peele” as well as the talented suspense filmmaker behind the Oscar-winning “Get Out” (2017) and the recent “Us” (2017), both of which I deeply enjoyed. So when I heard he was tackling TZ, I was very hopeful. If any filmmaker today possesses the wit, dark imagination and knack for social satire of original TZ creator Rod Serling, it’s Jordan Peele. Both “Get Out” and “Us” could qualify as latter-day, feature-length episodes of TZ, in fact.
So, as of yesterday, the first two episodes became available for streaming. The first is a surreal drama called “The Comedian”, and the second is “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet” (a quasi-reimagining of the classic Richard Matheson-written episode, “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”; given a 10k mile boost). Of the two, I’d say that “The Comedian” is the far superior of the pair, and feels much more in keeping with the original series (ironically) than the reimagining of “Nightmare…”
This first tale, clocking in at a slightly overlong 55 minutes, is written by Alex Reubens and directed by Owen Harris. It is a morality tale with a familiar Faustian bargain-feel that gradually goes on its own tangent very quickly.
Sad sack political comedian Samir Wassan (real-life comic Kumail Nanjiani) hangs on by his fingernails doing standup at Eddies (hold the apostrophe) nightclub. After 5 years of trying, he’s kept on at the club for charity more than his ability to make folks laugh. Always opening his show with his same tiresome riffing on the 2nd Amendment, he always fizzles soon afterward. Samir is given moral support from his beautiful live-in girlfriend and a rival comic named DiDi (Diarra Kilpatrick), who constantly busts his balls, yet offers support in her own sardonic way.
After a particularly bad set, Samir meets comedy legend and personal idol J.C. Wheeler (Tracy Morgan), who offers Samir his own level of success, but only if he veers away from political comedy and begins using his own life for inspiration. The struggling Samir takes the advice, telling a seemingly mundane joke about his cat peeing on his pizza, and he brings the house down.
Coming home to find that he longer has (or has ever had) a pet cat, he chalks it up to a practical joke. After teasing his girlfriend’s nephew about the boy’s texting during his set (and once again getting undue laughter), Samir finds that not only did his nephew never exist, but that his girlfriend’s sister can’t even have children. Samir learns that once he uses someone from his real life in his act, they are retroactively erased from existence…they’re not murdered; they simply were never born.
Inspired by this new godlike power, Samir tries to make the current fascistic president disappear (oh, that’d be nice) by mentioning him in a set, but is met with stone silence. It only works when he uses someone he knows. Afraid and unwilling to use people too close to him, he begins using old class bullies and other acquaintances until success comes knocking…and his choices get harder and harder. Without spoiling the ending, all I can say is, it’s a classic Twilight Zone ending.
Nightmare at 30,000 Feet.
This loose rejiggering of Matheson’s classic “Nightmare…”, rewritten by Marco Ramirez and directed by Greg Yutanais, sees nervous investigative journalist Justin Sanderson (Adam Scott) at a busy airport, where he meets a stranger (Chris Diamantopolous) in the giftshop who recognizes him (recognizing a magazine journalist on sight? This must be the Twilight Zone…). The stranger (who only identifies as “a pilot”) asks for an autograph on a copy of Sanderson’s magazine. We then see Justin anxiously going through all of the TSA scanners and pat-down prep before boarding flight #1015 (departing at 10:15 pm on October 15th), then nervously calling his wife and reminding her that he’s okay to fly after an unnamed previous incident. Soon, he boards the plane, suspiciously eyeing all of his fellow passengers on a long flight to Tel Aviv, Israel.
Upon departure, Justin puts on his headphones and plays a podcast which is all about the curious fate of a downed airliner, numbered Flight 1015, with all of the same details as his own flight, including an engine seemingly struck by a bird. Rather than chalk it up to coincidence, Justin immediately believes the podcast to be spouting forecasts of his own flight’s future, and begins to suspect that one of his fellow passengers (whom he racially/ethnically profiles in his mind) will be responsible for an act of inflight terrorism or violence that will somehow bring down the aircraft in the middle of the north Atlantic at exactly 11:15 pm.
Justin’s increasingly erratic behavior leads to his being subdued by an air marshal, who only binds his hands (yet doesn’t bother buckling him into his seat…?). The air marshal also makes the big mistake of leaving Justin alone (??) for a prolonged talk with the captain, leaving Justin enough time to regain his MP3 player and continue listening to his podcast, which places responsibility for the crash with him and the plane’s pilot. Finding a sympathetic ear in the same stranger he met in the airport gift shop, Justin decides that the man (who’d been clearly drinking earlier) should wrestle for control of the aircraft from the captain (X-Files veteran Nicholas Lea) and bring it down safely in Newfoundland or some other safe port. Guessing that 1015 is also the cockpit entry code, ‘the pilot’ breaks into the cabin and subdues the pilot…and Justin is horrified to discover that his pilot friend is suicidal and chose to help him in order to fulfill a death wish. “The pilot” was the ill-fated plane’s pilot, not the captain. Funny how the podcast was all about the details, until it came to this rather important distinction….
A post-crash Justin finds himself washed ashore on a sunny atoll somewhere, where his finds his (still-working??) MP3 player and listens to the rest of the podcast. The podcast says that not only did all of the other passengers survive, but that he was never found again. He finds the survivors, and they’re plenty pissed. It’s no surprise that the angry mob of survivors kills Justin, the man responsible for their crash, shortly before they are rescued.
Despite a lesser running length (20 min. shorter) than “The Comedian”, the new “Nightmare…” actually feels a lot longer, with a meandering story that offers no true morales or insights, other than perhaps that nervous people shouldn’t believe podcasts they hear during long flights (if that’s a lesson). “Nightmare…” has none of the primal fear and immediacy of the William Shatner TZ original, let alone the 1983 John Lithgow-starring TZ feature film remake. Instead, it’s a dull tale of misguided paranoia that offers a future-forecasting podcast as its only ‘supernatural’ element.
The Shatner & Lithgow versions weren’t perfect either, but at least their protagonists were genuinely heroic, overcoming their own fears and trying to take down the destructive gremlin ripping apart their aircraft in mid-flight. Shatner & Lithgow’s aviophobes were both helpful in ending their respective nightmares. Justin actually creates his plane’s issues.
Part of the problem is that without a monster (the original’s ‘gremlin’), the protagonist is essentially reduced to being an idiot haunted by a supernatural podcast and his own imagination. Being an idiot shouldn’t warrant the death penalty. He isn’t actively seeking to harm anyone, save for his crime of unduly profiling some of his fellow passengers. Yes, that’s a bad thing, but it’s hardly worthy of a death by a violent mob of survivors (which, if anything, only proves his paranoia about them). Without a gremlin, this new “Nightmare” offers no solidity to its fear, making its ‘hero’ a fool.
We do eventually see the ‘gremlin’ from the 1963 original, but it is reduced to a nonsensical cameo as a bisected toy washed up on the shore, right next to Justin. It plays absolutely ZERO role in the story. It’s a piece of ill-placed fan service, unlike the ventriloquist’s dummy cameo (from the TZ classic, “The Dummy”) seen in “The Comedian”, which makes perfect sense, because we see that Eddies nightclub has a ventriloquist.
I also enjoyed the feel of “The Comedian” better, with its occasional Dutch angles, eerily placed closeups and compositions, inflicting the viewer some of the ill-ease of its protagonist Samir. The longer running time also gave the performances a little more room to breathe, and time for the ideas to worm their way into one’s subconscious. While the story is reminiscent of a segment from Rod Serling’s later “Night Gallery” TV series (the Godfrey Cambridge-starring piece called “Make Me Laugh”), “The Comedian” still has enough of its own steam to qualify as something newish. At any rate, it’s not the originality, or lack of, that makes “The Comedian” special; it’s the performances, the style, and the overall feeling for the original TZ, which permeates the running time. The nightclub, the lighting and even the street scenes all evoke TZ without being overtly referential. Every performance is spot-on, particularly Nanjiani’s sad-faced Samir and Tracy Morgan’s more enigmatic J.C. Wheeler.
“Nightmare…” is awash in nice visuals, but the plane itself rarely feels like little more than a static set; the camerawork is a bit too conservative to adequately convey a heart-stopping, white-knuckled flight (compare this latest version to the 1983 Lithgow TZ movie version, and you’ll see what I mean). Even the 1963 “Nightmare…” had the constant sound of propellers and shadows to make us feel that the plane was indeed in flight. As a person prone to claustrophobia, I felt much more of it in the Shatner and Lithgow versions than I ever did in this new take on Matheson’s “Nightmare…” which bears almost no substantive relation to Matheson’s story.
The changes made to “Nightmare…” largely serve to detract from, rather than complement, the classic original. “Nightmare…” had already been done twice before this third attempt, and this latest version offers no ideas urgent or pressing enough (beyond some post-9/11 fears) to warrant a remake. Even Adam Scott’s Justin comes off as a bit too restrained in his portrayal of neurosis bordering on a psychotic break. His character is essentially killed for acting rashly on a haunted, supernatural…podcast.
Jordan Peele’s narration really works. I like that he is wearing a suit too, giving him that classy yet somewhat mortician-esque vibe that fits with the Twilight Zone’s overall gestalt (Forrest Whittaker really should’ve dressed like that back in 2002…it would’ve helped a bit). Peele’s narrating voice is nicely formal as well. His opening narration in “Nightmare…” is also cleverly projected onto the plane’s onboard video screens; a nice nod to how Rod Serling himself would sometimes look for ways to work himself imaginatively into the original opening prologues.
The redo of the classic 2nd season Twilight Zone theme (by Marius Constant) works well enough; the first season theme by “Psycho” composer Bernard Herrmann, didn’t have the familiar ‘doo-dee-doo-doo…’ phrasing, but was arguably far more eerie. The Grateful Dead’s version of Constant’s TZ theme (used in the 1985-9 version of TZ) has yet to be topped, and probably never will. The 2019 main title sequence is an interesting merger of the original titles with a touch of modern Doctor Who. We see reality melting away at the end of what appears to be a hospital corridor, which is a nicely evocative image. Nothing about the new main title sequence is objectionable, though I’m open to it being improved upon somewhere down the road. Even the original Twilight Zone revised its title sequence a few times during its five-year run.
Summing it up.
While “The Comedian” is a very promising taste of what a new Twilight Zone can bring to the table, “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet” is a clear warning of what it must avoid. The new TZ series has a lot of potential for new morality plays and social commentary at a time when we couldn’t need them more. Here’s hoping TZ continues to push ahead with new material like “The Comedian” (familiar yes, but new) rather than try to reimagine classic episodes ad nauseam. Remaking classic episodes was one pitfall that both prior remakes of TZ (1985-9, 2002) managed to more or less avoid.
As much as I love the original TZ, I also recognize that it wasn’t perfect. There were occasional clunkers in that mix as well. The 1980s remake also had some great stories, with writers such as the legendary Harlan Ellison and George R.R. Martin (“Game of Thrones”). Only the Forrest Whittaker-hosted 2002 version of TZ generally failed more than it succeeded. Doing this series is a formidable challenge, so I can see why CBS waited almost 20 years to try again. Twilight Zone needs a very specialized touch to work its magic. If producer Peele can impart more of the mystery and social satire/unease that we saw in “Get Out” or “Us” to his new version, the future of this series could be very promising.
With one hit and one miss under its belt, I’d say there are still plenty of reasons to keep my CBS-AA account open, and see what else lies beyond this now unlocked door…