Jordan Peele’s newest incarnation of Rod Serling’s classic TV series “The Twilight Zone” got off to an uneven start last week with a two episode debut. The first was a solid offering (“The Comedian”) and the second was a haphazard mess (a miscalculated reimagining of the classic “Nightmare at 20,000 [30,000] Feet”). This week’s entry, “Replay” sees the show realizing the potential I’d first imagined when I first heard that talented filmmaker Jordan Peele was producing it.
“Replay”, written by Selwyn Sefyu Hines and directed by Gerald McMurray, is the kind of story that is best told in this age; combining pointed, hard-hitting social commentary with that unique style of supernatural storytelling native to… “The Twilight Zone.”
Successful lawyer Nina Anderson (Sanaa Lathan) is driving her aspiring filmmaker son Dorian (Brit actor Damson Idris) off to college, which coincidentally, isn’t far from the neighborhood she grew up in and never looked back upon when she left many years ago. The drive provides a nice opportunity for mother/son bonding before the young man starts school. Stopping at a local diner, Nina breaks out her father’s old 1990s vintage camcorder (yes, the ones with actual videotape inside) as she records her son for his future ‘bonus features’ someday. Accidentally squirting ketchup on his shirt, Dorian is embarrassed when he realizes his mom was still recording. For his dignity’s sake, Nina innocently rewinds the tape… only to find (in true Twilight Zone fashion) that time itself has been rewound to a point right before the ketchup mishap, which is easily prevented. Nina uneasily realizes that a jump backward in time has occurred, but her son is oblivious.
Resuming their drive, the two are pulled over by police officer Lansky (a menacing Glenn Fleshler) who is immediately confrontational with the two, and becomes incensed when he realizes he is being recorded on Nina’s camcorder. The situation gets out of control, and Nina accidentally hits the rewind button again. The ugly confrontation is undone, as time is once again rewound.
Encountering Lansky yet again in another near-fatal scenario, Nina tries different tactics to avoid the bullying Lasky, including staying at a motel, but Lansky follows them there with increasingly terrorizing results. A desperate Nina rewinds time all the way back to the diner and attempts to placate the bullying cop by offering him a piece of pie in an attempt to foster good will. But as they leave the diner, Lansky (like a bloated Grim Reaper) follows Nina and Dorian outside over an “issue” with their Volvo. Nina’s patience wears thin with Lansky, and the situation rapidly deteriorates as Lansky pulls his gun and shoots Dorian in the chest, killing him. Having to ID her son later on at the morgue, a grief-stricken Nina gets the camcorder back and, in a Hail Mary pass, rewinds time once again…
Finding herself and Dorian back at the diner, she is overcome with joy, sobbing at the sight of her still-alive but unaware son. Noticing Lansky is in the restroom, she and her son make a break for it. Taking a circuitous route to avoid the lethal policeman, Nina realizes that the only way to both avoid Lansky and get Dorian to college is to go through that last psychological barrier for Nina… her old neighborhood, where her lone surviving brother (played by Steve Harris) still lives. The reason Nina has avoided the house where she grew up is for the painful memories it contains for her. Two of her other brothers died there… one of whom was shot and killed right in front of the porch. She vowed the only way she’d get out of there was by never looking back or being killed.
She tells her welcoming brother their story, and quickly makes a believer out of him. Not wanting to lose a sister or his beloved nephew, her brother helps them get to the campus through little known shortcuts, back alleyways, and even drainage accesses. Finally making it to campus, the trio think all is well until a familiar police car arrives and the terminator-like Lansky once again orders them to stop on yet another bulls#!t trumped-up charge. Without any provocation (as usual) he draws his gun on the unarmed trio… but this time is different, as students, parents and faculty at the all-black college gather around the three with their phones to record Lansky. The short-triggered cop seethes under the scrutiny of multiple cameras, like an animal on a leash, but is still very deadly. Soon more police arrive at the scene and seem to side with fellow cop Lansky, until they realize Lansky is wrong; and that public will is not in their favor. They back down, and Dorian goes to school.
A future-set coda sees an older Nina, with her 30-something son Dorian and her granddaughter. Their lives were successful because of the strength of the community pulling together to shine a light in the ugly face of Lansky’s harassment. Nina’s granddaughter reaches for her grandma’s antique camcorder, and it falls out of the toddler’s hands, shattering on the floor. Nina is aghast, until she realizes (finally) that they’ve made it… they no longer need the safety net of the camcorder to change fate once again.
The promise of a future yet to come, when there may not be a need for citizens to record the actions of police brutality. A very timely message, indeed.
Speaking to today.
This episode is exactly the kind of story that narrator/producer Jordan Peele has done so well with his movies (2017’s Oscar-winning “Get Out” and 2019’s “Us”). Writer Hines and director McMurray tackle the kinds of issues that both Peele (and the late Serling) do best. “Replay” offers several characters with different approaches to racism; a successful lawyer who flees her past and doesn’t look back, the young millennial who hasn’t grown up with the innate fears of his elders, and an activist uncle still living in the old neighborhood, leading the good fight against social injustice. The uncle’s house is filled with “Black Lives Matter” messaging and iconography, as his activism is his identity.
Even as far back as its first season in 1959, the original Twilight Zone had an episode with a primarily black cast in S1’s “The Big Tall Wish,” as well as other stories dealing with racism and injustice (“I Am The Night, Color Me Black” dealt with an unjust execution). The original Twilight Zone used supernatural elements sparingly, so as not to lose the realism of the greater morality play, and “Replay” is exactly this kind of story; fitting in well with Twilight Zone precedence, as well as saying what needs to be said right now. To see Peele carry the torch of this show into the 21st century is very exciting.
Summing it up.
“Replay” does what “The Twilight Zone” did best; social commentary with just a twist of the supernatural to explore the issues with more freedom than a routine police/lawyer procedural drama could ever afford. Without network censorship, there is no need for this newest incarnation of “The Twilight Zone” to have to soft-shoe anything for the sake of advertisers, and this is but one of many reasons that I think the late Rod Serling would’ve absolutely loved this episode. After a shaky start last week, Jordan Peele’s new “Twilight Zone” is now open for serious business…