****THE SPOILER ZONE!****
The season finale of CBS-AA’s rebooted Twilight Zone has arrived, and while significantly more enjoyable than previous entries, it still has its own share of issues.
“Blurryman” opens with an unusually artificial looking apartment exterior, which takes us inside to a harried writer played by Seth Rogen, who is frustrated by a post-apocalypse story he’s breaking. His wife (Betty Gabriel, of “Get Out” fame) enters just as he’s had a eureka moment; he’s going to begin his story with the end of the world…which, in cliched TZ style, results in reality changing around him.
The view outside his apartment becomes a desolate, ashy post-atomic horror-scape. His wife’s expression changes…she makes a reference about ‘reapers’ coming out after dark or some such thing. In short, it looks like a bad, horror-reimagining of the original TZ’s season one finale, “A World Of His Own,” where a writer conjured his own reality with a dictaphone.
Cut to “The Narrator” Jordan Peele, who delivers a few words about writers taking responsibility for their creations, etc. Peele words begin to stick in his throat a bit, and he stops… breaking the 4th wall of the episode by giving us a glimpse ‘behind-the-scenes’ of the episode in progress. The narration doesn’t work for him, shooting of his narration bit is stopped dead, and he summons the harried writer Sophie (“Deadpool 2”’s Zazie Beetz) to write a new version ASAP. Every second Sophie wastes holds up production…
It’s a rare meta-moment for the show, echoing Rod Serling’s own ‘disappearing act’ at the end of “World Of His Own.” In fact, it’s about the only moment of genuine humor we’ve seen in this otherwise humorless first season. Given Peele’s background in comedy and satire, I thought new TZ might have just a bit more levity. Even the late Serling wrote the occasional comedic episode (the aforementioned “World Of His Own” being one such example of many).
Sophie, warding off repeated texts and FaceTime calls from a loved one (Caitlin Stryker), finishes the new narration and rushes to get it onto cue cards (this wouldn’t happen in a real single-camera TV show, as the script would’ve had a table read long before it went to cameras). Peele does a hurriedly revised new take, and starts to get a bit lost midway as the new monologue contains references to a ‘blurry man’. He flubs the take, and Sophie tries to assure him and one very pissed off producer (Romy Cutler-Lengyel) that those were NOT her words.
A despondent Sophie wanders off set, and begins a surreal, meandering chase with a ‘blurry man’ who seems angry with her, violently knocking shelves and tables down with “Carrie”-like bouts of telekinesis.
As she runs from familiar set to familiar set, Sophie realizes that she and the blurry man chasing her are invisible to the rest of the studio lot, despite the damage the blurry man causes. She also has visions of her own childhood, spent watching “The Twilight Zone” with her parents, and losing herself in that imaginary world…
Eventually, she finds herself back in the relative safety of the studio, with a rewritten opening narration which she nervously hands to Peele, who loves it, and finally shows her the gratitude she deserves. But it’s not over (as a voice literally tells her)… she has to confront the ‘blurry man’.
Reality around her fades into black and white, and Sophie faces down the angry ‘blurry man’ who, it turns out, is none other than a CGI-simulacrum of the late Rod Serling. Using the same combination of voice/body-double and CGI-face that brought the late Peter Cushing back to life in “Rogue One”, we see Serling emerge from the shadows, taking Sophie under his wing into the ‘real’ Twilight Zone. “Blurryman” ends with the faux-Serling giving the closing narration, and a faithful redo of the original TZ theme.
The notion of ‘breaking the 4th wall’ the same way the original TZ ended it’s inaugural season was a dynamite idea, giving us an artificial ‘glimpse’ behind the scenes of the show. The pressures its writers must feel in trying to work on a par with the late Rod Serling must be formidable. That’s also why it breaks my heart that this episode misses the mark yet again, like most episodes of this troubled first year.
Taking a humorous meta-premise and then trying to make a ‘horror chase’ of it for a good bulk of its running time (excuse the pun) was a mistake. Another was making the ‘blurry man’ Rod Serling some kind of shadowy, scary boogieman. Why is Serling feared so much? Why does he violently smash over craft service tables in seeming rage? This is at odds with the calm, cool collected facsimile of Serling we meet at the episode’s end, let alone the real-life writing genius whose humanitarian bent permeated his work. The faux Serling could’ve just as easily came to her in an eerie dream and inspired Sophie to finish the episode without being a monster, just as Humphrey Bogart appeared in Woody Allen’s 1972 comedy, “Play It Again, Sam.”
And just what is the message of this episode? If you write for Serling’s old show, you’ll be haunted and chased by his angry ghost until he decides to play nice with you? I’m sure there’s much deeper meaning here (somewhere), and that’s all well and good, but one didn’t need to psychoanalyze the hell out of Serling’s classic series (or even its under appreciated 1980s revival) because the stories were cleanly told and easily understood by all age groups. The messages were usually obvious; don’t lie, don’t be greedy, don’t be a jerk to your peers, etc. You didn’t need to hunt for the morality in Serling’s morality plays …they were self-evident.
The original Twilight Zone told tales in colors of terror, drama, and yes, comedy. Why is this version of Twilight Zone so afraid to openly embrace humor? Serling did it all the time, with episodes like the aforementioned “World Of His Own”, or “Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?” or “Hocus Pocus and Frisby” and many others. Serling’s Twilight Zone worked so well because he knew how to balance its scares and life-lessons with a good honest laugh every now and then. It breaks the tension, and it also makes the horror aspects all the more memorable.
For some reason, this new series only seems to focus on two aspects of TZ; the horror and the messaging. They often come off as preachy and heavy-handed. In fact, the writing of the new TZ feels a bit ass-backwards… they seem to have the message mapped out first, and then try to frame a story around it. Serling did the reverse; starting with an interesting premise, and then seeing what morality came of it.
The old TZ was usually remembered by a story idea, not the final message. Whenever my sisters and I would watch an episode, it was like, “Oh, this is the creepy talking puppet episode” or “This is the one about the dead gangster’s shoes” or “This is the one about the astronaut in a Martian zoo.” The new TZ is more like, “This is the one about gun control,” or “This is the one about the kid-Trump”, or “This is the one about undocumented immigration.”
The new TZ is less satirical allegory and more ripped-from-the-headlines of CNN. Given its heavy-handedness, lack of humor and a supply of f-bombs that would make Martin Scorsese blush, I can’t imagine new generations of children gathering around to watch this new series the way that my sisters and I used to watch the classic version when we were kids.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m totally onboard with the messages of the new Twilight Zone. In fact, I consider myself a pretty liberal guy, much like the late Rod Serling did (documented in many interviews I’ve read and seen of him). What I don’t care for is the obviousness and heavy-handedness with which the new messages are delivered. Classic TZ spoke to many of the same issues we have today, such as racism, child abuse, abuses of power, addictions, war, paranoia, etc. but it did so in a way that was both entertaining and thoughtful. The new show is as subtle as a bludgeon to the skull, and arguably as entertaining.
The new series is also peppering each story with easter eggs from the classic series; usually turning up in odd or unnecessary places. Burgess Meredith’s aforementioned broken glasses on the steps, the evil puppet from “The Dummy” and other bits of set dressing that are usually distracting to the story at hand, turning some episodes into a game of “Where’s Waldo?”
The ‘wing gremlin’ from Richard Matheson’s “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” shows up as a doll washed ashore after the crash (literal and otherwise) of the new “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet”, which saw a mentally ill journalist (Adam Scott) beaten to death by an angry mob because his acute (uncontrollable) paranoia was the accidental cause of their plane’s crash (which everyone survived, I might add). In the original, Shatner’s mentally-ill protagonist was a Don Quixote-like hero who’s trying to kill a deadly monster that only he sees threatening the plane. In the remake, the character is a poor paranoid schmuck who endangers his fellow passengers because he gets spooked by a podcast. So what exactly was the point of this remake? No podcasts for paranoid people?
This muddled morality is an ongoing issue I’ve had with other episodes as well. The WASP-y rich white woman (Ginnifer Goodwin) in “Point of Origin” (the undocumented immigration episode) is forced to live the reality of an her undocumented maid when it is revealed she herself is a ‘dreamer’ who escaped a nightmarish dimension as a child. She’s been living in our universe ‘illegally.’ Yes, the episode makes a strong (and good) point about treating our fellow humans like infections rather than living beings, but the ending doesn’t make its point with forgiveness…instead, the WASPy alien is torn away from her family because we’re supposed to believe that perhaps she didn’t try hard enough to relate to her similarly deported housekeeper. It’s a moot point, because later on, she tries to help her housekeeper as much as possible, even at the risk of her own life. A somewhat draconian penalty for the ‘crime’ of being culturally insensitive earlier on.
What about forgiveness? What about character redemption? These were also hallmarks of Rod Serling’s classic original series that the new TZ seems to have completely forgotten. Think of the redemption of drunken Santa Claus played by Art Carney in “Night of the Meek”, or the post-apocalypse enemies (Charles Bronson, Elizabeth Montgomery) who learn survival together in “Two.” Maybe if Jordan Peele would get more personally involved in the writing of this series, as Rod Serling did with the classic version, things might improve. Peele is an Oscar-winning screenwriter (“Get Out”) but he has yet to pen a single episode, whereas the late Serling wrote 92 out of 156 episodes!
For more on Rod Serling’s classic show, I highly recommend author Marc Scott Zicree’s amazing book, “The Twilight Zone Companion” (the original edition of which was published in 1982). It is the definitive book on all things Twilight Zone. The book is now in its fifth edition, and I sincerely hope the writers of the new TZ get ahold of a copy (quickly) and read it cover-to-cover before they begin season 2, if it’s not too late.