Season One: Danger Zone.
When writer/director/actor Jordan Peele took the reigns of CBS-All Access’ new remake of Rod Serling‘s classic series, “The Twilight Zone”, few were more excited than myself. As a big fan of Peele’s movies (“Get Out” “Us”) I thought he’d bring some of the profundity and gallows’ humor of his films into the series, but sadly, the first season of the new Twilight Zone was largely a hit and miss affair, with decidedly more misses than hits. Between half-hearted remakes (or mishmashes) of original episodes and heavy-handed messages delivered without the original series’ wit or subtlety, the series was in danger of failing (just as its 2002 remake had also failed; the 1985-1988 version has a few gems). As a lifelong fan of The Twilight Zone, I wasn’t even sure I was coming back to watch…
Well, thank COVID-19 confinement that I decided to give the latest 10 episodes of Season 2 a try, and I’m both pleased and surprised to report that Season 2 is a bit more surefooted, and succeeds at capturing a tiny bit more of the original show’s spirit. The new season is not completely free of some of the first season’s issues; the horror element is still a bit too heavy at times, and these relatively simple morality tales still feel a tad over-length at 43 or so odd minutes (this was a lesson learned back with the original series’ hour-long 4th season…shorter is sweeter).
However, the new season’s variety of stories (sci-fi, horror, satire, dark romance, teen drama), as well as a fresh injection of whimsy and even a bit of wonder go a ways towards making those flaws less evident. The last season seemed to be more a collection of ‘ripped from the headlines’ stories, such as a Trump-era remake of “It’s a Good Life”, as well as other heavy-handed, non-veiled stories of undocumented immigration, assault and racial tensions. At times, it felt more like watching CNN than The Twilight Zone. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t mind social justice messaging (at all). The classic series was laden with messages (“I Am the Night, Color Me Black”, “The Shelter”, “The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street” etc) but it delivered them in clever ways that also stimulated the imagination, not just rouse anger.
It seems that word of the new Twilight Zone’s failings have reached the front office, because this current second season is a bit closer to the formula which made the original so memorable; using the wide arena of fantasy to tell latter-day morality tales.
*****SOME SPOILERS!! READER BEWARE!*****
E2.1: “Meet In The Middle.”
Jimmi Simpson (“Westworld”) stars as lonely introvert Phil Hayes, who, during a miserable date, finds himself experiencing a telepathic link with “Annie” (Gillian Jacobs), a woman who lives hundreds of miles away. Finding that his psychic connection with Annie is stronger than any connection he has in the ‘real’ world (an elegant metaphor for Twitter friends, or others we think we know on social media), Phil begins to become obsessed with finding her, even to the point of cyberstalking her. In short, his loneliness begins to take their ‘relationship’ to dark places. They eventually agree to ‘meet in the middle’ between their cities, with a desperate Phil going to extremes to ‘save’ Annie, all the while refusing to heed her earlier warnings not to pursue a real-world relationship. He never considers that he is only doing exactly what Annie wants him to do…
“Meet in the Middle” is a dark answer to “Sleepless In Seattle” style ‘anonymous’ relationships, and in the wrong hands, it could’ve very easily turned into a silly rom-com. As told, the story perfectly illustrates the dangers of projecting our own needs and insecurities onto that ‘perfect person’ out there, who exists more in our imagination than reality. A very high bar with which to start off the new season. “Meet in the Middle” episode was written by Emily Chang & Sara Amini and directed by Mathias Herndl.
Morena Baccarin (“Firefly” “Homeland”) stars as Michelle Weaver, a woman who has just been promoted to a managerial position in a high-end hotel. Her entire life is on an upward trajectory…until she feels a stab of pain, and reality stops dead in its tracks. With everyone and everything frozen in place, only Michelle realizes the world has stopped. Reality itself is ‘down for maintenance.’ Up in the sky is a giant mechanical ‘eye’ and several ‘technical support’ personnel are dispatched to help Michelle, who, it turns out, isn’t living the life she believes (at all). Michelle learns some tough truths, and comes to understand that we all have to play our parts to make reality work. The trick is to ‘stay in character.’
Writer/producer/narrator Jordan Peele turns in the kind of ‘peek behind the curtains of reality’ story that defined some of the more quirky episodes of the original series. With perhaps a nod to 2010’s “The Adjustment Bureau,” “Downtime” makes one wonder what lives we could slip into (or out of) if we question the realities we choose for ourselves. I saw the ‘life swapping’ element of the story as a statement for gender identity; that we aren’t necessarily defined by the body we’re born into…we can choose to be whomever we wish. Perhaps not one of the best stories, but there’s enough metaphysical stuff to chew on for 40 minutes.
E2.3: “The Who Of Us.”
A variation of classic TZ’s “The Four Of Us Are Dying,” which saw a desperate conman use his innate ability to change his face to get out of scrapes, this version sees struggling actor Harry Pine (Ethan Embry) learn that he has a unique ability to swap bodies by staring intently into the eyes of whomever he’s talking with. This ability comes in handy yet creates a whole series of other problems when Harry robs a bank to come up with the rent money and save his teetering relationship with his girlfriend Morena (Carmel Amit), whom he suspects is cheating on him. Using his ability to leap from body to body (an acting tour-de-force for all the actors who are playing “Harry”), Harry (now in the body of young Miles Phoenix Foley) makes a final desperate leap into the clever Detective Reece (Daniel Sunjata) who’s finally tracked him down. It doesn’t end well for the poor detective (in Harry’s body), and turns into a victory for the morally worthless Harry (in Reese’s body) as well.
Written by Win Rosenfeld and directed by Peter Atencio, I was disappointed in the outcome of this episode, as the bad guy Harry doesn’t receive a classic Twilight Zone-style comeuppance; instead, he gets a shot at a far better life in his younger, handsomer body than he has any right to be, especially after victimizing innocents (including a child) and placing them in harm’s way for over 40-odd minutes. Something tells me the late Rod Serling would’ve had a major bone to pick with writer Rosenfeld over how this one turned out. “The Who Of Us” starts off strongly, but ultimately (and inexplicably) favors the villain of the piece.
In an all-too familiar tale, a struggling musician named Jasmine (Jurnee Smollett) from a middle class family is playing for change in the park when she recieves a magic token from a world-famous pop star named Fiji (Skye Ferreira), just before the star steps in front of a bus and kills herself. Soon, Jasmine finds her music moves people to spontaneous applause. Parlaying her newfound confidence into a shot on “Ovation” (a singing competition show hosted by Joe Lo Truglio), Jasmine eventually wins the competition, even when her music was below her own standard. She is flooded by applause the second she begins playing. Jasmine’s music goes unheard, as she is smothering in sudden fame. As her own pop-star stature explodes, Jasmine doesn’t handle it well…turning on her jealous sister (Tawny Newsome), who works in a hospital. Before long, Jasmine realizes her sudden fame isn’t real (there is a creepy scene at her sister’s hospital, as a person wakes up during a surgery to robotically applaud…). Desperate to lose her unearned adoration, Jasmine and her sister agree to get rid of the token, which her sister quietly palms for herself.
Writers Chang and Amini re-team for a somewhat weaker installment than their earlier “Meet in the Middle,” and churn out a by-the-numbers story on the allure and toxicity of sudden, undeserved fame (which bears many similarities to Rod Serling’s own script “Make Me Laugh” for 1971’s “The Night Gallery”). Smollett’s best scenes are of her character’s mental breakdown in the isolated cabin. The emotion is raw and real, even if the episode (like Jasmine herself) doesn’t earn Smollett’s high caliber performance. It’s “American Idol in Hell” (and some, like myself, think “American Idol” is hell…).
E2.5: “Among the Untrodden.”
“Mean Girls” meets “The Craft” in this atmospheric, well-directed story that does an intriguing bait-and-switch by making the audience believe the tale is centered on the bullied ‘new girl’ Irene (Sophia Macy). In fact, the story is really about Madison (Abbie Hearn), the leader of the Mean Girl troupe. An undeterred Irene overlooks Madison’s bullying in an attempt to understand Madison’s latent (and potentially dangerous) psychic gifts. After the friendship between Madison and Irene is eventually cemented (mostly through pranks, including blackmailing a stern teacher), the other members of Madison’s brat pack begin to resent their leader forming a friendship with the newbie. It’s not long before the jealous pack plans an elaborate, vicious prank on Irene, which is unveiled at the school’s science fair… the fair also unveils the truth about Madison and Irene’s friendship.
Written by Heather Anne Campbell and directed by Tayarisha Poe, “Among the Untrodden” is all about the twist; much in the same way that 1960’s “Psycho” lulled audiences into believing the story was about Marion Crane, only to learn roughly halfway through the film that it’s really about meek motel manager Norman Bates. “Among the Untrodden” isn’t anywhere near the caliber of Hitchcock’s classic, yet it’s still an effective and atmospheric story, and the twist is effective enough. “Among the Untrodden” might resonate well with older teenagers, and possibly act as their own gateway into…The Twilight Zone.
Written by “X-Files” scribe Glen Morgan, “8” feels more like an episode of that series, rather than an episode of the new Twilight Zone. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, depending on how deep is one’s love for “The X-Files” (I loved the first five seasons, but not much afterward). Joel McCale plays the leader of an Antarctic research station (nothing good ever comes of polar research stations…see “The Thing” or any of its imitators). To make a very long story mercifully short, the episode concerns the ALIEN-like discovery of an intelligent squid that is freed from the ice and is now poised to position itself as the new dominant species on the planet.
While the horror elements of this story are certainly valid, especially the ‘squid-cam’ (which gives us the creature’s claustrophobic, muffled perceptions of its surroundings), it’s really a lot of lurk, creep, kill, rinse, repeat. One of the big ‘reveals’ is that a Chinese researcher/spy, played by Michelle Ang, has her own designs on the creature, just like “Ash” in ALIEN (*yawn*). None of the human characters of the titular ‘8’ are particularly interesting or memorable. This episode was, for me at least, a genuine chore to sit though, despite stylish direction by Justin Benson and Aron Morehead.
E2.7: “A Human Face.”
A pair of grieving parents named Barbara (Jenna Elfman) and Robert (Christopher Meloni) are alarmed at the presence of a gelatinous, shapeshifting alien intruder in their house, who assumes the shape of their lost daughter Maggie (Tavi Gevinson), and even assimilates the dead girl’s memories. Robert wants to kill the creature, while Barbara is so awash in grief that she’s willing to make-believe that this creepy interloper is her little girl, at the expense of her own critical thinking.
In some ways, this story feels like a lost script for “The Outer Limits” (1960s or 1990s vintage). Written by Alex Rubens and directed by Chistina Choe, “A Human Face” makes an intriguing if flawed case for how we choose to dole out our affections. Like other Twilight Zones (or Outer Limits), there are cases made for each side of the argument. Does one overlook the fact that the alien is part of an invasion force simply because it appeals to grief, or does one simply squash the bug? The story stacks the deck a bit in the alien’s favor with its late admission that absorbing their daughter’s memories changed it as well, giving it an empathy for humanity it previously lacked. Given that the creature violated the family’s grief by deceptively assuming their daughter’s form, I’d have to side with Robert’s earlier position, but that’s kind of what Twilight Zone does… delivering a moral dilemma for an audience to chew on.
E2.8: “A Small Town.”
Small town widower Jason (Damon Wayans Jr.) is still grieving the loss of his wife, the town’s beloved former mayor, who died a year before in an accident. Her death left her self-serving deputy, Conway (David Krumholtz) as the town’s new (unelected) mayor. Finding a “Beetlejuice”-like miniature of his town in an old attic, Jason accidentally spritzes it with a mister bottle, and it briefly rains outside. Jason quickly realizes that anything done to the miniature effects change in the real town as well. He immediately sets about repainting a worn-looking local restaurant overnight, much to the appreciation of its proprietor. The empowered Jason even fixes long-bothersome potholes. Jason’s supernaturally enacted changes to the town are wrongly credited to the selfish Conway. After Jason terrifies Conway with a giant spider (a normal-sized spider unleashed onto the miniature), the mayor soon realizes Jason’s attic miniature is the real source of the power and the two men clash, leaving the town and its people in peril.
The arrogant, entitled Mayor Conway represents a white frontman taking credit for (and enjoying the power from) a black man’s unheralded work. This is an old historical injustice that has led many people today to take a much closer look at previously deified historical figures, many of whom made their legacies on the backs of slave labor. The message is there, even if it’s not pounded into our foreheads. Directed by Alonso Alvarez and written by the team of Tananarive Due and Steven Barnes, “A Small Town” isn’t terribly original (voodoo-ish miniatures are a very old horror trope), though it gets the job done. “A Small Town” is not necessarily one of the strongest episodes of TZ ever made, but it still offers bit of grist for the philosophical mill.
E2.9: “Try, Try.”
Written by Alex Rubens and directed by Jennifer McGowan, “Try, Try” is a dark retelling of the seemingly benign romantic time-travel comedy “Groundhog Day.” This time the story is centered on the woman at the receiving end of the time traveler’s unwanted advances. “Marc” (Topher Grace) saves Claudia (Kylie Bunbury) from near-death as she accidentally steps in front of an approaching bus. Or was it an accident? The two then hit up a museum together, and Claudia is impressed and increasingly disturbed by this ‘stranger’s’ uncanny understanding of her likes and dislikes, as well as his ‘knack’ for predicting outcomes of trivial occurrences. Marc experiences the same sort of devil-may-care confidence that made Bill Murray’s “Phil Connors” seem so whimsical, and it’s for the same reason… Marc is also reliving this same day over and over again, as he’s done for years now, saving Claudia from the bus over and over, and going through a preprogrammed series of words and actions to make her ‘fall’ for him. For reasons that elude him, Marc can’t seem to ‘seal the deal’ this time. Marc doesn’t seem to understand that Claudia isn’t some pretty prop for his puppet theater; she is a woman with her own mind and will, and ultimately she won’t be toyed with. The cycle is broken, rather brutally, but necessarily so. Love has to be mutual, and women aren’t toys for male amusement.
Like the equally successful “Meet in the Middle,” this episode takes what could’ve been an innocuous 1980s/1990s rom-com and reveals the possible horror behind that genre’s long fascination with one-sided amorous pursuits. Phil Connors’ courtship of Rita (Andie MacDowell) in “Groundhog Day” only works because he manipulates her through knowledge obtained from repeated failed attempts; Connors has the upper hand because his mistakes have no consequences…he can experiment on Rita until he gets it ‘right.’ There are many far worse examples in older ‘comedies’ where a person uses ESP or other power (telepathy, telekinesis) to control/manipulate an unwitting partner into loving, or just having sex with them. Such blatant manipulation isn’t quite so charming in our world today. I enjoyed this story for the same reason I enjoyed “Meet in the Middle,” as they both pulled back the curtains on commonly-accepted romantic comedy tropes and exposed them for the violations that they would be in our reality.
E2.10: “You Might Also Like.”
My least favorite of the year. A confused, dull satire of consumerism (with ‘fulfillment centers’ offering an escape from reality) shoehorned into a quasi-remake/reimagining of one of classic Twilight Zone’s best; “To Serve Man”, which saw the cannibalistic “Kanamits” coming to Earth with a promise of new toys, food and friendship as a ploy to lure us onto their dinner tables. The story throws shade at Alexa, Siri, online tracking of shopping habits and other invasive curiosities of 21st century consumerism.
Gretchen Mol does what she can as “Mrs. Warren”, a woman earmarked for chow by the Kanamits, whose collective mind can’t deal with her resistance. The promise of her “family egg” (which is supposed to be the end-all of must-haves for everybody) is the impetus for the human characters in the story. As we saw with last year’s “Wunderkind” (an overly on-the-nose Trump-era remake of “It’s a Good Life”) and the self-referential “Blurry Man,” this episode relies too much on audience sentiment for the classic series, and doesn’t succeed at all on its own merits. The erratic, unfocused script by Osgood Perkins (son of Anthony) is a real dog’s dinner.
Even the Kanamits’ new look lacks the creepy quality of the late Richard Kiel’s original. The once-terrifying aliens are played for laughs rather than scares; even the riffing on ‘alien abductions’ is more silly than creepy. “You Might Also Like” bears one of Season 1’s worst tendencies, and I’m sad to see its return; the compulsion to insert unwanted Easter eggs from the classic series into the new show.
To Jordan Peele and company, I beg you…don’t rely on past glories; make your own!
Back In the Zone…Maybe (?).
With the exception of the final episode, which suffers too many of Season 1’s worst impulses (over-mining classic episodes, heavy-handed satire, etc), this newest season is something of an improvement over the first; a mixed bag of anthological entertainment, with a few real gems, and a few mediocre-to-poor offerings. Scaling back some of Season 1’s self-important messaging has yielded a slightly less pretentious tone overall. This season certainly has its flaws, but one of them isn’t jackhammering news headlines directly into viewer’s cranial cases. Season 2 uses a bit more of Twilight Zone’s trademark allegorical panache to deliver its messages. Yes, some of the new stories are familiar and predictable, but this was a flaw with the classic series on occasion as well. Sadly, it doesn’t quite feel like Oscar-winning producer/writer/narrator Jordan Peele is bringing his A-game to this series just yet.
New Twilight Zone has yet to achieve modern classic status (and it may never achieve it), but, at any rate, I’ve certainly seen worse.
To my readers, I once again wish you and all of your loved ones good health and strength during the current coronavirus pandemic. The current number of COVID-related deaths in the United States is over 127,000 deaths with worldwide fatalities at over half a million as of this writing. That number only increases daily. So, for the time being, please continue to practice social safe-distancing wherever possible, wear masks in public, and avoid overly crowded outings as much as possible.
CBS All Access’ 2nd season of “The Twilight Zone” makes for some decent, if unexceptional COVID19 binge-watching. Be safe!
Images: Collider/CBS-All Access