How much would you sacrifice for the limelight? Your privacy, your relationships…your dog? The second episode of The Twilight Zone reboot offers a creative riff on the verrrrrry dark side of fame.
Stand-up comedian Samir Wassan (the endlessly likable Kumail Nanjiani) stands on stage night after night at Eddies, which is decorated with a large mural depicting a crowd of people in fancy dress, telling cerebral jokes about the Second Amendment to an indifferent audience.
Then after his set one night, he bumps into legendary comedian J.C. Wheeler (Tracy Morgan, channeling a wiser, chiller version of Tracy Jordan). Naturally, Samir asks Wheeler for notes, and the reclusive comedian tells him the secret to success in comedy: make it personal. Samir’s a country, and his one export is himself, so he should give that to the audience.
However, Wheeler cautions, Samir has to be sure he wants that kind of success because once the audience connects with his material, it’s gone forever. It belongs to them. And that’s fine with Samir, who doesn’t want to settle for mediocre. He wants it all.
So the next time he’s bombing on stage with his “well-regulated militia” bit, he tosses in an observation about his dog, and it kills. Her name is Cat, short for Caterpillar, and the audience can’t get enough.
Then he gets home, flush with success, and asks his sleeping girlfriend Rena (the luminous Amara Karan) where their dog is. Her response: What dog? Then Jordan Peele shows up at Samir’s kitchen table, asking us to ponder what matters after the laughter stops.
The audience has the advantage of knowing we’re firmly in the Twilight Zone, but Samir isn’t quite there yet. So the next day, he enlists Rena’s nephew Devon to help him put up missing signs, although he couldn’t find any pictures of Cat on his phone.
Then Samir and Devon enter the club, Eddies, where a posted sign warns “no apostrophes.” (This is the best joke of the episode.) There, Devon meets Samir’s frenemy, comedian Didi (Diarra Kilpatrick, a profane, hilarious delight). Devon tells Didi that he wants to be a standup like Samir, only he’d like to be funny. (Second-best joke of the episode!)
Tellingly, the bartenders scoff at the idea that J.C. Wheeler would show up at Eddies when Samir asks. Then he takes the stage, where he yet again bombs with his “well-regulated” material. So he starts to good-naturedly roast Devon for dunking on him. The crowd roars its approval at the bit, and when Samir goes to point out Devon in the audience, his table is empty.
Didi claims no knowledge of Devon when Samir asks her afterward, and by the time he gets home, he’s boggled to find that their family photos no longer have Devon in them. Rena’s displeased that he’s being so insensitive about her sister’s inability to have children. Then again, Samir’s displeased that his girlfriend is having a cozy night in with her law school mentor, an older man named David.
David, who is kind of the worst, bloviates that comedy is art and therefore has to push into dark places, while Samir starts to rationalize what’s going on: “There never was a Devon, so it’s not like he’s dead. It’s not like I killed him.”
Buoyed by Rena’s delight over his newfound success and David’s smug reminder that he has bills to pay, Samir takes the stage the next night. First, he tries the Devon material, but it flops. Then he goes after the president, but the audience remains mute, and the president presumably remains in office. (Insert your own joke here.)
So Samir starts talking about someone he knows, a fellow comedian at the club. He’s a nightmare of a man who not too long ago drove drunk and crashed into a nearby bus stop, killing a mother and her child. He was found not guilty in what everybody agrees was a miscarriage of justice, and after Samir speaks his name on stage, the man’s just…gone. Outside, the formerly mangled bus stop is in perfect condition. “I actually un-killed two people,” Samir marvels. Then he checks his phone and is equally pleased to see his follower count go up.
He heads home and starts working on his act, and by that, I mean he trolls social media looking for the people in his life who deserve to be un-made: the classmate who murdered his fiancé, the sexual predator football coach. His fame and followers climb, and he and Rena revel in his success.
Naturally, this high doesn’t last long. Following a fight with Rena over her relationship with “friend and mentor” David, Samir tries to engage the audience in the story of the heavily tattooed skinhead he saw on the bus. But he doesn’t truly know the man—“His name was Buck! Uh, from Pennsylvania?”—and it flops.
In the audience, Rena’s phone goes off, and that needles Samir into mentioning David, the creepy older mentor. The audience falls all over itself laughing, including Rena. But Samir didn’t really think this one through, and after his set, Rena cuts their night short to start her shift.
Yep. No mentor means no law school and no fancy job as a defense attorney. She’s working the night shift at a diner, and her expensive red coat from their trip to France has morphed into a cheap, drab garment.
And there are bigger problems still: Since they couldn’t afford that relationship-saving Paris trip, things between them are strange and strained. In the end, Rena calls Samir selfish and ends things. He returns to their apartment to discover the posh décor has been replaced by cheaper items that a waitress and an only-recently-successful comedian could afford.
Samir now knows exactly what he’s doing, and what the ramifications are, but every night he’s still giving the audience fresh blood, including the table of horrible hedge fund investors who happily give him their names as part of the act. By the end of the night, he’s un-made them as the audience cheers.
Offstage, things are tense, too. Samir and Didi are both up for the lone spot on a comedy show, and Didi’s frustrated that after years of bombing, Samir’s suddenly competition for her. Samir tries to bow out of their comedy face-off, but Didi refuses to let him off the hook, giving him a powerhouse pep-talk that’s equal parts arrogant, sexual, angry, and confident. She’s a freaking force of nature and all hail Kilpatrick for bringing such a fabulous character to life.
After she breezes out, Samir tears up the “no apostrophes” sign in a rage, and then J.C. Wheeler appears again. “I wanted to be the next Chris Rock, not evil David Copperfield,” Samir shouts, but Wheeler calmly points out that nobody’s getting hurt here: “There are no crying moms. It’s not murder if there are no crying moms.”
Then Wheeler goes even further, urging Samir to weaponize his act to bring the whole house down. With that advice ringing in his ears, Samir stands offstage, listening to Didi crush her set.
They exchange a high five as he takes the mic from her, and after a lengthy pause and several false starts, he says her name, and she’s gone. That unleashes him, and he ends up shouting about everyone: his parents, old friends, teachers, people who wronged him, the dentist who gave him a root canal. He’s a sweaty mess, and the audience is laughing so hard that one woman tumbles backward in her chair.
Then, like the old woman booing in The Princess Bride, Rena approaches the stage, furious that she founds his notes, and they’re just names of the people he feels superior toward. “Burn me up so you can get where you always wanted to go,” she shouts.
This stops him in his tracks, and he pivots to discuss someone he’s known for a long time, someone clever, lovable, and a seemingly good person: himself. He refers to himself as a garbage can who needs a constant supply of money and validation emptied into him. “People are just material to me,” he admits. “I throw them away.” He’s a country with one export, and in the end, that’s the only thing left for him to give.
He screams his own name, and the mic falls to the stage as the audience leaps to their feet. After the show, we see that Devon’s back! He joins Rena in her fancy lawyer clothes as she fangirls over Didi.
Then Didi bellies up to the bar and finds herself sitting next to, you guessed it, J.C. Wheeler. She asks him for notes on her performance, and Jordan Peele takes us to the credits as the camera focuses on the mural of people in fancy dress at Eddies, which now includes Samir.
In the Zone
- That was an enjoyable little morality tale, no? No matter how much you try to convince yourself that you’re helping the world, in the end, all actions have consequences, and humans tend to wield their power imperfectly.
- Peele’s background as a comedian makes the themes of this episode even more interesting, as he and episode writer Alex Rubens presumably both know a thing or two about audiences assuming ownership of the things you use to make comedy.
- Is it a reach to think the Eddies mural features a woman with a bit of a pig nose, “Eye of the Beholder“-style? Either way, the changing mural’s a cool riff on The Shining.
- You know, Didi could teach Samir a thing or two about political comedy. She urges him not to go on a murder rampage while she’s around, adding, “I say this not because you’re brown, I say it because you’re a man.” Wow, do I hope she manages to keep her face off that wall.
- So we’ve seen the first two episodes of this fresh batch of Twilight Zone episodes. What are your thoughts so far? Let me know in the comments!