Nightmare at 30,000 Feet
Credit: Robert Falconer/CBS

I’ve seen four episodes of the new Twilight Zone, coming to CBS All-Access on Monday, April 1. Statistically, at least one episode should be good. The anthology was scattershot from its 1959 debut onwards, parading brilliant-kooky-crazy-lame ideas through very long seasons of broadcast television.

The best episodes of Rod Serling’s original seriesrepresent the apex of TV storytelling: Terrifying and funny, safe for kids yet utterly unsentimental about humanity’s inhumanity, their very cheapness a tangible special effect undercutting any normative Hollywood ideals about glossy moral decency. But there have been mediocre Twilight Zones since the Eisenhower administration — and the worst chapter in 1983’s Twilight Zone movie was directed by Golden Age Steven Spielberg.

Temper your expectations, is what I’m saying. Then throw them out the window. The first four episodes are all bad, a mess of sleepy conceits grasping toward topicality with on-the-nose dialogue spoken by boring characters. A couple sharp performances can’t triumph against nonstop plot contrivance. This is one of 2019’s first great disappointments.

The headline name in the credits is Jordan Peele, writer-director of the phenomenal Get Out and the new doppelganger thriller Us, which is a very entertaining movie until people start going up and down the escalator. Both films are theme-chomping science-fiction freakouts, horrific Americana set in a Twilight-adjacent zone.

Peele appears onscreen as the Serling-ish narrator. But nothing comes close to the vitality of his big screen work, or the scathing satire of Key & Peele, the sketch series he co-created with Keegan-Michael Key. Notably, every executive producer listed after Peele is worrisome. There’s Simon Kinberg, one of those mega-franchise hacks who has written expensive popular movies without ever developing a notable style or tangible substance. There’s Marco Ramirez, showrunner of Daredevil season 2 and The Defenders, so that’s probably why every story feels twice as long as it should be.

As for the actors: Never has such an exciting and diverse cast been wasted so much. The first two episodes both arrive on April 1, and they are just awful. “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet” threemakes the paranoid tale of a man going in-flight crazy. William Shatner and John Lithgow starred in the previous versions, and I hope they’ll forgive Adam Scott for his part in this abomination. Instead of a nightmarish gremlin, Scott’s tormented by (sigh) a podcast predicting his own deadly future. That’s an example of the warmed-over “modernization” you find in the new Zone: Black Mirror rewritten by your uncle who just got on Facebook.

The new “Nightmare” exemplifies the series’ problems. Aspects of the story are immediately unbelievable. Scott’s traveler is on a flight from D.C. to Tel Aviv. On the plane’s screens, travelers can see footage of the pilots flying the plane. “The cockpit of this particular aircraft,” explains the unseen podcaster (Dan Carlin), “Was equipped with cameras that allowed the passengers to watch the flight crew from multiple monitors.” A commercial plane that lets passengers watch the pilots? In what world?? And that’s not part of some surveillance-state twist, to be clear. It’s a cheap narrative trick, assuring that the passengers will freak out later when Something Happens in the Cockpit.

“The Comedian” is even worse. Kumail Nanjiani plays a stand-up comic, Samir. When we meet him, he’s a striving Important Comedian ranting about the Second Amendment. After meeting a mysterious funnyman (Tracy Morgan), things take a Faustian turn. Samir starts to tell new jokes, and strange things start to happen.

Now, the melodramatic sociopolitical seriousness of stand-up comedy has become a done-to-death cliché this decade. And this particular depiction of stand-up is biopic-level bad: “You don’t choose comedy because you want a fine life,” says Samir, “You choose comedy because you want it all.” Any comedian who would say that out loud must be terrible at his job. Nanjiani — a comedian himself, yeesh, an Oscar-nominated writer! — looks lost in the ludicrous melodrama.

The third episode, “Replay,” is the most pointed political statement, and comes closest to developing a captivating story. Sanaa Lathan plays a proud mom driving her son (Damson Idris) to college. She’s holding an old camcorder, and when she hits “rewind” the whole world rewinds; yeesh, did someone pull these scripts out of cold storage? But beyond the goofy techno-contrivance lies legitimate fear. Their drive is haunted by a racist policeman, played by Glenn Fleshler with monolithic quiet. Lathan’s performance is great, powerful even when she’s fully unglued. You see profound strength and emotional frailty: Here’s a woman living with perpetual paranoia, fearful of what America will do to her African American son.

“Replay” turns painfully speechy, though, as if worried you’re missing the point. There’s something just a little too nice about this version of Twilight Zone, a sentimentality that feels less retro than archaic. Maybe this ground has just been covered too much? The fourth episode, “A Traveler,” casts Steven Yeun as a mysterious stranger who arrives at an Alaskan police station during the annual Christmas party. Yuen radiates the same vampiric glee that powered his magnificent performance in 2018’s Burning. But he’s styled like every other omniscient sci-fi mystery man, old-timey hat-and-suit combo borrowed from Dark City and Fringe and whatever The Adjustment Bureau was.

“A Traveler” is probably the best episode I’ve seen, insofar as it’s precisely as entertaining as a middling episode of American Horror Story. Will the episodes get better? I have my doubts. The pacing so far is painfully slow, and sometimes Peele doesn’t start his narratorial introduction until the 10-minute mark.

Should we blame Peele for this Twilight Zone‘s failure? A couple of twists recall the Escalator Problem from Us, a gaping hole drilled into the plot to make room for blessed Themes. But the new Twilight Zone feels like a collective failure. Sadly, it’s just another bloated TV property: a famous franchise rebooted with zero inspiration, a bold creator bestowing indifferent attention to a side project that could only exist in a churn of infinite content, a failed attempt at relevance with all the depth of a Saturday Night Live sketch.

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