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Inside Jordan Peele's bold Twilight Zone reboot: What's new, what's the same

'It's the greatest show of all time ... there are many ways to fail at this'
March 28, 2019 at 08:38 AM EDT

“You’re traveling through another dimension…”

For Twilight Zone fans, that phrase is all you need to hear. The words instantly evoke that tense, jangling theme and Rod Serling’s flat, cryptic narration over a backdrop of twinkling stars. The sci-fi anthology classic is not only one of the most loved, groundbreaking, and acclaimed TV shows of all time, it’s arguably one of the most distinctive.

The show’s singularity is perhaps why every attempt to officially reboot The Twilight Zone for 55 years has been considered a failure. It’s also why the team behind a new CBS All Access version, premiering April 1, confesses to being slightly terrified — even producer-actor Jordan Peele, who has sociological horror hits Get Out and Us under his belt, and is perhaps the ideal creative talent to bring Twilight Zone into the modern age.

“I felt like it’s the greatest show of all time,” Peele says. “We were tentative to step in. There are many ways to fail at this.”

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The easiest way to botch a Twilight Zone reboot, Peele notes, is to not pay proper respect to writer and host Serling’s formula. The original series wasn’t just about telling short sci-fi and horror tales with final-act twists, not only about haunted dolls and invading aliens and interdimensional doorways. The episodes were frequently morality tales, and Serling pushed the envelope to make allegorical points about hot-button issues. Serling tackled racism, McCarthyism, conformity, free speech, the Holocaust and more.

“He would tell stories that explored character and a character’s tragic flaws,” Peele says. “And he would craft a custom-made nightmare for those people. He would place reveals strategically throughout an episode. And he would use the show to Trojan-horse commentary and social messaging through entertainment.”

That last bit is something Peele has already masterfully accomplished at the box office with his films, and fans can expect the same from this iteration of Twilight Zone. One of the new episodes, “Replay,” focuses on a mother (Sanaa Lathan) driving her son to his first day of college and a bullying, racist cop who provokes a tragic incident. She discovers a way to reverse time to restart the encounter, but the corrupt cop always seems to get the upper hand no matter what she does.

“The world we live in 2019 is clamoring socially, politically, morally for a new Twilight Zone,” says executive producer Simon Kinberg, who first met with Peele two years ago about collaborating on the reboot. “Our politics are so upside down, and because the divisions are getting wider, it’s time for a show that can be entertaining but also provide moral and social parables. And Jordan is someone who is uniquely well-suited to telling stories in the genre space that also explore social and political justice issues.”

Another installment, about a kid (Jacob Tremblay) who gets elected president, is a commentary on President Trump. “There’s no more dominant personality in the world we live in right now than our president,” Kinberg says. “So there’s no question that there is an episode — and I would say many episodes, but especially one episode — that explores in a very Twilight Zone-y way the world we’re living in as defined by our president.”

Not all the episodes impart some broad societal message. Others in the first season involve a comedian (Kumail Nanjiani, Silicon Valley) who discovers a power to make people laugh (for a heavy price) and a variation on the classic air-travel horror story “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” starring Adam Scott (Parks and Recreation). “I was terrified when they first asked me,” Nanjiani says. “I loved the show so much, but it’s an iconic thing to take on. I saw Jordan, and I was like, ‘I don’t know if I’m the right person, it’s so dark, I’ve never done anything like this.’ Jordan was like, ‘You’re perfect. You have to do it.’ He gave me the confidence to go ahead.”

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Scott had reason for trepidation as well, as previous versions of “Nightmare” starred screen legends William Shatner and John Lithgow (the latter tackled the role with a breakout bonkers performance in 1983’s Twilight Zone: The Movie). “In comparison with those two, I’d lose every time, so I just tried to get it far out of my mind,” says Scott, who credits going a “bit stir-crazy” from being trapped on the set for 12 days with helping to portray his character’s anxiety. “It felt like a real plane, it looked like a real plane, you may as well just be on a two-week flight without stopping,” he says.

Nearly all the actors on the show (which has also enlisted names like Zazie Beetz, Taissa Farmiga, John Cho, Steven Yeun, Ginnifer Goodwin, and Seth Rogen) signed on to their respective roles before seeing a script. In fact, the toughest actor to convince might have been Peele, who, in addition to producing, steps into Serling’s unique on-screen narrator role. Peele brings more of an ironic wink to the audience and some clever techniques for his narration segments. (In “Nightmare,” he appears on the in-flight TV screens.)

“The other producers believed in that idea; I was kind of reluctant,” Peele says of his hosting job. “I didn’t want this to look like, ‘Hey, the presumptuous Key and Peele guy thinks he’s f—ing Rod Serling.’ But you only live once—let’s try to host The Twilight Zone.”

Robert Falconer/CBS; CBS via Getty Images

Other adaptive changes include a much larger budget than any previous Twilight Zone series, R-rated profanity (“we want characters to speak the way modern characters would speak,” Kinberg notes), and variable running times thanks to its home on a streaming service (episodes range from 30 to 60 minutes).

Not all the formatting decisions involved weighing the new version of The Twilight Zone against its iconic past, however. Because there is one modern show that has already successfully reinvented the sci-fi episodic anthology format, and it looms rather large in the pop culture landscape.

Black Mirror is an absolute masterpiece, and we wouldn’t have moved forward with our show if we didn’t identify what is unique to Black Mirror and what is unique to Twilight Zone,” Peele says of Netflix’s Emmy winner. “One of the easy rules that we made for ourselves is that we don’t have to explore technology—Twilight Zone covers everything else the imagination can think of.”

Nanjiani points out another difference as well: “At its core, Black Mirror is cynical about humanity—that’s not a dig, I love the show. To me, Twilight Zone, no matter how dark the episode, is ultimately optimistic about humanity.”

And nowadays, that kind of optimism alone is a surprise twist.

Here’s the new trailer:

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