Jordan Peele's revival of The Twilight Zone kicked off last night on CBS All Access, and, surprising no one, it is very good.
At some point, Peele is going to make something that disappoints—he is, I assume, only human—but even following his one-two punch of the phenomenal Get Out and the even-better Us, his Twilight Zone feels like something special. Based on the first four episodes provided to critics, executive producer Peele—who, like Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling, provides wry, deadpan intros and outros to each episode—has captured exactly what made the original series so weird, smart, and up-to-the-minute relevant.
That makes perfect sense, considering that if the twisty, subtext-laden Us feels like anything we’ve seen before, it's a classic Twilight Zone episode. While plenty of others have tried to recapture The Twilight Zone's strange magic, their attempts—two forgettable TV reboots, in 1985 and 2002, and a 1983 anthology movie that's best known for its on-set tragedy—never measured up. Up until now, it's been Serling's old-school, black-and-white show that's influenced six decades' of television; it's hard, if not impossible, to imagine The X-Files, Star Trek, The Outer Limits, and Black Mirror even existing without Serling's groundbreaking series.
If the twisty, subtext-laden Us feels like anything we’ve seen before, it's a classic Twilight Zone episode.
Actually, let's get the Black Mirror stuff out of the way: That show is going to come up a lot when people talk about this new Twilight Zone, but it's worth noting that despite his adherence to The Twilight Zone's sci-fi anthology formula, Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker has only occasionally been interested in the kind of witty, genre-y fun that Serling wrapped around his social commentary. If Twilight Zone's best, most enjoyable episodes slice like a scalpel, the exhausting Black Mirror works like a bludgeon. One of the first things that stands out in Peele's Twilight Zone is that it's smart enough to know it can both say something and be fun to watch. That's something a good number of prestige television creators could stand to be reminded of.
Peele doesn't do this alone—he's also brought along some excellent collaborators, including X-Files writer and producer Glen Morgan, The First Purge director Gerard McMurray, and Community and Key and Peele writer Alex Rubens. Out of these first four Twilight Zones, each episode feels refreshingly unique, even as a few share urgent themes: pressing concerns of race and class; the physical and psychological danger of established power structures; the double-edged sword of modern technology.
One of the first things that stands out in Peele's Twilight Zone is that it's smart enough to know it can both say something and be fun to watch.
The show kicked off with two episodes, "The Comedian" and "Nightmare at 30,000 Feet," and both feel very old-school Twilight Zone, updated to reflect modern fears. "The Comedian" finds an ambitious-but-struggling stand-up comic, Samir (Kumail Nanjiani, reliably great), running into comedy master J.C. Wheeler (a sinister Tracy Morgan), who's mysteriously walked away from his fame. After taking Wheeler's superrrr ominous advice, Samir finds himself in a classic The Monkey's Paw pickle—his act now has the power to literally change the world around him, with consequences that grow increasingly evident and increasingly dire. Don't believe me? Fine, be that way: CBS All Access made the full episode available, for free, on YouTube.
Meanwhile, "Nightmare at 30,000 Feet" riffs on a classic Twilight Zone episode—Richard Matheson's "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet," which aired in 1963 and was later turned, by Mad Max's George Miller, into the best sequence in The Twilight Zone: The Movie. But while Matheson's tale saw a distraught airplane passenger becoming convinced that a creature was fucking with one of the plane's wings—and finding no one on board would believe him—this version makes the tale both more pedestrian and more scary, with a PTSD-stricken reporter, Justin Sanderson (Adam Scott), getting more and more freaked out by a podcast he finds on a mysterious MP3 player in his seat pocket. Regardless of if Sanderson's sky-high anxiety is legit or just sweat-soaked paranoia, his flight takes a dark turn. It's the first of many.
The Twilight Zone continues through the end of May, and the next two episodes provided to critics—"Rewind," streaming on Thurs., April 11, and "A Traveler," streaming on Thurs., April 18—are just as good, if not better, than the first. "Rewind" plays with the ideas behind one of the episodes from the 2002 reboot, but thankfully twists them into something far more relevant: As she travels with her son to drop him off at his HBCU, a Black mother (Sanaa Lathan) runs into a racist cop (Glenn Fleshler). "Rewind" revolves around a well-trod, Groundhog Day-style concept, but its harsh contemporary relevance gives it an acidic aftertaste. "A Traveler," on the other hand, is more fantastic—all I'll say is that UFOs might be involved—but, like the preceding episodes, it finds nuance and strength in both its strong, diverse cast and by ducking in and out of the shadows of modern life: Just out of frame lurk the threats of privilege and power, and they're way scarier than alien spaceships.
That clear, unflinching relevance is what makes Get Out and Us so bold, singular, and brutally effective, and even if the razor-sharp edges of Peele's films might be somewhat dulled by the more drawn-out nature of television, they're still there. During their best moments, the first few episodes of Twilight Zone provide both a respite from reality and funhouse-mirror reflections of it—images that are sometimes horrific, sometimes funny, and stubbornly refuse to leave the cracks and crevices of your brain. Peele might be our guide to this new Twilight Zone, but he never lets us forget that the real world is right on the other side of the door.