An iffy start to new ‘Twilight Zone’
But remake shows promise. Streaming preview,
It isn’t easy reimagining a classic. “Be careful what you wish for” is an enduring message of “The Twilight Zone” and also a bit of a curse for the CBS All Access reboot and fans eager for an updated take on the Rod Serling original.
The 10-episode “Zone” (two episodes streaming Monday, followed by one each Thursday starting April 11) can’t help but fall short in comparison to the 1960s anthology, which delivered trenchant commentary on hot-button contemporary issues camouflaged in masterful tales of fantasy, horror and science fiction.
Two forgettable TV remakes, a 1983 film memorable for production tragedy and Serling’s own pale imitation, “Night Gallery,” offer cautionary tales.
In the hands of auteur Jordan Peele, however, the updated “Zone” (★★☆☆) shows promise and ambition, tackling divisive cultural topics while featuring a talented cast with a level of representation absent from the original. But it needs to smooth a bumpy start.
Fans of Serling’s classic (still seen on CBS All Access, Netflix and Syfy), which holds up 60 years after its premiere, will be delighted that “Zone” pays homage in ways large and small.
Opening credits feature the unforgettable theme music, the familiar logo and images (a door, an eyeball) featured in the black-and-white predecessor.
Most prominently, Peele takes on Serling’s role as the show’s on-screen narrator, introducing each episode and underlining the moral at its conclusion. Serling is irreplaceable, but Peele ably channels the master’s clipped style (while thankfully passing on his penchant for smoking).
A close viewing reveals delightful Easter eggs, as the four episodes made available for review feature fleeting references to memorable props, including a ventriloquist’s dummy; a toy devil’s head; a doll; and the monster more than imagined by William Shatner’s unhinged airline passenger in “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.”
Production values are top-notch, as disjointed camera angles and shadowy lighting deliver genuine tension.
At the same time, the new series can’t match the original’s trademark shocking twist, as when humans learn that a book titled “To Serve Man” is a cookbook, not a philanthropic goal. The new twists are underdone by comparison: not surprising, revealed too early or simply unfathomable.
Another difference is length, as the commercial-free episodes run about double the length of the mostly halfhour TV originals, which aired on CBS from 1959-64. Tautness added tension; the new ones just seem too long.
Four episodes made available for preview offer an uneven sampling – no surprise for a new series, especially an anthology with changing casts, writers and directors – with a wide gap separating the best, the culturally resonant “Replay” from the worst, a free-falling “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet,” the only one adapted from an original episode.
“Replay,” a harrowing take on a mother (Sanaa Lathan) taking her son (Damson Idris) to college, illustrates what the new “Zone” can be, creating horror by mixing the fantastic – a camcorder that erases events with a touch of the rewind button – with the all-too-real, black fears of police mistreatment. Lathan convincingly embodies a range of strong feelings, from terror to rage, while Glenn Fleshler’s racist trooper conveys menace in the mundane.
“Replay,” which echoes the racism powering the horror in Peele’s brilliant “Get Out,” illustrates how the new version deals more openly with divisive issues than the more allegorical original, which disguised how it addressed controversial matters such as the Cold War fear of Communist infiltrators. The more straightforward approach is less artful but reflects our more direct times.
“Nightmare” provides a strong argument against direct episodic remakes.
Adam Scott can skillfully play unease, but his portrayal of an airline passenger haunted by crash fears born of supernatural terror pales compared with the 1963 tour de force by Shatner, whose knack for chewing scenery served him well as a crazed man who’s disbelieved by passengers and flight crew.
Too many incredible details prevent the episode from being grounded, and a laughable ending appears to channel the “Lost” pilot and “Lord of the Flies.”
Kumail Nanjiani delivers a strong performance as a stand-up comic losing himself as the price of success in “The Comedian,” which provides a good twist, if one that’s apparent too early.
Finally, “A Traveler,” which features Steven Yeun (”The Walking Dead”) as a mysterious prisoner who appears out of nowhere in a small-town Alaska jail, hits on timely topics of ethnic identity, shared cultural beliefs and antagonism barely contained by a veneer of civility.
Although the episode isn’t a remake, it deftly underlines a theme of one of the original’s best, “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street”: Our worst enemies are ourselves.
If Peele’s “Zone” can cultivate the best elements of “Replay,” “Comedian” and “Traveler,” it may yet take viewers soaring on “a journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination.” But even if it does reduce turbulence, don’t pass up a better side trip to Serling’s original fifth dimension.
Kumail Nanjiani and Diarra Kilpatrick are stand-up comics in “The Comedian,” one of two episodes premiering Monday on CBS All Access.
Adam Scott plays a traveler whose fears jeopardize an international flight in “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet.”
Steven Yeun is a visitor whose mysterious arrival shakes up a small Alaskan town in “A Traveler.”