An iffy start to new ‘Twi­light Zone’

But re­make shows prom­ise. Stream­ing pre­view,

USA TODAY US Edition - - LIFE - Bill Keveney Colum­nist USA TO­DAY

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.

CBS PHO­TOS

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.”

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