Consider, if you will, the perfect time for the return of The Twilight Zone, a time when the machines run the show, the brands talk back, and nothing, not even the news, is what it seems. A time like right now. But much like another zoned-out head-tripper once said, “time is a flat circle,” so maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise that the last few years also saw the rise of the ideal person to replace the original sci-fi philosopher, Rod Serling. I’m talking about Jordan Peele, the sketch comedian turned modern day horror maestro who—fresh off the record-breaking success of his sophomore feature, Us—is shepherding us back through the spinning door into a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. (Also known as CBS All Access.) Together with co-executive producers Simon Kinberg and Marco Ramirez, Peele has brought to life the third iteration of The Twilight Zone, and much like the two versions that came before it, the results are a decidedly mixed bag. But when this new Twilight Zone is good, it is deliriously good, and more importantly, it manages to speak simultaneously to the horror, the absurdity, and the hope of our times all at once. Should you give it a shot? Do-do-do it.
The most fascinating episode of the four sent to critics is “Replay”, directed by Gerard McMurray (The First Purge) and written by former Source Magazine editor-in-chief turned prolific screenwriter Selwyn Seyfu Hinds. The episode follows a mother (Sanaa Lathan) driving her son (Damson Idris) to college, only to discover that her practically-an-antique camcorder has the ability to rewind time. Unfortunately, no amount of backtracking can stop a highway patrolman—Glenn Fleshler, embodying the role with his trademark hulking creepiness—from stopping them for some minor infraction. It sounds trite; from original Twilight Zone episode “A Kind of Stopwatch”, to Adam Sandler‘s Click, to that one Cher song, the ability to turn back time isn’t a novel concept. But positioning a black family at the center of the narrative is subversive in the same way positioning Winston Duke and Lupita Nyong’o at the center of Us‘ conventional horror scenario was subversive. In that context, “Replay” becomes less about the sci-fi element and more a sobering reality. Over the episode’s hour runtime, you start to realize this mother and son don’t need a magic camcorder to experience this same brand of racism over and over again; there will always be a highway patrolman of some sort, replay or not. It’s classic peak Twilight Zone, a head-trip that doubles as a truth.
The other three episodes aren’t nearly as serious in their themes, and vary just as wildly in everything from tone, to length, to the amount they feature Steven Yeun playing an alien. (Or is he?) The weakest of the bunch, I hate to report, is “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet”, a bummer not only because it stars the great Adam Scott but also because it’s a spiritual successor to maybe the most iconic Twilight Zone episode of all time, the William Shatner-starring “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.” Don’t get me wrong, the episode is a blast. The increasingly sweaty Scott is fantastic as a plane passenger who listens to a podcast predicting that very flight is doomed. Director Greg Yaitanes (Castle Rock) turns the plane into a claustrophobic horrorshow; there’s an unbroken shot courtesy of DP Craig Wrobleski through the entirety of cabin as passengers freak out that’s enough to give a fear-of-flying sort like me a panic attack. But the whole thing barrels toward an ending that really makes no sense and, worse, has nothing to say. There’s no “It’s a cookbook!” all-timer twist in the bunch here, but “Terror at 30,000 Feet” left a particularly sour-tasting endnote after it cut to credits.
The remaining two episodes are both imperfect but definitely solid trips to the Zone. “The Comedian”—starring Kumail Nanjiani as a stand-up who can erase things from existence by introducing them into his act—is more than a bit too on-the-nose with its theme. But its boosted by an absolutely dynamite performance from Nanjiani, a surprisingly unsettling turn from Tracy Morgan, and a rousing, powerhouse conclusion that manages to cheekily calls to mind Stanley Kubrick‘s The Shining. “A Traveler”, the aforementioned Steven Yeun episode, is similarly unsure of exactly how it wants to tell its story, but it almost doesn’t matter next to how much dang fun Yeun is having as a mysterious, suit-wearing stranger who appears in a jail cell of a small-town Alaska police department. The Walking Dead alum’s inhumanly joyous karaoke performance is practically worth the price of admission.
Together, the four episodes point to a new Twilight Zone that is confident in its sheer variety, and that’s key. Part of what made the original series such a joy—and continues to make it a joy, if you fire it up on Netflix—is the fact you could pick a random episode out of a hat and find something completely different. These new chapters aren’t tied together by anything other than A) a subtle Easter Egg shout-out to the episode preceding it, so keep your eyes sharp, and B) Peele’s presence as The Narrator, taking over the suited-up role from Serling himself. I’d be straight up lying if I said that particular aspect of the reboot didn’t work like gangbusters; there’s a visceral jolt that happens every time the camera cuts to Peele, fueled by a potent mix of nostalgia and the filmmaker’s current status as a bonafide horror auteur.
But really, it’s that idea of The Narrator in the abstract that truly makes The Twilight Zone both timeless and worth rebooting for these troubled times. The question in the lead-up was why bother when anthologies like, say, Black Mirror had stepped up as the cautionary tale du jour? But The Twilight Zone at its best is a guide, not a warning side telling you to go back. Where things like Black Mirror seem to exist to demonstrate we’re on the wrong path, this series—the original and CBS’ version—takes your hand and guides you off the path entirely, down a rabbit hole where things are weird and often bad but still you’re never lost. You’re just in [iconic dramatic pause] The Twilight Zone.
The first two episodes of The Twilight Zone debut on CBS All Access on April 1.