Sometimes it doesn’t make sense to pull back the curtain on how TV shows get reviewed, but in the case of The Twilight Zone, a little context feels valuable. As you read this right now, all 10 episodes of Season 2 have been made available on CBS All Access. However, this review was written after only watching three of them — not because of time constraints on my end, but because these were the only three episodes provided in advance, with CBS telling critics that reviews could not be published until the season as a whole went live.
The point of explaining the above is to make the following point: These three episodes were selected to represent the entire season for critics, either because they were finished first or because CBS All Access felt that they would be the most critically appealing of the available options.
What do these three episodes, then, suggest about the rest of the season? Well, Season 1 of The Twilight Zone was an impressive study in inconsistency, as there was a mix of really strong, relevant stories, such as the Sanaa Latham-starring “Replay” and Ginnifer Goodwin-led “Point of Origin,” mixed with less compelling ones bogged down by their hour-long runtimes. Meanwhile, these new installments suggest an evening-out of quality, for the better, though once again never reaching the heights of the original series at its best.
Much like in sketch comedy, the first, and oftentimes most enjoyable, part of watching any Twilight Zone episode is trying to figure out what, exactly, the “game” might be; after that, it’s a question of what exactly the story does with that premise. In the case of “The Who of You,” which makes very clean work of setting up its body-swapping conceit, there are enough good twists and turns to keep things compelling, though choosing to feature an almost unrecognizable Ethan Embry over Emmy nominee Billy Porter (who plays only a small role, alas) is a disappointment. At least Daniel Sunjata (Smash) is there too, stealing all his scenes (and not for the first time).
Twilight Zone is at its best when it takes full advantage of the opportunity to embrace both its as well as the franchise’s legacy of, well, making things weird. Unfortunately, that doesn’t happen quite often enough. Of the three episodes screened for critics, perhaps the best (if not the most coherent) was “You Might Also Like,” which played with surrealism in a fresh way. Written and directed by Osgood Perkins, the episode features Gretchen Mol as a housewife whose friends and neighbors are obsessed with the promise of a mysterious “egg,” but that’s only one layer to the action, and Perkins amplifies the glossy surfaces of Michael Wylie‘s production design into something menacing and unreal, creating the illusion that yes, we truly have entered another world. Even with the wilder twists of that episode, it’s impossible to look away.
I mentioned that “You Might Also Like” isn’t the most direct of stories, but that’s to its advantage, especially given the fact that, as previously mentioned, Season 2 once again features installments with runtimes that may easily add up to an hour (if you’re not on the ad-free plan). It’s a complaint that gets mentioned constantly but remains forever true — the original Twilight Zone did everything that this relaunch does, but with half-hour episodes that were enhanced by their brevity. CBS famously made the first season available in black and white last year — personally, I’d prefer the remix where each episode gets cut down to 22 minutes or less. That’s less time for ads, to be sure, but the difference in quality is undeniable.
Jordan Peele, as the Narrator, remains perfectly suited to the role (it’s understandable why he’s stepped back from on-camera work lately, what with winning an Oscar and everything, but remember how great he was on Key and Peele?) and while the casting isn’t all that show-y, there are a number of standouts beyond those mentioned above. Jimmi Simpson, who always pops up in the most unexpected roles but in the best way possible, ably anchors “Meet In the Middle,” with an assist from a largely offscreen Gillian Jacobs. In “You Might Also Like,” Mol proves more than up to the task of finding real emotion in very strange circumstances, accompanied by Russian Doll‘s brilliant Greta Lee, who (lest we forget) was able to find 1,000 different ways to croon the words “Sweet birthday bayyyybe” and is equally compelling here.
I have no idea about the order in which Season 2 episodes will be released — as an anthology series it technically doesn’t matter what order you watch them in, but for some shows, such as Black Mirror, it does matter, because the creator orders them like a band might picking what order songs play on an album. What matters is that despite different writers and directors, all three of these episodes feel much more consistent, united by more than just the occasional appearance from Peele. While we’ll have a complete guide to both Seasons 1 and 2 down the line, right now there’s reason for cautious optimism that these aren’t the only good episodes we’ll be getting in 2020. And who knows? Maybe one or two of them will be great! After all, as The Twilight Zone loves to prove, stranger things have happened.
The Twilight Zone Season 2 is streaming now on CBS All Access.