Jordan Peele’s ‘The Twilight Zone’ is a mixed bag of thrills, chills and groans

Illustration by Bobby Miller

Brandon Shillingford, Contributing Writer

As a huge fan of both the original “The Twilight Zone” and Jordan Peele himself, you can imagine my excitement when a revival of the all-time great series was announced with Peele’s name attached.

And then my subsequent frustration when it was announced as a part of CBS’s paid subscription service, CBS All Access.

But as the cast for the new series was announced — with huge names like Kumail Nanjiani, Adam Scott, Steven Yeun, Tracy Morgan and Greg Kinnear — it’s hard not to get excited about the potential this series has.

But potential is one thing. Actually meeting that potential is an entirely different one.

So, does it? Well, that’s a loaded question.

With only the first two episodes available to the public via CBS All Access, we don’t really have a full idea of what the series will look like as a whole. But what we can do is look at the first two and undoubtedly come to a pre-drawn conclusion and overreact the greatness, or lack thereof, of the series.

So, without further ado, let’s go to a place where we can judge the quality of an entire season of television based on only two episodes.

And that place is…

The Twilight Zone

(Que that beautiful theme)

“The Comedian”

“The Comedian” stars Kumail Nanjiani as Samir Wassan, a struggling comic who has trouble getting anything but meager chuckles at his regular nightclub gig. When he meets his longtime idol, comic JC Wheeler played by Tracy Morgan, Wheeler gives him some harrowing advice.

“Put yourself out there. But once you put it out there, the audience will take it in, and they will connect. And once they connect to it, it’s theirs.”

Samir takes this advice to heart and begins to incorporate his life — including stories about his dog, nephew and random encounters throughout his life — into his comedy routine. But once he does so, those people start to disappear. At first, he’s disturbed by this. But as his popularity rises, he uses his new power to his advantage.

“The Comedian” takes cues from various episodes of the original “The Twilight Zone” and a particular episode of “Night Gallery” called “Make Me Laugh,” directed by Steven Spielberg. And while the concept of the episode is ambitious by itself, it takes a deft hand to stretch it out into something consistently engaging and entertaining. Unfortunately, “The Comedian” is neither.

Nanjiani gives a fantastic lead performance, bringing much of the charisma and charm from roles in “The Big Sick” and “Silicon Valley.” But that isn’t nearly enough to save you from the boring slog that is “The Comedian.”

The main problem I have with the episode is its length. Like I said, in order to stretch a premise like this out into an hour-long anthology episode, you need a tight story and likable characters. So many of the characters come off as annoying and uninteresting. And the story is paced so that every time Samir realizes who he wants to vanish, it plays like the same scene over and over again.

It also tries to say a lot about the media, government and entertainment. Even though the episode’s intentions are good, its message is unfocused and muddled.

“The Comedian” comes off as an episode that should have definitely gone through a few more rewrites. While the cinematography is excellent and the score is beautifully composed — and that Jordan Peele narration is the stuff of daydreams — “The Comedian” just can’t overcome a weak script and dull characters.

Rating: 2/5

And while “The Comedian” is tedious and far too long, the following episode, thankfully, suffers from neither of those issues.

“Nightmare at 30,000 Feet”

Continuing the trend that “The Comedian” initiated of borrowing from old episodes of thriller anthologies, “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet” takes more from the original “Twilight Zone” episode than its namesake.

A sort of spiritual successor to the beloved “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” episode starring William Shatner, “30,000” tells the tale of PTSD-riddled investigative journalist, Justin Sanderson, played by Adam Scott. A neurotic and paranoid man who, after getting on a flight to Tel Aviv, listens to a prophetic podcast left behind on an old MP3 player. The podcast warns of imminent disaster for the plane that Justin, and more than 100 other passengers, occupy.

After a disheartening start to the series, “30,000” does not disappoint. It offers constant thrills and an intriguing mystery at its center.

Adam Scott gives a great performance as Justin. As the episode moves along and he listens to more of the podcast, you see Justin slowly unravel as we learn more about his past and how that affects his fears about the present situation. Scott portrays a man on the edge perfectly, teetering on the brink of terror and exhaustion as he races against time in order to save the plane.

You also see Justin interact with various passengers of the plane, annoyed flight attendants, possible Russian mobsters and an unhinged ex-pilot who may know more than he lets on.

On top of being incredibly entertaining, “30,000” has quite a bit to say, and communicates its message much better than the previous episode. It challenges our idea of who the “hero” and “villain” of stories like “20,000” are — how they act, speak, and most importantly, what they look like.

If there is any issue with the episode, it would have to be the ending. The climax of “30,000” is thrilling, as Sanderson comes to a startling realisation about one of the plane’s passengers. But after that, the momentum that’s slowly been building over the last fifteen minutes comes to a grinding halt in a conclusion that is hokey and tonally inconsistent with the rest of the episode.

With that being said, it’s a contained, claustrophobic and intense 40 minutes of television. And if this is any indication of what we’ll be getting from Jordan Peele and CBS All Access, I may just have to make another email to finish the season.

Rating: 4/5

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