With Us fever gripping the nation, the timing is perfect for Jordan Peele to launch his new spin on The Twilight Zone. It’s impossible to “review” the series based on its first two episodes — but there are some hints of what to expect from this anthology, and how it will speak to both modern and old-fashioned horrors.
The first episode, “The Comedian”, is the longer of the two, which works against it as its story becomes more and more repetitive as it goes on. It’s directed by Owen Harris (who helmed beloved Black Mirror episode “San Junipero”) and written by Alex Rubens, who was Emmy-nominated for his work on Key & Peele and also worked on Community and Rick and Morty.
Those bona fides suggest his take on backstage drama in the stand-up comedy world is a realistic one, with further credibility supplied by the episode’s star, well-known comedian and comedy actor Kumail Nanjiani.
Of course, this being The Twilight Zone, “The Comedian” is extremely light on laughs; part of its conceit is that struggling stand-up performer Samir (Nanjiani) is woefully unfunny. (How Samir’s able to hold onto his regular gig at an upscale comedy club despite bombing on the regular is, alas, a mystery that The Twilight Zone never investigates, though it’s more than happy to make you nearly overdose on secondhand embarrassment when he’s onstage.) One night Samir meets a legendary comedian (Tracy Morgan, typecast in the best way possible) who just happens to have caught his act, and admits to the star he idolizes that he’d do just about anything to find the success he’s been desperately chasing for years.
Bargains struck on The Twilight Zone always carry a hefty price, and while Samir’s initially freaked out by the distressing trade-offs that have suddenly started altering his life, the uproarious laughter (even though his jokes aren’t at all improved) feels worth it — especially when he foolishly starts to believe he’s in control of everything that’s happening to him. You’ll probably see the end of Samir’s story long before it arrives, at which point Narrator Peele steps forth from the shadows to offer final thoughts on the episode.
More unexpected are things like Nanjiani’s ability to make even a guy who’s rapidly descending into Terrible Garbage Person territory feel sympathetic, and the standout turn by DeWanda Wise (Netflix’s She’s Gotta Have It) as a rival comic who’s also grown weary of waiting for her big break, and whose catty put-downs of Samir bring some welcome levity to a very dark story.
“Nightmare at 9,144.00m,” meanwhile, has a direct link back to the original Twilight Zone series and subsequent feature film, though the story beyond “guy freaking out on a plane” has been considerably altered. The Good Place’s Adam Scott plays a tightly-wound writer who boards a plane from New York to Tel Aviv, only to discover a media player tucked into his seat pocket that’s loaded up with a podcast purporting to investigate the mysterious disappearance of the very flight he’s on. Though he’s supposed to be a seasoned investigative journalist, he’s immediately convinced that danger is approaching and he’s the only one who can prevent disaster.
This episode moves along at a brisker pace (it’s directed by Gregory Yaitanes, a TV veteran whose other credits just happen to include a couple of episodes of Lost), though its ultimate twist (it’s written by Marco Ramirez, from a story by Peele, Ramirez, and Simon Kinberg) feels a bit tacked-on and kind of unsatisfying. That said, “Nightmare at 9,144.00m” is unbelievably tense.
The story plays into some very real fears that just about anyone who’s ever flown anywhere can relate to. There’s the obvious one about crashing, of course — but also the dread that someone on your flight will start acting out and disrupt the tenuous social contract that comes with zooming through the air in very close proximity to 100-plus random strangers. Don’t kick the seat, don’t have a drunken meltdown, and for the love of SkyMall, don’t endanger all the passengers and crew with your bullshit.
Peele’s skyrocketing success means he has a lot to live up to, and as someone who’s binged plenty of O.G. Twilight Zone, I didn’t think either of these first two episodes were all-time classic material.
As someone who also habitually binges Key & Peele sketches, it was a little jarring to see Peele pop up as the fourth-wall-breaking, omnipotent Narrator instead of just another character in the episode. He does have a bit of fun with it — a dramatic pause here, the suggestion of a raised eyebrow there — though it’s clearly all meant to pay respectful homage to Rod Serling.
Looking ahead, we already know the cast throughout the season will be incredible, and that there’ll be diverse talent both in front of and behind the camera. And though the series has been around since 1958, it still feels like it has endless potential to rattle us, all while slyly commenting on a world where comedians gauge success by Twitter followers and podcasters deliver what feels like irrefutable truth into our headphones.
I’ll absolutely be turning in again when The Twilight Zone returns to see what Peele’s come up with next.