The long-awaited reincarnation of The Twilight Zone is new, not improved.
The new Twilight Zone, plans for which have been simmering since 2012, finally emerges Monday on the pay-service CBS All Access.
It’s unfair, really, to compare this new edition to the original 1950s series created by Rod Serling and widely acknowledged as one of the enduring gems of early television.
The comparison is inevitable, though, and not totally unwarranted, since the new Twilight Zone draws so heavily on the seductive aura of the old.
And, naturally, its premise, which Bob Dylan coincidentally happened to summarize a few years later when he wrote, “If my thought-dreams could be seen / They’d probably put my head in a guillotine.”
Serling based much of the original Twilight Zone on precisely that suspicion: If the bad thoughts in our heads and the dark secrets in our lives ever surfaced and played out, there would be some terrible endings.
The new Twilight Zone buys that unsettling notion, with Jordan Peele taking Serling’s old role as the narrator who articulates each episode’s dilemma up front and then delivers a terse benediction at the end.
The two episodes that kick off the series each conjure familiar Twilight Zones themes, with the addition of more sophisticated camerawork and more prominent music that’s mostly eerie and occasionally amusing.
A healthy roster of guest stars has been recruited for the 10-episode first season, and the leadoff team in one of Monday’s episodes is Kumail Nanjiani as aspiring standup comedian Samir, Amara Karan as his girlfriend and Tracy Morgan as J.C. Sweeney, a legendary comedian who apparently vanished at the height of his fame.
Samir has spent the last five years trying to break through as a standup comedian, a pursuit hampered by the fact he’s not funny.
His seemingly chance encounter with Sweeney establishes the episode’s premise: What price is Samir, or by extension any of us, willing to pay for fame and fortune in a calling we love?
Price in this case has nothing to do with money, of course, but with weighing the value of success against the value of the people and things he might have to injure or lose to gain that success. How much must or will Samir sacrifice?
It’s a classic Twilight Zone dilemma. In fact, it’s a classic dilemma for any number of shows that aren’t named The Twilight Zone, and frankly, many of them have done it better.
The actors are fine. The details of Samir’s quest, however, are not terribly compelling or convincing, while choppy scenes and blurry camera work provide little help.
Now part of the point, in classic Twilight Zone style, is that some of what we see may only be happening in Samir’s mind. But too often this narration crosses the line from intriguing mystery to simple confusion.
The second first-day episode, which runs about 12 minutes shorter and emerges the better for it, stars Adam Scott as Justin Sanderson, an investigative reporter who finds himself on a weird airline flight that seems to be headed into another dimension.
Justin’s reaction, and those of the crew and his fellow passengers, do little to reassure viewers that things will turn out okay. Neither does the behavior of Joe Beaumont (Chris Diamantopoulos), who starts out a little shadowy and morphs into creepy.
To the extent the episode is aiming for slow-burn menace, it succeeds. At the same time it often feels closer to conventional sci-fi than to the kind of psychological unease that marks the best Twilight Zone stories.
Since most viewers will most likely have never seen an original Twilight Zone episode and thus know it mostly by reputation, the new edition should rise or fall as a stand-alone.
By that standard, it starts off a little shaky, not quite finding its rhythm and style right out of the box. While a deliberate pace isn’t necessarily a bad thing for a drama of the mind, there are times here when it simply feels slow.
And with all the other supernatural TV available these days, maybe the Twilight Zone just doesn’t feel like quite so unique a place any more.