How Does the New ‘Twilight Zone’ Compare to the Original?
Starting today, CBS All Access has submitted a new version of The Twilight Zone for the approval of its subscribers. Produced and hosted by Get Out and Us director Jordan Peele, the show is heavily indebted to the original version of the series, which ran for five seasons in the 1950s and 60s, and was created, produced, and hosted by writer Rod Serling. Peele’s Twilight Zone is actually the third such revival of the landmark sci-fi anthology, following versions in the mid-1980s on CBS and syndication, and one in the early 2000s on UPN.
No matter the iteration, every subsequent Twilight Zone has been compared to the first. Serling’s Twilight Zone was never a massive ratings success in its day, but decades of syndicated reruns, VHS and DVD compilations, and holiday marathons, have transformed it one of the most celebrated and influential television series in history. Everyone knows what The Twilight Zone is. Even if you’ve never watched an episode you know what it means: Fantasy and science-fiction stories with a spooky edge and a twist ending.
That’s still exactly what it means through the four episodes of the new Twilight Zone made available to critics. Still, while Peele delivers what longtime fans expect from show called The Twilight Zone, his version does change some things as well.
The most striking differences between Peele’s Twilight Zone and Serling’s can probably be attributed to the fact that the new show makes it home on CBS All Access, a subscription streaming service, instead of on CBS proper. As a result, TZ 2019’s episodes aren’t held to a fixed length. None of the first four shows have the same runtime; the premiere episode, “The Comedian” runs almost an hour. The next show, “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet,” is closer to 30 minutes. The others, ”Rewind” and “A Traveler,” both run in the 40-minute range.
This change is a welcome one, because the stories aren’t forced to run a minute longer than they need to. (At least in theory; “The Comedian” probably could probably be at least 10 minutes shorter.) The other major difference is a little more jarring. Peele’s Twilight Zone isn’t restricted by broadcast content standards, and it’s loaded with a surprising amount of profanity; there’s even a crude reference or two to oral sex. Most of the vulgar dialogue seems out of place, not just to The Twilight Zone but to the individual episodes, like a misguided attempt to make a 60-year-old series “edgy.” Even though there are bigger structural contrasts between the shows — like the color cinematography — the adult language winds up being the only inauthentic thing about Peele’s series.
Otherwise, the new show does a fine job of recreating the vibe and perspective of Serling’s anthology for modern viewers. The classic opening credits have gotten a spiffy CGI sheen, and Peele makes a good fit for the role of “The Narrator.” Despite the color photography, it feels like the old Twilight Zone, even if (or maybe because) the first four episodes are of varying quality. The best of the bunch by far is next week’s “Rewind,” which takes a perfect TZ premise — a woman discovers a video camera that can reverse the flow of time — and uses it exactly as Serling would have, as the metaphorical means to confront societal injustice and instill a moral message to the viewer. (In this case, the African American woman with the camera, played by Sanaa Lathan, finds that no matter how she reverses time, she cannot escape a confrontation with a racist cop played by Glenn Fleshler.) It’s written by Selwyn Seyfu Hinds, a name I will be keeping on my radar in the future.
This Twilight Zone’s version of the famous “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” episode is solid too, with Adam Scott replacing William Shatner and John Lithgow as the paranoid passenger on a doomed flight. In the previous versions, the protagonists couldn’t convince anyone else there was a monster ripping at the wing of their plane. In this update, Scott’s character instead finds an MP3 player loaded with a podcast about the tragic end of the flight he’s currently on. The final act doesn’t land, but at least someone is warning people about the intense dangers of listening to too many true-crime podcasts.
“The Comedian,” with Kumail Nanjiani as a standup who gains the power to make anyone he jokes about on stage disappear, works on a thematic level but could have used a funnier script. The only out-and-out clunker so far is “A Traveler,” with Steven Yeun as a mysterious stranger who shows up in an Alaskan jail on Christmas Eve. Yeun plays this guy as so obviously evil that the patented Twilight Zone twist is telegraphed.
It’s a slightly inconsistent start; I’m not sure anyone is going to sign up for CBS All Access for one really great episode of The Twilight Zone when many seasons of the original are currently available on Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime. Still, it’s early going, and the show clearly understands the appeal of Serling’s concept — and embraces its roots in social commentary. With time, the potential is there for a series rich in both shadows and substance.
Gallery — Every Episode of the Original Twilight Zone, Ranked: