What the CBS Reboot of “The Twilight Zone” Needs to Do to Get Better
Rebooting any classic film or TV show is asking for trouble, let alone a beloved series such as The Twilight Zone. There have already been two mediocre attempts on television to bring back the show, not to mention an uneven 1983 theatrical film. None of them could hold a candle to the original TV series and failed utterly to capture any of the daring, timeliness, or impact of Rod Serling’s 1959-1964 masterpiece. So, why did CBS attempt to reboot the show once again? In two words – Jordan Peele.
Peele’s incredible success with Get Out, his Oscar-winning horror film from 2017, encouraged the powers that be to try The Twilight Zone once again. After all, Peele’s film struck many similar notes as Serling’s most socially-conscious episodes of the original series. Peele not only could tell a moralizing, horror tale in a similar vein to some of the best episodes of The Twilight Zone, but he did so with a sinister Serling wit. Thus, Peele took upon the task to update the venerable franchise to our modern times and give it a spin similar to what he did in GET OUT, as well as this year’s hit horror film US. Peele even took it upon himself to do the intros and outros the show just as Serling did all those years ago.
We’re now six episodes into the 10-show season and it’s become apparent that while Peele is a brilliant filmmaker, getting a TV series to have the same flavor as his two hit films isn’t an easy translation. Sure, the show has been reasonably clever, well-acted, and produced, just like those movies. The program shrewdly moralizes too, just like Peele’s films and Serling’s original series. However, there are some characteristics of the CBS All Access series that are far from exemplary.
Some of the problems are small potatoes and should be easy to fix. Others are bigger flaws, keeping the show from being meaningful and exceptional.
One of the smaller surface issues concerns Peele’s hosting approach. Shockingly, for an ace comedian and versatile actor, he’s as stiff as a board. Peele’s wrongly interpreted the host role as one that should be sinister. In all five years that Serling performed his on-camera duties, he may have been cryptic, but he was never funereal. His approach was genial, slyly clueing the viewer into what was coming, serving as an authoritative yet accessible ringmaster.
He may have had a staccato delivery and a slightly forced grin, but Serling never played the mortician. Peele, on the other hand, acts as if he’s a symbol of death. He’s the host, not a ghost, and needs to have a little more fun in the role.
Another easy mistake to fix has to do with the misplaced need to make the show seem more adult by being longer and more profane. Every episode has been around the 45-minute mark and you can feel the fat. Serling managed to tell his stories in a deft 30 minutes, except for the misbegotten fourth season that pushed the narratives to an hour. Less is more, and some judicious editing is clearly needed. Serling didn’t push the language any more than the time either. Granted, he couldn’t back in the day, but the F-bombs being dropped in each of the new episodes so far have been wholly unnecessary. They don’t make the show seem more modern, just desperate.
Of course, any production done these days with the kind of budgets behind it as The Twilight Zone reboot are going to look fantastic with their exquisite production values and effects. Still, one of the charms of the old show was that it didn’t try to look like a movie. It looked like a modestly budgeted TV show.
Yet, somehow Serling still managed to shoot his show in the desert at times, on large soundstages, and on numerous locations. This reboot seems more obsessed with throwing lots of money on the screen than it does with shrewder and tighter storytelling. Just look at the second episode entitled Nightmare at 30,000 Feet. It’s a riff on the classic William Shatner episode, and while no one would want the hoary looking airplane set that he acted on, the new set is so ostentatious as to be distracting. It doesn’t help that the camera continually lingers on every nook and cranny of the production design in the new episode either, almost to a fetish. It’s a lot of window-dressing.
Such issues are easy to fix; the bigger ones will be trickier. For starters, Serling’s original series did a far better job of mixing in various genres. There were episodes that were heavier on science fiction, while others felt like horror or even black comedy. So far, this new series, all feels like a fantastical thriller by and large. And the tone of each episode is all the same – eerie, insinuating, with a feeling of something supernatural woven throughout.
Additionally, too many of the six episodes so far seem to focus on the same exact kind of protagonist, one who’s weak or paranoid and pitted against events or powers they cannot control. Indeed, the original series did create such worlds for their characters to suffer in, like waking nightmares, often with the strings being pulled by some sort of alien, tyrannical ruler, or moralistic deity. Here though, all the new Zone episodes feel the same. Does the antagonist always have to be a devil or an alien or something supernatural? Many of the original series best episodes dealt with people who were done in by their own frailties, with precious little interference from any outside power.
For example, in Nick of Time, the fortune-telling toy in the diner wasn’t literally running the superstitious William Shatner character around in circles, his own insecurity was. In Time Enough at Last, Burgess Meredith’s oblivious behavior causes him to trip and break his reading glasses, not any extraneous interference. Sure, a moralizing ‘other’ passes judgment on Telly Savalas in Living Doll, Inger Stevens in The Hitch-hiker, and Gladys Cooper in Nothing in the Dark, but in the new series so far, there are too outsiders harming fallible Americans.
The old Zone used to veer far from realistic settings, something the new show has been unwilling to so far. In Eye of the Beholder from the original series, the extreme lighting and tilted camera angles conjured an expressionistic world, something more akin to Caligari. In the episode Five Characters in Search of an Exit, its stagey look suggested a Beckett play. Yet every episode of the new series so far has been shot the exact same exact – realistically. Even the cinematography of the reboot’s best episode Six Degrees of Freedom looked like dozens of other slick spaceship stories, like the movie Passengers or The Martian. With the episode’s themes of tedium and loneliness, couldn’t the camera work have been starker or less gorgeous? Would the show ever consider giving an episode the stylized look of a filmmaker like Wes Anderson or Edgar Wright? The show needs to mix it up more, be it genre, tone, or look.
The biggest problem the reboot faces are two-fold. First, its reliance on twists is limiting. Granted, the original series pulled the rug out more often than not, but rarely did they go for such obvious O. Henry type surprises. The new show seems to always be leading up to a ginormous reveal, and yet so far, they’ve either been too obvious or a let-down. Really, the mysterious jailbird played by Steven Yeun in The Traveler was an alien? Yawn. And again, with the aliens at the end of Six Degrees of Freedom? Yikes. There were aliens galore over 100 episodes of the original Zone, but not that many per just ten.
The other big issue facing the new show has to do with how novel or even frightening the show can be when we already live in a bizarre world where the POTUS tweets all day long like a pissy, teenage girl, and a million species are on the verge of extinction because of man’s carelessness. Can any screenwriter’s imagination deliver fiction as disturbing as those realities? Doubtful. Serling wrote almost two-thirds of the original Zone’s during the end of the Eisenhower era and start of the Kennedy administration, a time that was rather staid and complacent. The turbulent 60s had yet to occur, yet Serling brilliantly foreshadowed the trauma in his drama. He saw numerous issues that would soon take a stranglehold to our nation – equality, women’s rights, authoritarianism, ecological disasters – and like a visionary, he made them the topical topics of his show.
Serling riffed on Castro in The Mirror, mob rule in The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street, and parents being ruled by their children in It’s a Good Life. Why Lois Nettleton painted The Midnight Sun because of a freezing world that forecasts global warming. Serling was nothing if not ahead of his time, especially when there was so much frivolous fantasy spread across the rest of the television landscape with rubes in Beverly Hills, bewitching ad exec wives, and James Bond battling megalomaniacs in the Old West.
Peele and his colleagues are attempting to be socially relevant but much of it feels old. In the episode Replay, a black mother (Sanaa Lathan) tries to outrun and outsmart a racist cop with a time-changing camcorder, but it felt dated and heavy-handed, especially compared to similar themes of social justice on display in better works by Peele, Spike Lee, and the recently departed John Singleton. Even Get Out took a novel view on the issue of racism focusing on bigotry in liberal factions. Nothing in the new Zone has come close to essaying something that unique.
Perhaps the best example of what the show is up against in trying to stay ahead of the curve as Serling did so well in his time, lies in the episode The Wunderkind. In that one, John Cho plays a political advisor who ends up helping elect an 11-year-old boy (Jacob Tremblay) as president. Of course, it’s a metaphor for Trump and his childish behavior, but it’s little else than that. Surprise, surprise, the immature kid turns out to be a bullying tyrant in the piece, and everyone is the kid’s enabler to stay in his good graces, but the Billy Mumy episode It’s a Good Life did that better back in 61.
One could quibble with the fact that the new show pays too much homage to the past series as well, with all sorts of Easter eggs dropped into the mix as if doing a riff on Nightmare at 20,000 Feet wouldn’t be enough for old school fans. Such in-jokes would be minor infractions if the rest of the show was progressive, but it’s not. Perhaps, the greatest laugh is that our times already have a modern version of The Twilight Zone. It’s called Black Mirror and it’s been on television and Netflix for over five years now.
Still, if anyone can make good on a promise to bring back The Twilight Zone in a truly productive way, it’s Peele. While the horror genre was obsessing over franchise characters and excessive gore, he injected wit, vivid characterizations, and ballsy social commentary into the mix for a new standard bearer. He knew that horror would be more effective if it was smarter, more relevant, and so eerie it was hard to shake.
As he told audiences at South by Southwest this spring, “We are in a time where we fear the other. Maybe the monster that we’re looking at has our face.” That certainly worked in both Get Out and Us, and if he applies more of that to the reboot of The Twilight Zone, he’ll have something worthier. He can start by showing all the aliens and deities the door.
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