Over the past few weeks, I’ve crammed in the two seasons of the current reboot of The Twilight Zone. I confess I was too young to hang in for the original, and I’ve only caught the occasional episode over the years on the cable. This new iteration is on streaming, CBS All Access. I read that some of the new effort draws on “classic” episodes rewritten for the 21st century. I didn’t recognize anything that was a blatant copy. The “Shatner episode” from the 60s didn’t occur to me until after I viewed 2019’s “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet.” The finale of each of the two seasons involves a significant hat-tip to the Rod Serling original.
As a science fiction fan, I place this show as lying mostly in the genre of fantasy. My definition: something fantastic that we can’t explain by advanced technology. The advantage of the one-off episode is that the writer is usually limited to a single idea to explore. Most sf/fantasy runs off the rails when writers try to cram too many weird things into one show.
I like Jordan Peele as the narrator. The clear strength of the new series is the quality of the actors and their craft. Some of them manage to do top shelf things with limited material. Any Twilight Zone episode of any era is strongest when a human being has to make personal choices when confronted with being ripped from normal. Actors do this generally quite well, and in season 2, I’d call out the teen leads doing excellent work in “Among the Untrodden” plus Christopher Meloni and Jenna Elfman later in the season in a weaker episode.
Sadly, the writing drags the show down. Sometimes a premise is wasted. Often, episodes seem to be stuffed with filler. Streaming shows don’t need to fit into 60 minutes. And some of these episodes would do quite well at twenty-five to thirty. I think the gratuitous use of f-bombs detracts too. On another streaming show, Star Trek Picard, it happens infrequently enough for it to be a “moment” in a scene. Let the actors engage their outrage, not their expanded vocabulary. It’s a show-don’t-tell opportunity.
One intriguing outing in the series retells Bill Murray’s Groundhog Day, a day that gets lived over and over again. Topher Grace and Kylie Bunbury do an excellent meet-cute in a museum. Then it gets dragged out a little too long. She has relationship issues. He gets creepy–remember, in the movie, Phil just gets slapped over and over again. But “Try, Try” begins to explore the psychological damage from never being able to escape that day. Then it gets bogged down in philosophy and #metoo. A tighter edit on the writing would have been better. The final scene has the lead trying to decide if he should decline to save the woman from walking in front of a truck–an absolute delicious moment of drama after she’s punched him out for attacking her on the “previous” day. One thing I wondered about: what if it were the woman living the day over and over again?
This reboot’s biggest weakness is that the social preaching tends to drown out the overall effort too often. Women and people of color are all over the place in who acts, who writes, and who produces and directs. That’s fabulous. This iteration would be more successful with better written characters, and again: let good actors ply their craft with better material. Television’s worst moments are often when the viewer is getting a message.
Sometimes television takes a year or two to hit its stride. This show hasn’t done that yet. Watch if you like the premise, but don’t expect to be wowed. Tales From The Loop is superior streaming tv in this vein. If you have time for only one streaming series, go there.