It was a bit of an effort to watch the new Twilight Zone episodes. There’s no weekly network television broadcast, CBS instead using the reimagined series to entice viewers to subscribe to CBS All Access.
There’s a plethora of streaming services with Disney+ and AppleTV+ set to release this year in an already over saturated market. Comparatively, CBS all access seems like little more than a glorified DVR library. No offense to CBS. They have some fine programming. Still, a free seven-day trial to CBS All Access made it much more appealing to check out the latest project from Executive Producer Jordan Peele.
I’ll admit to a sense of bias when it comes to Twilight Zone. The original series spoke to my inquisitive nature and often was as critical of the human condition as I am. There are episodes from the original TV show for the cynic and the hopeful dreamer alike.
The premiere episode of the CBS All Access series, The Comedian, stars Kumail Nanjiani (The Big Sick, Silicon Valley). He plays Samir, a failed stand-up comic trying to keep his act poignant and meaningful, refusing to resort to “cheap laughs.” The episode encapsulates the feeling I had towards all the episodes I’ve seen of the new season: I don’t know if they’re truly entertaining, or I just really, really want them to be.
The episode begins with Samir telling a bad joke that runs on too long. The almost empty audience ranges from disinterested to annoyed, supposedly tempting the viewer to feel sympathy for Samir. Rather than triggering that gut-wrenching feeling of crashing and burning in front of an audience full of bored faces, however, I side with the audience. I want the dumb joke to be done as much as they do. The opening of the episode went on for too long. As the story progresses, though, I caught moments of the eerie tension I enjoyed so much about the original 1960s series.
Legendary comedian J.C. Wheeler (played by Tracy Morgan) shows up after disappearing from the public eye to give the struggling comic some advice. He tells Samir to give a piece of himself to the audience with the guarantee the audience will love him for it. In Faustian fashion, this piece of advice comes with a cost. As Samir begins to incorporate personal details in his act to gain success, the stakes become increasingly high.
For all the episode’s flaws, it is a call back to the originals. The story takes the audience just beyond the edges of reality. It speaks to our human nature. You want to see just how far Samir is willing to go for his success, looking inward and wondering if you’d pay the same price.
In retrospect, all four episodes I’ve seen so far echo back to a feeling I so loved about the original. They provide us with the tension of being human. At the cost of a little suspended disbelief, we’re allowed to explore feelings deep in our gut-- fears, hopes, dreams, dark secrets, moral questions all arising from interesting tales that are just outside of our reality. That’s what the Twilight Zone is all about and that’s what I love about the series.
The new episodes also provide a much-needed modern take. The second episode, Nightmare at 30,000 feet takes a modern approach to the original. While the movie version of Nightmare at 20,000 Feet starring John Lithgow was great, it was a replica of the original William Shatner version from 1963. The new episode, while at times formulaic, at least reimagines the story in a more modern, almost believable way.
Here lies the dilemma. As interesting as the storylines are in the new web series, the execution is flawed. The dialogue across the board leaves something to be desired (A Traveler was particularly disappointing). The storylines are often predictable or uninteresting.
Replay is a perfect example of great idea with points of bad execution. Its portrayal of the Black Lives Matter Movement is thought provoking. The concept of a camcorder that can rewind time is compelling.
All I could focus on, however, was the relationship between Nina (Sanaa Lathan) and her son Dorian (Damson Idris). An attempt to play up the loving relationship between mother and son came off as a boring and uninspired road trip with too many cutesy moments. It didn’t take me out of the story completely, but it had me looking at my watch from time to time wishing for some better editing.
If the Twilight Zone episodes were regularly on network TV or a popular streaming service that provides more content than just what’s on CBS, I would not hesitate to recommend viewing the newest iteration. The question isn’t are they worth watching (I certainly think they are), but are they worth the subscription to CBS All Access?
I haven’t taken the time to explore the other programs on CBS. I’ve been busy rewatching Love, Death + Robots and Russian Doll on Netflix—both of which have the same feeling of surreal worlds that somehow still make us examine our own existence.
Still, I appreciate the efforts of the new series. There’s potential in the upcoming episodes with some great actors set to examine some interesting plots. Although I can’t say the series is great enough to warrant a full subscription to CBS All Access, it’s certainly worth a seven day trial. I strongly suggest signing up on a Thursday, taking advantage of the Wednesday release of new episodes. Wunderkind was released April 24th and stars John Cho.