This The Twilight Zone review contains spoilers.
The Twilight Zone Episode 2
After conquering the box office and becoming Hollywood’s latest original idea-driven auteur, Jordan Peele isn’t resting on his laurels, instead taking the opportunity to tear into hallowed ground and redevelop The Twilight Zone for the streaming age. The former sketch comedy chameleon is easily able to slip into the slow, measured, yet slightly sinister Rod Serling narrator role, honoring tradition yet clearly offering something new. One of the first installments in this new reboot, “The Comedian” brings a similar vibe. The episode has a quintessential Twilight Zone premise, a comedian mines his personal life for material but erases anyone that makes it into his act, while having a modern comedic sensibility, a diverse cast, and a sharp new look.
“The Comedian” stars Kumail Nanjiani as struggling comedian Samir, whose goal is to “make people think” with his act, but in actuality, all he’s doing is getting tepid chuckles with his stale 2nd amendment observations. Kumail is a great fit in the role, probably because his experience as a standup allows him to accurately show the desperation a comedian goes through when their act isn’t quite working. One night after he bombs his set, famous comedian J.C. Wheeler (Tracy Morgan) is sitting at the bar and mentions to Samir that he caught his set. Samir sheepishly asks for notes, adding that he wants all that comedy can offer him. Wheeler tells him that he can find success, but urges that Samir make his set more personal. “You’re a country,” he tells Samir, “and your only export is you.” Wheeler only offers one warning; once the audience connects with your material, it’s gone forever and belongs to them.
The entire episode is a great tale of caution for aspiring standups. Mining your life for personal material can be great, but it can also come at the expense of meaningful relationships. If you’re constantly detailing the issues with your marriage for an adoring audience, don’t be surprised if your spouse doesn’t find the humor in the oversharing. Samir takes Wheeler’s advice, starting small with material about his dog. The routine kills, but when Samir returns to the apartment he shares with his lawyer girlfriend Rena (Amara Karan), he finds that the animal has disappeared, along with his girlfriend’s memory of the pooch. The revelation becomes more worrisome after the same thing happens when Samir tells a story about his nephew roasting him on stage. Samir is horrified to realize that he’s wiped them from existence, but is also seeing success as a comedian for the first time as a result.
Samir then begins trolling through Facebook, searching for old acquaintances, co-workers, and people from his past that he can use in his routine without causing too much of a butterfly effect in his life. Samir even tries to target particularly bad or harmful people, like a fellow comedian that killed two innocents in a drunk driving incident, to make himself believe that he’s doing the world a service. It doesn’t bother Samir that none of his other material is working, or that he’s forced to be ultra-specific for his newfound comedy trick to operate properly, he’s just happy to be getting laughs no matter the cost. Samir’s new confidence even strengthens his relationship with Rena, until petty jealousy completely derails his entire new life.
Samir gets jealous over Rena’s relationship with her former law professor and mentor. Naturally, when he begins floundering onstage, he starts to tear into Rena’s old friend. After his set, he finds his approving girlfriend waiting, but she announces that she must be leaving for her shift. It turns out that Rena now works in a diner, since losing her professor and mentor meant that she never became a lawyer. And since she never became a lawyer, the couple were never able to afford their fancy trip to Paris, where they saved their struggling relationship. When Samir has trouble processing the new normal that he’s created for himself, it causes Rena to end their already strained relationship.
Back at the club, Samir learns that he and his frenemy colleague Didi (a memorable, fiery Diarra Kilpatrick) are up for a part on a famous comedy show and that the talent scout will be in the audience that evening. It’s Samir’s big break, but now he’s not so sure that he wants it. Just in the nick of time, Wheeler shows back up to encourage Samir to go nuclear, reminding him that he wanted all of the success comedy had to offer. When Samir returns to the stage, he erases his competition, and then continues to call out every single person that’s ever wronged him in his life. His set slays everyone in the audience, even if he’s just frenzied and yelling random names, except for Rena, who returns to heckle him for being selfish and a bully. Realizing that she’s more right than she even knows, Samir then proceeds to turn his joke at himself, and he disappears as he drops the mic on his set. Samir then appears in a group shot mural on the comedy club’s back wall, seen in the episode’s intro, a fine nod to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.
“The Comedian” is the exact sort of morality tale that The Twilight Zone always excelled at, while offering fresh commentary about the comedy world and audiences assuming ownership over an artist’s work. Director Owen Harris, who also worked on the similar anthology series Black Mirror, is able to make the dark shadows of the comedy club or an empty apartment feel creepy and the shots from the stage of a bored audience all staring at their phones really puts you in the shoes of a bombing comic. In general, the cinematography in the episode is gorgeous. My only complaint about “The Comedian” is that doesn’t really feature any quality standup material. While a few of the episode’s jokes work, they certainly aren’t delivered on stage by any of the episode’s comedians. Otherwise, “The Comedian” is a fine start to this new era of The Twilight Zone.
Nick Harley is a tortured Cleveland sports fan, thinks Douglas Sirk would have made a killer Batman movie, Spider-Man should be a big-budget HBO series, and Wes Anderson and Paul Thomas Anderson should direct a script written by one another. For more thoughts like these, read Nick’s work here at Den of Geek or follow him on Twitter.