This The Twilight Zone review contains spoilers.
The Twilight Zone Episode 3
As a fan of 12 Monkeys, Timeless, and other time travel shows, I had high hopes for “Replay,” The Twilight Zone’s third episode in its CBS All Access reincarnation. Unfortunately, the story got so bogged down in its institutional racism satire that it both defanged its sci-fi gimmick, a camcorder that rewinds time, and overshadowed a much more poignant message about family and the importance of remembering one’s roots. This episode didn’t take place in an off-kilter fifth dimension of mind but rather in our unfortunate reality with a hint of caricature and a Groundhog Day premise as an afterthought.
That’s not to say there weren’t some amazing performances from the actors. Sanaa Lathan was perfect as the worrying mother, Nina Harrison, sending her son Dorian off to college. Her journey into the twilight zone no doubt springs from her anxiety about her offspring’s ability to survive, not only in an uncertain future with burgeoning independence, but also in a society that is predisposed to assume he will fail based on the color of his skin. Damson Idris plays Dorian with charm and emotional maturity, especially in depicting the character’s desire to see his mother reconcile with her brother Neil before her son starts this new chapter in his life.
“Replay” tells a compelling story of how Nina shunned her violent upbringing in poverty, perhaps to avoid jeopardizing her comfortable life by acknowledging that problems still exist not only for her family but for people of color in her old neighborhood and elsewhere. It would have been nice if The Twilight Zone had found a way to lean into this idea more instead of focusing on the unconquerable racism of the cop, played with evil brilliance by Glenn Fleshler. Instead of showing how Nina tried being nice, taking a different route, and fighting back to get a social message across, the series could have played more with Neil’s knowledge of the town’s history and emphasized Nina’s need to reconnect with the family she left behind out of a desire to fit in and not let race be a factor in her life.
And the camcorder as a mechanism to allow her to avoid the shooting or tasing of her son by rewinding time was great for the satirical theme but was horrible as a disconnected narrative tool. Every attempt to explain what it did came across as ridiculous, and mixing in frivolous uses such as guessing the lottery numbers together with frighteningly necessary applications such as saving Dorian’s life took much of the time travel shock out of the equation. Even the lottery number scene left me wondering if she’d win some money somehow or if the writer of the episode was merely trying to cleverly sneak in the date, 6-8-20-16, a date situated obscurely at the epicenter of the Black Lives Matter movement with no exact attachment to an event that I could find.
The Twilight Zone is presumably going to continue including the number 1015 in each episode as well, this time with Officer Lasky’s squad car designation. Along with visuals like the repeated appearance of the “8 Mile” marker, seemingly a reference to the Eminem movie, the idea appears to be to supply ample Easter eggs for anyone eager to search for hidden meanings. But it all gets so muddied. Instead of skillfully used symbols or literary twists, these elements merely distract from more effective parts of the story.
The powerful turning point, in fact, comes on the Tennyson University campus when, like the students who stand in solidarity against the police officers Lasky has called to his aid, Nina records with the camera instead of rewinding, symbolically moving forward instead of backward. The message that, “You’re the one who’s really afraid,” is insightful and shows that Nina is ready to conquer her own worries and allow her son to live his life without the protection of his mother.
The final scenes in which Nina is old and gray with a successful son and granddaughter served as a passable epilogue, but the breaking of the camcorder didn’t have as much impact as perhaps The Twilight Zone was looking for. The flashing of sirens as Dorian goes to get ice cream is a little more successful as a parting image, but again, that’s more about the satirical message and less about the otherworldly influence of this magical video camera. I found myself more interested in the old tunnels that led from the campus to the library and the gentrification of the rough neighborhood. Where was Uncle Neil in the end, I wonder?
“Replay” had some strong ideas embedded in its quirky little tale, but it suffered from its focus on social commentary at the expense of storytelling. Don’t get me wrong, plenty of science fiction shows from Star Trek to Doctor Who seek to explore the issues of their day, commenting on the dangerous nature of humanity and the society that sprung from a history of war and oppression, but those themes are usually handled with more subtlety and grace or at least with a plot that weaves together more tightly with its allegory. I have no doubt that The Twilight Zone will bounce back from this sub-par episode, but for now, this is one strike against the reboot.
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Michael Ahr is a writer, reviewer, and podcaster here at Den of Geek; you can check out his work here or follow him on Twitter (@mikescifi). He co-hosts our Sci Fi Fidelity podcast and voices much of our video content.