This review of The Twilight Zone contains no spoilers.
Any evaluation of Jordan Peele’s The Twilight Zone reboot on CBS All Access is anchored to the question, “Is this version true to the spirit of the classic original?” and for the most part, the answer is yes. Obviously each episode must be taken on its merits, and the four stories that the network provided to journalists for review ranged from spot-on to off-the-mark to somewhere in between. But that’s the risk of any anthology show that contains hits and misses, including Rod Serling’s masterpiece, for which we tend to remember only the best episodes and forgive any duds.
Fortunately, the modern version of The Twilight Zone starts off with a premiere worthy of the show’s name. “The Comedian” features a wonderfully dark and layered performance by Kumail Nanjiani as the titular comedian who struggles with his stand-up routine and learns the rewards and consequences of making his sets more personal. The story feels like it sprang from a vintage episode, complete with hubris, mysterious visitors, and an ending that’s suitably final. That being said, viewers will be able to recognize Jordan Peele’s influence in “The Comedian,” which features one of the most diverse casts we’ve seen without making the episode overtly about that.
“Nightmare at 30,000 Feet” similarly offers subtle social commentary while paying tribute to one of the most recognizable original episodes of The Twilight Zone. Although this episode is more about the strange discovery the journalist played by Adam Scott makes while on a flight to Israel, it also explores some preconceptions that even less paranoid Americans might have about any passenger wearing a turban or hijab. The episode is both a wonderful homage and a completely original take, and despite a clunky ending, it brings the same sense of fear, reality questioning, and psychological discomfort that William Shatner brought to “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” in 1963.
Less successful in the social satire arena is “Replay,” which follows a single mother as she sends her son off to the local historically black college. There’s an element of time travel in the episode that gives it its signature The Twilight Zone twist, but in this one, the story leans heavily into themes of racism and the police mistreatment that is at the heart of the “Black Lives Matter” movement. It’s a powerful message that unfortunately borders on caricature at times, but it thankfully benefits from a strong performance from Sanaa Lathan of The Affair in a slowly blossoming story of the importance of family and remembering one’s roots. It just doesn’t feel like an episode of The Twilight Zone, though.
The eeriness returns in “A Traveler,” an episode that features The Walking Dead’s Steven Yeun as a mysterious visitor to a small town in rural Alaska. Right away, viewers will wonder how the strange man arrived, what he wants, and who (or what) he really is. Again, it being the Jordan Peele version of The Twilight Zone, there is an exploration of cultural discrimination in the police headquarters where the story takes place, but the satirical notes hit home much more effectively given the strange nature of the town’s enigmatic guest. Plus Greg Kinnear as the egotistical, myopically patriotic sheriff is more laughable than he is deplorable.
Throughout each episode of The Twilight Zone, viewers will start to notice the recurrence of the number 1015, and the mystery of its deeper meaning (maybe the police code for “civil disturbance” or “prisoner in custody”?) fits with the mood of the show in a way that encourages fan discussion. In “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet,” Adam Scott makes particular note of 1015 being his flight number, his departure time, and his date of travel (October 15), but there are many other more subtle examples that appear elsewhere, whether as a security code, as a police dispatch number, or some other hidden reference. Viewers will want to make a game out of spotting the 1015 throughout the season.
The potential audience of CBS All Access’ The Twilight Zone will either be turned off by the social conscience of the series or revel in its modern take on the creepy supernatural/sci-fi vibe that was the hallmark of the show’s namesake and is still present in this incarnation. Not every episode will resonate with all viewers, but there definitely is a little something for everyone if the first four episodes are any indication. With the potential for showcasing recognizable actors just as the original did, the anticipation for each new installment should keep people coming back the same way it does for worthy The Twilight Zone successors like Black Mirror and Electric Dreams.