This review of The Twilight Zone contains spoilers. Beware!
The Twilight Zone Season 2 Episode 3
At times when watching New Twilight Zone—which for brevity I’ll dub “NTZ” for the rest of this review—it can feel like there’s an identity crisis casting shadows around the fringes of the show. At no fault of its own, NTZ was born into a difficult TV landscape where anthologies are bountiful and the stakes have been raised. As our critic Nick Harley pointed out in his spoiler-free review of season 2, NTZ will be rated against the ambition and craftsmanship of Black Mirror, as Charlie Brooker continues to capture our techno-paranoia and pull off the magic trick of staying just ahead of a rapidly moving curve. To that end, NTZ feels just a few steps behind when it comes to plot, a cardinal sin in the year of streaming television and deeply uncomfortable global panic, 2020.
NTZ also has to measure itself against the old testament, Original Twilight Zone, or “OTZ.” Comparing Rod Serling’s classic with Peele’s reboot has less to do with plot and more to do with the undercurrent. What parable are these stories trying to tell? If it’s an update on a timeless parable or cautionary tale, does it have something new to say within our modern context? This is NTZ’s achilles heel, one that leaves Peele’s reboot in its own no man’s land, one as vast as space. TV critic Brian Lowery put it well in his review of season 2 for CNN: “the original series speaks to the strange times through which we’re living more directly and profoundly than the new one.”
There’s no denying that Peele and co. carefully crafted NTZ with deep admiration for Serling’s work. The third episode of season two, “The Who of You,” embodies that dedication by emulating qualities of the best episodes from the original series—it’s sharply paced, stuffed with colorful characters and memorable performances, and often uses music and sound as an effective narrative device. But this body swapping episode can also be a metaphor for the series as a whole, with something just a bit hollow inside a manicured shell.
“The Who of You” begins inside an audition room. Harry Pine (Ethan Embry) is an actor in desperate need of a big break. Spoiler: he doesn’t get it. The shame and regret follow him home like a shadow where the tension with his girlfriend (played by Carmel Admit) is so thick it would take two steak knives to cut. Harry is acutely aware his relationship is crumbling and assumes it’s driven by his own financial insecurity, rather than a personal one. Harry is wrong about the state of his relationship and another wrong choice follows. He does what all struggling actors whose girlfriends are obviously cheating on them must dream of but don’t have the courage to do: he robs a bank! Harry spectacularly fails at that too, but only because of intervention from The Twilight Zone.
The script by Win Rosenfeld—who’s most notable writing credit is tied to the upcoming Candyman remake (co-written with Nia DaCosta and Peele), which like this incarnation of The Twilight Zone, is produced by Peele’s Monkey Paw Productions-—is a clever twist on the body swap storytelling device, which could be a whole genre on its own. Harry can leap into another person’s body by looking them straight in the eye. Call it a body hop. His newly realized ability sets off a cat and mouse game between the down-on-his-luck actor and a private detective played by Daniel Sunjata.
The premise lends itself to a fun 40-something minutes of misdirection, body hopping action, and performances with just the right touch of camp and self-aware humor. Embry in the lead role accels as he’s tasked with playing to the personalities of a cop, an eccentric psychic, a bank clerk, an unsuspecting runner, and a child. The episode also features standout guest spots from the always welcome Mel Rodriguez (The Last Man on Earth) and Billy Porter, who uses what little screen time he has to craft a deliciously mercurial character out of a grifter fortune teller. Embry then having to imitate Porter’s performance through Harry’s body is one of NTZ’s most memorable scenes to date.
“The Who of You” wears the OTZ body well. It’s a tense episode with a fitting twist that cuts. Whether it’s a deep cut is up for debate. In the end, Harry loses his original body and inhabits the detective’s, only to learn that the same detective has been sleeping with his girlfriend the entire time. Harry begrudgingly gets the girl, but not how he wanted. His body hopping antics seemed to only help his acting career, again, not in the body he wanted. If there’s a lesson in there, about the profession of acting or the human condition, I’m not sure it’s a profound one that audiences will carry with them.