The Twilight Zone certainly did the anthology series thing before it was cool, but CBS All Access’ rebooted version from executive producers Jordan Peele and Simon Kinberg seems to be playing catch-up. The original series paved the way for science fiction in the public consciousness and many worthy successors and imitators have earned their own attention and acclaim, especially recently. It’s no one’s fault that series like Black Mirror have stolen the new Twilight Zone’s thunder, but when the new iteration tries to keep up with the Jones’ and lean into its darker or preachy instincts, it doesn’t feel like a pale imitation of the Rod Serling classic; it feels like Netflix leftovers.
To be clear, advance reviewing The Twilight Zone season 2 pre-air is sort of a fool’s errand. As everyone knows, each episode is its own story, and as the first season made clear, each installment will live or die by its own merits. Three episodes were screened for critics, and it’s a real Goldilocks situation; one episode is too dark and predictable, another too fussy and didactic, but the third is just right.
Unsurprisingly, CBS All Access’ Twilight Zone feels the most like genuine article when it cribs liberally from its own fantastic history. Out of the three episodes, “The Who of You” manages to impress the most, featuring the right level of camp, comedy, thrills, and that patented last minute knife twist. It’s a classic body swap premise, with an out of work actor finding himself jumping between unsuspecting passersby. Featuring fun, showy performances from Ethan Embry, Mel Rodriguez, and Billy Porter, it feels both fun and pleasingly familiar. You wouldn’t expect a series that defined itself on bold unpredictability to be operating best when working in an expected lane, but for better or worse that’s the case.
The Twilight Zone needs a particular tone, and when that alchemy isn’t correct, it’s painfully noticeable. The Jimmi Simpson-led “Meet in the Middle” suffers not from being familiar, but predictable. The episode centers on a telepathic romance, but whereas “The Who of You” benefited from its wide array of performances, “Meet in the Middle” is primarily a one-man show and lags because of it.
Though it keeps the series’ morality play base and has a healthy smattering of the always charming Gillian Jacobs, it’s fairly unmemorable and dour without the winking nature you’d expect. It’s also just plain ugly to look at. It’s not that the new Twilight Zone features uninspired direction, but its color palette is so bleak and gray (not to be mistaken with that iconic black and white), that it makes every episode suffer, and it’s no more apparent than in “Meet in the Middle.”
Finally, “You Might Also Like” bites off far more than it can chew. With its pretentious “chapter” segments and heavy handed “want vs need, consumerism is bad” messaging, it feels the biggest attempt to one-up Black Mirror and falls short. A satire without much bite, the story follows a suburban woman who desires a device that promises “to make everything better for everyone forever” without really knowing what it is.
The episode is not without its merits, including a winning lead performance from Gretchen Mol and some throwback, out-of-this world creature creation. Still, the episode aims for disorienting and perhaps lands there harder than it intended. Ultimately the successful, sillier elements buckle under a preachy, nail-on-the head ending.
Perhaps having to live up to a hallowed name holds the new Twilight Zone back from being enjoyed on its own merits. Regardless, it’s a tough look that the new season’s three episodes screened for critics in advance was also its safest and most conventional. Maybe the Twilight Zone brand isn’t as timeless as infinity, maybe the overcrowded sci-fi anthology market is making things feel stale in the fifth dimension, even if things are never downright bad.