In the US: Thursdays, CBS All Access
Why is Jordan Peele determined to prove me wrong? A while ago, I suggested that the old-school anthology show, with a different story and cast every week, no longer worked as a format, given the nature of modern television scheduling. Instead, the season-long anthology show has the best of both worlds, with both a regular cast and the ability to tell closed stories, all rolled into one:
In the UK: Not yet acquired
With an audience who likes serial drama but who wants eventual conclusions to their stories that haven’t been drawn out too long, what could be better than a season-long story with a beginning, middle and an end, the next season then telling a completely new story in the same vein? With a bit of cleverness, you can even appease fans of the shows’ stars by having the cast come back to play different characters if they want – or just let them go off to the next job if they’d rather, just like in the old days, since that way you can get big names with limited availability to come in for just a season.
There have been attempts to return to the original, episodic formula, such as The Guest Book and Room 104, but these exceptions have somewhat proved my hypothesis that the format no longer works. How? Because no one watches them.
So I ask again: why is Jordan Peele is so determined to prove me wrong? I mean first he creates a feelgood, episodic anthology show for YouTube, Weird City, and now he’s resurrected possibly the most famous anthology show of them all, The Twilight Zone.
Why does the lauded writer-director of Get Out and Us think he knows better than me, hey?
Not the firstPeele isn’t the first person to try to resurrect The Twilight Zone. Indeed, right now, there’s a stage revival in the UK that’s just moved to the West End, so if you’ve never heard of The Twilight Zone (you absolute child) or its many revivals, I suggest you head over to my review of the play where I explain everything – including the difficulties of bringing the show back.
The most notable issues with the old-school, episodic anthology show are how you:
- Have a sting in the tail in each episode that doesn’t affect so plotting so much that a modern viewer will be bored waiting for it to arrive
- Keep viewers coming back for subsequent episodes, given that the cast are all going to be completely different and there are no recurring characters.
Peele’s solution – which he used in Weird City as well but less obviously than he does here – is to have multiple stings per episode and great guest casts. Sure, Tracy Morgan (30 Rock, The Last OG) and Kumail Nanjiani (Silicon Valley) did their thing this week and won’t be back next? Don’t worry – Adam Scott (Parks and Recreation) will be along next week, Damson Idris (Snowfall) the following week, Greg Kinnear (Rake) the week after and so on.
On top of that, he’s the host: it’s like a personal guarantee from him that the show will be up to the quality you expect of his work.
A glimpse into The Twilight ZoneAs I pointed out when reviewing Weird City, to a certain extent, there’s no point reviewing an episodic anthology show since each episode will be different. However, a single episode can usually establish the tone.
Tonally then, The Twilight Zone‘s first episode, The Comedian, recreates both the original’s style, while encapsulating Peele’s more horror-infused sensibilities. It sees Nanjiani playing an aspiring comedian whose act (which consists entirely of pointing out the Second Amendment requires a well-regulated militia) is terrible. However, one night he encounters former top-comic Morgan, and asks him for advice – which Morgan duly gives. If Nanjiani wants to succeed, he’s got to put his life into his act.
It’s not long before Nanjiani is doing just that, but he soon discovers that he’s struck a terrible Faustian pact – every time he uses part of his life for material, it disappears from his life. It starts small with his dog, but who knows how far Nanjiani is prepared to go – and whom he’s prepared to sacrifice?
Cue Jordan Peele himself taking on Rod Serling’s on-screen role of explaining how this is all taking place ‘the Twilight Zone’. Although his holding a glass of wine feels a bit more Night Gallery, don’t you think?
After that, the script (which is actually by Community‘s Alex Rubens) begins to explore what Nanjiani might be. Rather than wait the length of the episode for him to work out what’s happening, Nanjiani soons cottons on and begins to explore the parameters of his gift/curse. Can he use it to do good, perhaps? Can he send #MeToo abusers into non-existence just by talking about their crimes on stage?
Needless to say, the plot twists and the direction do manage to convey a genuine sense of encroaching horror more typical of The Outer Limits than The Twilight Zone, but match what people think The Twilight Zone should have been – and which probably works better in this day and age than the looser, often genial creation of Rod Serling.
Perhaps more interestingly, there’s no sting in the tail. There’s a resolution that’s slightly disturbing, but Peele isn’t trying to do an M Night Shyamalan – the reveal is dark, for sure, but it’s inevitable and he’s trying to make you think about the stings you’ve already seen. If anything, that’s what does match the morality plays that the old Twilight Zones used to be.
The Twilight Zone’s danger zoneNevertheless, Peele may be changing the tone of The Twilight Zone to make it more suitable for 2019’s streaming audience, but he’s very willing to homage the original, too. The first episode is littered with references to some of the most famous episodes of its predecessor, as is the second, Nightmare at 30,000 Feet, which is also a reimagining by Peele of one of the original show’s most famous episode – Richard Matheson’s Nightmare at 20,000 Feet, which itself was remade as part of The Twilight Zone: The Movie.
That should ensure that fans of the original aren’t disappointed and that new viewers aren’t expected to tolerate 1950s production values and pacing.
Nevertheless, the question remains about who will watch – and keep watching this. I liked episode one – it was decently spooky and was a good character study of a man who needed to learn to look inside himself, rather than others. I’m certainly up for episode two.
But if I don’t like it, I might not stay for episode three. Or I might just look in the schedules (don’t laugh. I might) to see if there’s anyone in later episodes I like or a writer that I like (eg Glen Morgan, who’s writing episode four) and hang around for that.
So Peele’s take on The Twilight Zone is a slightly risky gamble. I think he’s more likely of a success with it than he is with Weird City, but I still can’t quite see this causing a surge in new CBS All Access subscribers. I hope it does, though, because at the very least, it’ll mean there’s still life in the old anthology format yet. I’d be happy to be wrong about that.