Directors: Mathias Herndl, JD Dillard, Peter Atencio, Ana Lily Amirpour, Tayarisha Poe, Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead, Christina Choe, Alonso Alvarez-Barreda, Jennifer McGowan, Osgood Perkins
Cast: Jimmi Simpson, Morena Baccarin, Ethan Embry, Topher Grace, Joel McHale, Jurnee Smolett-Bell, Gretchen Mol, Jenna Elfman
Streaming on: Voot
Dropping a new season of The Twilight Zone during a pandemic is, on the face of it, a great idea. It’s eerily quiet outside, everything seems a little off-kilter and all the days blend into each other — elements of lockdown life that wouldn’t seem out of place in an episode of the show.
Jordan Peele, one of the show’s executive producers, reboots Rod Serling’s classic 1959 anthology series of the same name. Each of the original’s episodes blended elements of the fantastical and the realistic, with ordinary people finding themselves in strange situations that often concluded in the style of a morality tale. The ‘twilight zone’ is meant to be the space between the normal and the paranormal. Peele reprises Serling’s role as the narrator, establishing the premise of each episode and neatly summing it up at the end.
Leaps in VFX since the original series make for a much better visual experience, but sadly not a storytelling one. Season 1, which aired last year, was bloated in comparison to Serling’s crisp, 25-minute-long episodes. (The first episode felt the need to show us Kumail Nanjiani tell the same excruciatingly bad joke to an audience and bomb twice, instead of establishing his shaky career with more brevity). This ‘tell, don’t show’ approach persists in season 2, in which a few of the 10 episodes are pared down to around 30 minutes, but the majority run longer, with the longest at 43.
Some justify their runtime better than others — The Who Of You begins with the intriguing premise of a man who can swap bodies with strangers at will, but as the body swaps increase, the episode gets too convoluted to follow up and wears thin till its twist. Try, Try about a man stuck in a time loop, effectively utilizes the passage of time to convey the lead character’s sense of weariness and frustration. It’s also the episode that comes closest to capturing the spirit of the original — discussions on philosophy, art and the way people treat each other unravel different facets of human nature without being heavyhanded about it.
The extended episode length means that if Serling’s Twilight Zone gave you snapshots of its characters’ lives, Peele’s gives you whole, detailed arcs. While this choice gives the actors the opportunity to shine as they journey from one end of the spectrum to the other (Jurnee Smolett-Bell in Ovation and Ethan Embry in The Who Of You are standouts), the storytelling is too shallow and the messaging too on the nose to complement them. The series would’ve benefitted from more economical writing given that the episodes’ runtime is lengthened by characters having repetitive conversations or spelling out things that are easily inferred. Even the dialogue in some episodes is clunky. (Do people in real life say things like, “Don’t you dare, with that antiquated gaslighting schtick! I’m getting tired of living with a ghost who can’t be happy for my success.”?)
While the highlight of Serling’s show lay in the strength of its twists, this is where Peele flounders, failing to stick the landing in more than one episode. This is especially frustrating during the longer ones, when the expected payoff isn’t as rewarding as the build up would lead you to believe. Others are plain predictable.
The season’s final episode, You Might Also Like, is the most Black Mirror-lite, lying at the odd intersection of maternal grief and consumer purchasing patterns
The new Twilight Zone also runs the risk of being compared to Black Mirror, another show about the fragility of the human condition, whose creator was inspired by Serling’s vision. The appearance of a few familiar actors (USS Callister‘s Jimmi Simpson turns in a stupendous performance as a man who falls in love with the voice in his head in Meet In The Middle) heightens the mental connect, but only reflects unfavourably on The Twilight Zone, which misses the mark. Its final episode, You Might Also Like, is the most Black Mirror-lite. It lies at the odd intersection of maternal grief and consumer purchasing patterns and while it tries to make a point about the drive to possess unnecessary material objects, it does so unconvincingly and without much cohesion.
Fans of the original who found Peele’s season 1 lacking will no doubt feel the same way about season 2, a mixed bag of episodes with far too few good ones. Others who are just discovering the show will find that it works as an amusing diversion during the wait for the next season of Black Mirror.
The Twilight Zone season 2 is now streaming on Voot.