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.
In Rod Serling’s classic 1959 anthology series of the same name, the ‘twilight zone’ referred to be space between the normal and the paranormal, each episode blending elements of the fantastical and the realistic. Ordinary characters found themselves in strange situations that often concluded in the style of a morality tale. The rebooted version, executive produced by writer-director Jordan Peele, sees him reprise 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 aired make for a much better visual experience, just not a storytelling one. Season 1 of Peele’s show, which aired last year, was bloated in comparison to Serling’s crisp, 25-minute-long episodes. (The first episode felt the need to show Kumail Nanjiani tell the same excruciatingly bad joke to an audience and bomb twice, instead of establishing his shaky stand-up 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 — 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 and art unravel different facets of human nature without any heavy-handedness. However, while The Who Of You begins with the intriguing premise of a man who can swap bodies with strangers at will, the episode gets too convoluted to follow as the body swaps increase and eventually wears thin.
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 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 characters have repetitive conversations or spell out things that are easily inferred, extending the runtime. 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.