The Twilight Zone Has Been Hitting Us Over the Head a Little Too Hard

Though Rod Serling’s original Twilight Zone explored fears that are still potent today (personal ruin, sinister invaders, self-aware ventriloquist dummies), his show’s obviously a product of the past. Jordan Peele’s new version, however, couldn’t be more of the moment—which has proven to be both a strength and a weakness.

If you haven’t watched through last week’s episode, “Six Degrees of Freedom,” you get one of these:

Steven Yeun in “The Traveler.”
Photo: Robert Falconer (CBS)

The CBS All Access series has streamed five episodes so far: “The Comedian,” “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet,” “Replay,” “A Traveler,” “The Wunderkind,” and “Six Degrees of Freedom.” I’ve already written a bit about the first two episodes, but now that we’re a little deeper into the season it’s easier to look at the bigger picture the show has been painting.

Something that got everyone excited about this Twilight Zone—besides Peele’s involvement as creator and host—was the incredible cast Peele and company pulled together. As expected, that’s been one of the absolute highlights of the anthology series, with a strong array of actors that are both established talents (including Kumail Nanjiani, Adam Scott, Sanaa Lathan, Greg Kinnear, and John Cho) and emerging stars.

Each episode, no matter the theme of its particular story, has also been cast with an eye toward inclusion. Like most TV shows of its era, the original series was by and large populated with white actors, with just a few exceptions—like 1960’s boxing tale “The Big Tall Wish,” whose primarly African American cast was considered groundbreaking at the time. Here, the cast feels like an unforced, natural reflection of America today, which fits with The Twilight Zone’s objective of holding a seriously cracked mirror up to everyday life.

Sometimes, it works. Peele exposed (and roasted) racism to great effect on Key & Peele as well as, obviously, in Get Out, and it’s a recurring theme here. It can be a more casual aspect of a character’s development: Adam Scott’s fearful flyer in “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet” racially profiles some of his fellow passengers when he’s in panic mode, and in “The Traveler,” Greg Kinnear’s small-town Alaska sheriff has some less-than-respectful things to say about his indigenous neighbors. But racism plays a major part in “Replay,” about an African American mother (Lathan) and her college-bound son (Damson Idris) who are relentlessly tormented by a white cop (Glenn Fleshler). The mom has an old-school video camera that lets her magically rewind time, but no matter what she does, every scenario ends in tragedy until she cracks her self-imposed time loop and—for once—The Twilight Zone lets love prevail.

Damson Idris and Glenn Fleshler in “Replay.”
Photo: Robert Falconer (CBS)

“Replay,” which is also about facing your past so you can turn around and embrace the future, gets a little heavy-handed in its third act, a problem that also plagues “A Traveler.”

That episode, which pays homage to vintage Twilight Zone’s “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” stars Steven Yeun as a mysterious figure who materializes inside a locked jail cell amid a police station’s annual Christmas party. He claims to be an extreme tourist visiting isolated Alaska for his YouTube channel, but soon proves to be more interested in manipulating everyone around him. As paranoia drives the townspeople to violence, the strange visitor is even able to convince a skeptical young deputy (Marika Sila) that the irresponsible boss she already dislikes (Kinnear) is in cahoots with Russian spies. The social media that’s specifically referenced isn’t Twitter, and nobody actually says “fake news,” but the implications are crystal clear, even when it’s eventually revealed that Yeun’s character is a space alien.

“It’s aliens!” is a go-to Twilight Zone twist, and it popped up again just two weeks later in my favorite episode so far, “Six Degrees of Freedom,” another tale of information disruption that unfolds in outer space. The reveal is actually the least interesting thing about that episode, which is otherwise a fascinating psychological study of what would happen if a mission to Mars blasted off just as nuclear war started annihilating Earth’s population. “Six Degrees,” which is anchored by a stellar ensemble led by DeWanda Wise, is also a testament to the show’s set designers, who generally nail it every week but make especially great use of the space ship’s claustrophobic (yet sometimes weirdly cozy) confines.

But one satisfying episode of The Twilight Zone, which has consistently great production values (as well as those excellent casts doing some genuinely effective acting), isn’t enough to balance out the show’s major problem so far. It’s surfaced in every episode but “Wunderkind” has suffered the most, with an intriguing general premise being weighed down by story beats that forego any semblance of nuance.

It’s about a kid (Jacob Tremblay) who actually is a YouTube star, not a wandering alien this time, whose popular uploads catch the attention of a down-on-his-luck campaign manager (John Cho) who decides he can turn a social media sensation into America’s next president. Does it work? Of course it does. Does the preteen POTUS, elected for being a plain-spoken hero with very limited smarts who appeals to “regular folks,” turn out to be a tiny tyrant who insists on getting his way no matter what? Of course he does. There’s even a golf scene, as if “Wunderkind” needed to further underline its wafer-thin metaphor about the leader of the free world being a spoiled brat.

In the Rod Serling days, Twilight Zone stories usually focused more on teaching moral lessons to each episode’s characters—lessons they often didn’t realize they were learning until the very last scene. The lessons were broad enough to be universally applicable on some level, but part of the fun for viewers was trying to figure out the twist, as well as realizing how awesome it was not to be trapped in the horrifying, fantastical dilemmas that the characters end up in. Peele’s version holds onto some of that, but “Wunderkind” in particular seems more interested in teaching an all-too-familiar lesson to the audience, rather than its characters. And for what it’s worth, it’s legitimately depressing to be reminded that we can’t just flip the channel from the real-life Twilight Zone we occupy in 2019.

Jordan Peele as the Narrator in “Six Degrees of Freedom”
Photo: Robert Falconer (CBS)
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