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Good Letters

“The audience doesn’t want to hear you make points,” insists Tracy Morgan in “The Comedian,” the first episode of the rebooted Twilight Zone series helmed by Jordan Peele. He might as well deliver the line with a wink, as that’s what the show has always done: critique human failings, and often, current events, in ways that are hard to ignore.

Rod Serling, executive producer of the original series, often addressed isues of social justice through the lens of horror and speculative fiction. Classic episodes “The Encounter” (starring George Takei) and “I am the Night – Color Me Black” address racism, bigotry, mob mentality, the psychological effects of war, and more. In a 1959 interview with Mike Wallace, Serling himself said wryly, “if you have the temerity to try to dramatize a theme that involves any particular social controversy currently extent, you’re in deep trouble.”

Serling’s successor is no stranger to dramatizing social controversy; in addition to being an Academy Award-winning horror auteur, as a comedian he delights in using his audience’s discomfort for a thematic purpose.

His new Twilight Zone doesn’t shock with its originality – but it’s still worth watching.

In the premiere, Kumail Nanjiani (The Big Sick) is a failing comedian; his act is based mostly on a rambling gun control monologue because he wants to express a message rather than rely on cheap tricks. After a conversation with a famous comic (Tracy Morgan), he decides to make his act much more personal. The episode encourages us to ask: what does an audience really want? And what’s the consequence of giving the audience what they ask for? (As any Twilight Zone fan knows, there’s no such thing as a free lunch.)

The story plays out in broad strokes that won’t surprise the careful viewer, and the episode ultimately plays it safe. But the pathos of Nanjiani’s emotion as he moves toward the inevitable conclusion is compelling. Even Nanjiani’s cruel choices are uncomfortably sympathetic. We’ve felt these emotions before. Would we do what he does, given the chance? It’s a classic Twilight Zone move: remind viewers that we are sometimes no better than the villain of an episode – but also, perhaps, no worse than its hero.

The second episode, “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet,” inspired by the classic episode “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” with William Shatner as a man who sees a gremlin outside his plane window. Naturally, the gremlin disappears whenever he tries to show anyone else. Adam Scott (Parks and Recreation, Ghosted) plays Justin Sanderson, a riff on Shatner’s original character. Scott, with his self-deprecating wince and small frame, excels at playing mild-mannered men in cardigans who hide just a hint of mania behind their eyes. His PTSD-suffering journalist is compulsively polite, whether talking to a fan or giving up his seat to a family on the plane. He seems to consistently remind himself to be kind, to give others the benefit of the doubt. The title of the work he’s known for is “The End of Civility.” Of course, in the Twilight Zone,the realm between shadow and light, that compulsion toward civility doesn’t last long.

Scott’s journalist moves with more quiet desperation than Shatner’s character did, and there are no gremlins here, except in a glib Easter egg. While this episode contains fewer visually imaginative moments, it is crueler. The original explored the terror of not knowing if we can trust our own senses and the contempt of those who disbelieve the victim. This spiritual sequel explores paranoia too, but with less sympathy. Can we really be sure we’re the hero? What if paranoia turns you into your own worst enemy? What prejudices lie directly underneath our conscious efforts to be “nice”? Nothing as simple as a gremlin can redeem Sanderson here, and by the last scene the story becomes callous without true emotional resonance.

There are, however, some clever moments that demonstrate how technology affects how we experience the “facts” of the world: a disturbing podcast is central to the conflict, and Sanderson pauses in the middle of creating a disturbance to see a woman live-streaming his embarrassment and desperation. He’s being watched. We’re all being watched, and our mistakes will be recorded.

In the third episode, “Replay,” Peele really brings the spirit of Serling’s social justice commentary into the modern age. Sanaa Lathan is a mother, Nina, on the way to drop her freshman son, Dorian, off at college. Nina is shocked to discover that the old handheld camcorder she’s using to film the trip – which belonged to her late father – appears to be magic. Meanwhile mother and son are pursued by a racist cop who haunts them regardless of their actions. Lathan’s performance is fantastic. Her dignity and strength – and her determination to gain control over her own life – are clear in every frame, and it makes the challenges to her control even more painful to watch. In one especially memorable scene, she tries to “humanize” herself to the officer by buying him pie, describing her love for her son, and expressing sympathy about the cop’s dead wife. Her frustration as tries to prove she and Dorian “deserve” to live free of harassment is palpable. It’s meant to discomfort the audience, and it does.

Dorian disturbs Nina when he says that since the Big Bang, there have been “particles unfolding the way they’re destined to.” “Replay” asks: are we bound by fate? Can we avoid destruction by the hate of others–even with the aid of magic? The very real specter of death hangs here. In the first scene, a ketchup spill on Dorian’s shirt echoes a bullet wound.

As with “The Comedian,” Peele paints some very broad allegorical strokes here, but the episode also asks hard questions about what happens when we answer violence with more violence–and also with complete passivity. It seems to advocate instead for the power of the brave unveiling of truth and the strength that family and human connection can give. Dorian is going to school to study film because he wants to express truth and inspire people. The episode’s overall focus on the power of that truth, and the very real danger one may face to record it, is authentic.

Ultimately Peele’s Twilight Zone may not surprise us in quite the same way that the series did half a century ago. We’re living in an era where delightfully weird TV is the norm, and we owe that, in part, to a legacy begun by the original series. But the show endures in our cultural consciousness as a battleground for humanity’s warring potential for good and evil. I hope Peele will continue to dig into the meat of our contemporary hates, shames, and embarrassments with relish.

image source: still from the original Twilight Zone series courtesy of CBS


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The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Written by: Lilianna Meldrum

Lilianna Meldrum is an English teacher and writer who lives in Rochester, New York, with her husband and two children.

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