TV has been trying to recapture the magic of “The Twilight Zone” for decades. Since it went off the air for the first time in 1964, the CBS anthology series that merged horror with humanity has been revived twice — in the 1980s and in the early 2000s. Lately, the series’ formula, pasting genre tropes over a rigorous and somewhat didactic moral position, has been adapted by “Black Mirror,” the Netflix series whose vision of a technology-addled near future is pessimistic enough to make the late Rod Serling, the show creator whose grimly ironic presence opened and closed “Twilight Zone” episodes, seem practically sunny.
In the wake of “Black Mirror’s” success comes a fourth “Twilight Zone,” this one led by Jordan Peele, who executive produces and assumes Serling’s role as narrator. Peele, who with the films “Get Out” and “Us” has proven a masterfully inventive surveyor of the American scene, would seem to be a creative force, perhaps the only one, who could match his talents to what had made “The Twilight Zone” work.
And yet Peele’s “Twilight Zone” feels neither like the best of Peele nor much like “The Twilight Zone.” It’s a mismatch of talents that, in the four episodes provided to critics, falls short of justifying its presence on air in 2019 as anything but flavorless homage to what had worked previously.
Consider the premises of the first episodes — presented in spoiler-light fashion, given the degree to which they thrive on the closing revelation. In one installment, Kumail Nanjiani plays a comedian presented with a Faustian bargain (in shows like this one, is there any other kind?), achieving increasing fame for exposing personal details even as fundamental aspects of his life fade away. Elsewhere, Sanaa Lathan is a woman possessed of a magical camcorder that enables her to rewind her life to a time before acts of police brutality are committed, in new ways each time despite her best attempts, against her son (Damson Idris). The episode with the least to say about anything but itself is a suspenseful creature feature starring Steven Yeun as a mysterious visitor to a small Alaska police station on Christmas Eve; it has a bit of “X-Files” energy, if less ambition to do more than surprise. And a classic “Twilight Zone” episode starring William Shatner as an airline passenger who is the one person able to see the gremlin destroying the plane comes in for a reimagining. This time — in the sole episode of the first four on which Peele has a writing credit — Adam Scott is the traveler who alone can see the danger coming his way, and his vision comes via glimpses not of a monster but of a magically prophetic true-crime podcast.
This detail — that Scott’s character learns of his flight’s coming crash through a medium that’s about as in vogue as it gets in 2019 — at least evinces a sense of the world in which we’re living, as does the confessional-comedy mode that makes Nanjiani’s character a star in his installment. But these episodes have precious little to say about investigative podcasts or about contemporary comedy beyond acknowledging they exist: These facts of life are simple jumping-off points for macabre and laboriously built stories that end with a tidy, cruel joke. The formula is reversed with Lathan’s episode, which uses bizarrely anachronistic tech, a camcorder, to gesture toward a bleeding-edge conclusion about the need to fight back against state-sanctioned violence. Even so, the show, with its unrelenting reliance on schematics, moving from narrative jolt to narrative jolt, never allows a moment of pain or catharsis to breathe. Peele’s episode-ending speeches tend to rely on cant and cliché (as when he announces that the point of Scott’s airborne ordeal is that “the flight path to hell is paved with good intentions”); they have the shape of a moral takeaway, but no charge or insight.
This bears little resemblance to “Black Mirror,” which, for all its flaws, has often-sharp things to say about our modern world and tends to say them with élan, placing performance and direction ahead of pure scripted exposition. Nor does it look like the original “Twilight Zone,” which moved at its own strange rhythm. Twenty-five-minute episodes might possess about half as much story. These vignettes allowed for suspense to take root and for connections between the sci-fi world on-screen and ours — often fairly obvious ones — to seem as if they sprouted organically from the viewer’s mind. At double the length but with many times as much narrative, these new episodes seem hell-bent on providing more entertainment, forgetting that part of what makes the original Serling series work is that its stories can be communicated in a logline. The ur-example of a classic “Twilight Zone” episode summary might be “The aliens want to ‘serve’ man — on a plate.” It was a single well-executed twist we’ve been talking about for decades. The details of these new episodes, by contrast, float away quickly.
Part of why those old episodes had such an impact was the way they were transmitted — airing back when a CBS broadcast guaranteed an enormous chunk of whomever was watching television. The three-channel era can’t be reclaimed, and that its replacement has granted us artistically ambitious programming unimaginable in the late 1950s should nearly go without saying. But Serling-era TV had figured out a way to seed a simple story with enough barbs to stick in millions of individual minds. His series, meant for a mass audience, brought to brief and light teleplays an untrammeled idiosyncrasy.
Peele’s “Twilight Zone,” intended to entice the public to try out a niche streaming service, is tasked with doing the opposite: Taking the specific sensibilities of Serling and of Peele himself and sanding them down to the point where their stories are little more than broadly appealing campfire tales. To be sure, their power is sapped in part because they don’t have the broadcasting power of 1950s CBS: Many of the sins of the first “Twilight Zones” are probably elided even by the most Serling-neutral of critics due to that show’s place in the firmament of American iconography. (Though it’s very good, it’s also come to be something beyond good or bad.) But the greatest blow to the power of the new “Twilight Zone” is self-inflicted. Even with a vastly diminished megaphone, it ought to have found something worth saying.
Executive Producers: Jordan Peele, Simon Kinberg, Win Rosenfeld, Audrey Chon, Glen Morgan, Carol Serling, Rick Berg and Greg Yaitanes.
Cast: Jordan Peele, Ike Barinholtz, Zazie Beetz, John Cho, Chris Diamantopoulos, Lucinda Dryzek, Taissa Farmiga, Glenn Fleshler, James Frain, Betty Gabriel, Ginnifer Goodwin, Zabryna Guevara, Steve Harris, Percy Hynes-White, Damson Idris, Greg Kinnear, Luke Kirby, John Larroquette, Sanaa Lathan, Tracy Morgan, Kumail Nanjiani, Seth Rogen, Adam Scott, Rhea Seehorn, China Shavers, Marika Sila, Allison Tolman, Erica Tremblay, Jacob Tremblay, Jefferson White, Jonathan Whitesell, Jessica Williams, DeWanda Wise and Steven Yeun