Through adapting tales like “Time Enough at Last,” “It’s a Good Life,” and “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” the 1959-1964 television anthology The Twilight Zone made itself an indelible part of American pop culture. There have been multiple attempts to revive the show over the decades, but none of those reboots have garnered a fraction of the acclaim of the original. The latest revival, which started last year and released its second season online this past weekend, is no exception, receiving mixed-leaning-positive reviews at best. This is disappointing, since the new Twilight Zone comes courtesy of executive producer Jordan Peele, whose ethos of socially conscious genre storytelling is similar to that of the original show’s creator Rod Serling.
But though he hosts and narrates each episode as Serling did on the original, Peele has little direct involvement in this version, merely writing one episode per season. Serling, in contrast, kept a strong guiding hand on the first Twilight Zone, writing the majority of its episodes and infusing the show with his brand of moralism, as well as commentary on public life that was groundbreaking at the time. Lacking anyone to provide it with such a vision, this new Twilight Zone has faltered more often than not.
Particularly during its first season, the show felt like a parody of Twilight Zone concepts rather than one attempting its own thing. (What if we updated ‘Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,’ but instead of a gremlin on the plane, the protagonist was warning everyone about a weird podcast?) It also doesn’t help that the new show only has 10 episodes a season to work with, which doesn’t leave an anthology format with much of a margin of error. It wasn’t a big deal for the original to produce some duds among 20- or 30-odd installments each year, but if half of a season dropped all at once for binge-watching isn’t up to snuff, then the whole endeavor can seem miscalculated.
But issues aside, the new Twilight Zone has been able to produce some great stories. Season 2 feels less self-conscious about its status in this franchise, and more willing to simply be itself. In “The Who of You,” an out-of-work actor develops the ability to swap bodies with others and tries to rob a bank, leading to a supremely fun game of cat and mouse with a police detective (though the ending is more Outer Limits than traditional Twilight Zone, going for dark over anyone getting poetic comeuppance). In “A Small Town,” a church janitor discovers that any changes he makes to a scale model of his town are manifested in reality, only for the unscrupulous mayor to take credit for all the improvements he makes (a canny commentary on how society runs on the back of an invisible underclass). The best episode is “Try, Try,” in which a cute spontaneous date takes a dark turn when the woman learns that the man is caught in a time loop and has been using it to learn everything about her to try to make her fall in love with him (Groundhog Day, but as a treatise on stalking).
And even the lesser entries in the new season are pretty easy to digest, since most episodes run only half an hour and don’t feel stretched out the way so many in the first season did. “8” is a purposefully absurd ’50s-style creature feature about scientists at an Antarctic research station being stalked by a malevolent super-intelligent octopus. “Among the Downtrodden” is a supernatural spin on the high school mean girl genre with a final twist that fully embodies the Twilight Zone spirit.
The best episode of the new Twilight Zone to date remains Season 1’s “Replay,” written by Selwyn Seyfu Hinds and directed by Gerard McMurray. In it, a woman played by Sanaa Lathan is taking her son to college, but they are menaced by a racist state trooper. Lathan’s character learns that she can rewind time with her old video camera, and uses this power to try to prevent disaster, only for the police officer to persist in antagonizing them (or worse) with each redo. The story cannily explores how institutional racism acts as a kind of deterministic force, and reflects on both the possibilities and limits of how technology can help people combat injustice. It embodies the potential the Twilight Zone format still holds, even in the modern age. If this new iteration of the show can figure out a way to produce more episodes on that level, it could more than live up to the legacy of the original.