In the original Twilight Zone, bad things happened to a lot of men. For the most part, those dudes were victims of circumstance. When William Shatner got on that plane in “Terror at 20,000 Feet” he didn’t ask for a gremlin to be sitting on the wing. Similarly, it’s not like the guy who gets put in the alien zoon in “People Are Alike All Over,” was really at fault. But now, with the release of Jordan Peele’s reimagined version of The Twilight Zone on CBS, things are different. The main characters of the first two new episodes of the reboot aren’t victims of circumstance; they are creators of circumstance. The show has become karmic and male characters seem to be taking the brunt of that Peelian twist.
Let’s back up for a second. Here’s the good news about The Twilight Zone: It doesn’t suck. It’s actually pretty good. The purists may not dig it, but Jordan Peele works brilliantly as the new narrator, channeling Rod Serling without trying too hard. And the scripts are tight. But, the most interesting thing about the first episodes is the way they interrogate the arrogance of seemingly nice men. (BTW, it’s spoiler time if you care.)
Part of this comes from the casting. Both episodes star male actors who audiences are used to seeing in likable roles. In “The Comedian,” Kumail Nanjiani plays a down-on-his-luck standup comedian named Samir who can make people disappear by mentioning them on stage. Nanjiani, best known from The Big Sick, scans as a good guy, which is what makes his long day’s journey into douchebaggery all the more jarring.
Initially, he’s horrified by his ability, but before too long he’s embraced it. He looks up people online who wronged him in high school, makes a joke about them and then — poof — erases them from existence. To be used for material is to be used up. I know this sounds like an object lesson in what happens when men lust for power or fame; it isn’t. It’s a parable about pettiness. By the end of the episode, Samir has warped his own reality so thoroughly, that nearly everyone he once knew is gone. He is alone — as many men are — his loneliness is just literal. Women watching the episode might be less disturbed. Broad strokes, it’s about a guy turning into a dick. But men will recognize the specificity of the critique. It’s uncomfortable. That’s the point.
The second new Twilight Zone episode is called “Terror at 30,000 Feet” and it’s a near remake of that Shatner gremlin episode called “Terror at 20,000 Feet.” With this one, the Zone swaps Shatner for Adam Scott, beloved for Parks and Recreation and literally everything else he’s been in. But, just like with “The Comedian,” this episode turns a victim-of-circumstance story inward, placing the blame firmly on the man at the center of the story.
Scott plays a hot-shit investigative journalist named Justin, who is (big premise) listening to a podcast that is telling him his future. Inspired and maybe a little bit racist, he assumes that the sleeping woman of color can’t possibly be the Air Marshal, and that, of course, the hard-drinking white dude who complimented his writing, must be his comrade in arms. An unfortunate bromance ensues and knocks over the first domino. From there, things go haywire. In the final scenes, we see Justin’s world destroyed. And it feels very much his fault.
Just before the character meets his demise, we see a little doll-version of that ‘60s gremlin William Shatner saw on the wing of his plane, in the old Twilight Zone. It feels like in this moment, Peele is saying something about our nostalgia. Here’s this thing, a monster that haunted a macho-man of the past, but now, it’s just some toy floating in the water. It’s innocuous but the man isn’t. The monster is no longer on the wing, he’s in the plane. It’s more plausible and truer and more frightening.
Peele, who followed his megahit first film Get Out with the current critical darling Us, has a sketch writer’s interest in set-ups, but his perversity invariably wins out over his desire for resolution. Whereas the original Zone used story structure to ape dream logic, Peele uses story structure to provide himself with opportunities to create and subsequently mismanage expectations. Rod Serling was, famously, a difficult man. Jordan Peele appears to be a nice guy, but his work asks you to question that premise. There’s preternatural cruelty to his vision that makes his creations magnetic — they both attract and repel. This wouldn’t work if he caricatured swaggering masculinity, but he doesn’t. He reflects it for the pig-faced buffoonery it often is.
Neither of the characters in these stories feels fake. What happens to them is fantastic, and magical and a little bit sci-fi. That’s the razzle-dazzle of Jordan Peele’s new Twilight Zone. The choices feel scarily real even if the premises are high concept. This isn’t a show about men seeing themselves in the haunting twilight; it’s a show about revelation in the harsh light of day.
The new Twilight Zone drops new episodes every Monday on CBS All-Access.