Television

The Twist in Jordan Peele’s Twilight Zone Is There’s Not Much Jordan Peele

The Get Out and Us director hosts the CBS series, but he saved his best work for the big screen.

Jordan Peele in The Twilight Zone.
Jordan Peele in The Twilight Zone.
Alex Vincent/CBS

In the new The Twilight Zone, now streaming on CBS All Access, a boy discovers a mysterious object, a kind of lo-fi storytelling device. It’s old, a little worse for the wear, but the stories it tells are strange and fascinating. They root themselves in the boy’s mind, influencing him, changing him. As he ages, he begins to tell stories himself, to great success and acclaim. Though he is now a grown man, accomplished and busy, he still thinks of the object. He becomes convinced that the object is worth trying to re-create so that others may be entranced by it. A team of hundreds is assembled to remake the device, but this proves extraordinarily difficult. Eventually, there is a breakthrough: The device appears to work in a very specific dimension, a hard-to-reach corner of space-time that only a few human beings are able to access. The stories only play, in other words, when almost no one is watching them. But the man remains committed to the object even so, even though it can only play in … the Twilight Zone.

This is not actually a synopsis of any one episode of the newly rebooted Twilight Zone so much as an eerified description of the entire project. Jordan Peele, one of the series’ producers, watched reruns of The Twilight Zone as a child. He has cited “Mirror Image,” an episode in which a woman encounters her double in a bus depot, as inspiring Us, his just-released, hugely lucrative, critically acclaimed horror film, which followed the hugely lucrative, critically acclaimed Get Out. Peele, at this exact moment, is America’s most exciting filmmaker, a pop sage with a huge amount to say and the energy and care to say it entertainingly—whom you can now also find doing deadpan narration on the outer limits of streaming services. Peele appears as the Narrator in the new, yet still old-fashioned, Twilight Zone, which, despite actually having Jordan Peele in it, does not have nearly enough Jordan Peele in it.

The new Twilight Zone is extremely liminal, betwixt and between platforms and eras. Rod Serling’s 1950s anthology series took on heady issues that were rarely discussed openly on television at the time—like xenophobia and racism—by disguising them in sci-fi and fantasy. In the years since, there have been a number of attempts to make chilling anthology series whose episodes each end with a freaky twist, including Steven Spielberg’s Amazing Stories (soon to rebooted by Apple), two previous failed remakes of The Twilight Zone, two runs of The Outer Limits, Serling’s own Night Gallery, the deeply mediocre Philip K. Dick–inspired series Electric Dreams, and The Twilight Zone’s only truly successful descendant, Black Mirror. As this list demonstrates, a betting person would not bet on the quality of a series like this, but the current reboot seemed to arrive at a moment that boosted its odds: In a post-Trump world, aren’t we all living in The Twilight Zone?

Unfortunately, the pertinent question to ask about the new Twilight Zone has less to do with political reality and more with the streaming landscape: In our post-Netflix timeline, isn’t all IP worth rebooting? The new Twilight Zone boasts a starry, extremely diverse cast that includes Peele himself, who pops up at the beginning and end of every episode, like Serling, to supply a bit of deadpan narration for a bunch of perfectly adequate episodes that range in quality from pretty OK to bad. Kumail Nanjiani stars in the first episode as a stand-up comic who starts to metaphorically “kill” onstage by literally killing: After he does comedy about someone or something, it’s as if that person or thing never existed. It’s a solid setup that goes where you’re expecting, elevated only by Nanjiani’s palpable desperation. And it’s much better than the very predictable and dragged-out second episode—the only one Peele has a story credit on—“Nightmare at 30,000 Feet,” which is less like the classic Twilight episode from which it takes its name than it is “The Appointment in Samarra” on an airplane with a podcast.

The best of the bunch is the third episode, which stars Sanaa Lathan as a mother driving her son to college. En route, she discovers that hitting rewind on an old-fashioned camcorder causes time itself to rewind. Though this plot is straight out of an Adam Sandler movie, it’s used for an entirely different purpose: to aid her as she and her son are plagued by a white cop hellbent on detaining and destroying them. The episode contains a hammy climatic speech, but the dread and horror it conveys are real. Lathan’s character has to live through traumas over and over again, inhabiting a universe, just like ours, where the elemental wish to be able to change things, avoiding catastrophe, provides no joy. There isn’t magic strong enough to best virulent racism.

If this sounds dark, it is, but Peele, in an interview with the New York Times, was clear that the series is not trying to be all-out, Black Mirror dark. “We take ourselves seriously but never too seriously,” he said. “It can’t go so dark that it makes us want to curl up in a ball.” But these are extremely dark times, and Twilight Zone’s gentler vibe, while perhaps in keeping with the original, gives the production a distinctly network tone. The producers of Twilight Zone approached Peele after seeing Get Out, which seemed to them like a kind of Twilight Zone episode in and of itself. I know exactly what they mean—the better version of Jordan Peele’s The Twilight Zone is already playing at the movies.