Skeptic, cinephile, bookworm, gamer, history buff, armchair scientist, occasional YouTuber, habitual cringe inducer, reluctant realist.
A Disappointing Reboot
The much-anticipated return of 'The Twilight Zone' is finally here, with a 2019 reboot hosted by the one and only Jordan Peele on the streaming service CBS All Access. It's a new take on an old masterpiece that, sadly, fails to live up to its predecessor in nearly every way.
The good news is that you won't be having to drop money on another streaming service at least (as if we needed another one of those anyway). The bad news, unfortunately, is that Rod Serling's beloved baby has grown up to be one of the most boring anthology series to ever hit television screens. Take it from me, I've seen a lot of them.
Where did they go wrong? What missteps were made? Well, that's what we're going to delve into today.
Rod Serling's Presentation and Delivery Were Unique
As host of this new incarnation of The Twilight Zone, Peele, to my opinion, often comes across as a bit of a poser (excuse my '90s-kid lingo).
Rod Serling was something special. He not only personally wrote over 60% of the classic Twilight Zone episodes (thus giving more weight to him delivering the show's intro and outros), but he wasn't putting on much of a show with his personality when he acted as the narrator. What you saw, was who he was. Listen to an interview with him, for instance, and you quickly see that the guy who you're hearing on the show sounds just like the guy he was in real life; same demeanor, same personality, same gravitas, and same intellect. Peele, on the other hand, seems to simply be doing a Rod Serling impression.
While he doesn't try and mimic Serling's face, chain-smoking, or exact voice (as an SNL comedian would, for instance), he does attempt to adopt Serling's natural depth, cadence, and weightiness. It's an understandable thing to do, of course, as everything from the original series, to The Outer Limits, and Unsolved Mysteries did the same with great effectiveness. But the difference here is that we all know who Peele is and have seen his personality at play. And what we're seeing on this show is not Peele (a fact that's particularly highlighted in the meta season one finale, where Peele breaks character, changing from an ominous mysterious narrator, to the modern, slang-using funnyman we're used to). The end result is that his role as the narrator doesn't feel real or organic. And, more often than not, his intros felt more like the beginning of a Twilight Zone parody rather than an actual episode.
Serling was the dour narrator and mastermind. Peele is an actor putting on a false show of eerie all-knowingness. And it's an evident enough fact that, for me, at least, snaps my suspension of disbelief in half whenever he's on-screen.
What Happened to the Classic Twist Endings?
As everyone knows, one of the most defining aspects of The Twilight Zone was its iconic twist endings. They were always clever, surprising, and ironic. And one appeared at the end of almost every episode. Most of us, upon our first viewing of the show, quickly grew to expect them with every episode and almost always tried to predict what the next one was going to be. But, regardless of how much you knew a twist was coming, they still seemed to catch you off guard when they finally arrived. It was fun, exciting, and one of the core things that made The Twilight Zone the memorable classic that it became. In fact, it's one of the things that made The Twilight Zone The Twilight Zone.
Today, the closest show to achieve anything similar to this effect is the hit Netflix series, Black Mirror (which does so beautifully). And when it was announced that a new Twilight Zone was hitting the scene, many of us naturally assumed, whether the product as a whole was good or bad, there'd at least be a new twisty-turny show in town. Sadly, however, the reboot has appeared to do away with the original's classic tradition altogether.
After watching its first 11-episodes, I can only recall two twist endings that caught my attention; or had any real twist at all. One is the aforementioned feminist episode ('Not All Me'), the other being about a crew of astronauts who may not be as stranded and alone in space as they think they are ('Six Degrees of Freedom,' which, for my money, is the only episode of this season that's even halfway worth a watch). While neither of these endings was jaw-dropping (or particularly good), at least they were an attempt. Which is more than what the rest of the episodes did.
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Too Long for Little Payoff
In 1962, right before the original Twilight Zone's fourth season, CBS demanded that each episode of the 30-minute-long series be stretched out to an hour in order to fill a timeslot left open by a recently canceled program. It wasn't a decision about which the man himself, Rod Serling, was particularly happy.
"Ours is the perfect half-hour show... If we went to an hour, we'd have to fleshen our stories, soap opera style. Viewers could watch fifteen minutes without knowing whether they were in a Twilight Zone or Desilu Playhouse," — Rod Serling
While this decision didn't completely ruin the season, the overlong episodes had undeniable problems in pacing. And it made even its best episodes have a very un-Twilight Zone feel to them. While most of the season turned out pretty good, for Twilight Zone episodes, they were some of the biggest and most forgettable duds in the bunch.
Cut to over half a century later, and CBS still hasn't learned its lesson.
Each episode of 2019's Twilight Zone is well over that old half-hour runtime; and, without great writers such as Serling, Charles Beaumont, and Richard Matheson at the helm, the pacing is more tedious than ever. The shortest of these new episodes were two that were 37 minutes in length, with the rest totaling about 45 to 55 minutes apiece.
While these long runtimes may work fairly well for an anomaly like Black Mirror (which feels more like a series of short films than long episodes), for whatever reason, it doesn't work here. You get the point of each episode very quickly and it then begins to feel like we're just biding our time, watching filler, while awaiting a twist that never comes.
The Commentary Can Be Handled Better
In this new incarnation of The Twilight Zone, we're slapped in the face with social commentary at every turn. It's blatant, ham-fisted, in-your-face, and on the nose. Worst of all? This spread of messages appears to take priority over the actual stories the messages are being conveyed through. Almost as if the writers began with a talking point and were told to quickly cobble together a plot after the fact.
Whether we agree with the messages or not, this type of writing doesn't lend itself too well to entertainment. It's a creative process more along the lines of old-time propaganda films like Reefer Madness, or those cheesy educational programs they'd show us in school, where they tried to mask learning about math in some lazily written premise about child detectives. Whether the agenda is good or bad, you can smell it at every turn. You could see too clearly what they were doing, and it would destroy any suspension of disbelief you could muster. It's as if they just want to get a message across, with little-to-no care as to whether it's a good watch.
The biggest examples include the Groundhog Day-esque racism episode, which focuses on a black mother and her son being repeatedly pulled over by a racist white cop. We have the feminist episode, which teaches us that all men have violent, sexist urges inside them and must choose to be better (no, I'm not exaggerating). The immigration episode, where a white woman from a parallel dimension is detained in our dimension for being here illegally. Then, of course, there's the episode about the a-hole little boy who becomes president; I haven't quite put my finger on what that one could be alluding to.
The on-the-nose quality of it became eye-roll-inducing very quickly. Typically, it's only a few minutes into an episode when you see what the angle is. And while I didn't always necessarily disagree with the core messages they were trying to convey, there was no mistaking the amateurishness of their delivery. There was nothing new or particularly insightful that they were trying to say. And it was never being said in a subtle or unique way that would make you think about the topics any differently than you otherwise would. Unlike something such as Black Mirror, for example, which will make you look at social media and technology from an angle you've likely never thought of before, the new Twilight Zone simply rehashes the same tired old tropes, cliche's, stereotypes, and topics we've heard time and again.
While the original Twilight Zone was rich with deep social and political commentary, those were never what lured the fans in and kept them glued to their seats. And they never beat us over the head with them either. Its messages were a medicine hidden subtly, deep within the show's subtext, made to taste palatable by how well it was masked in an entertaining story. Typically, you wouldn't even realize there was a message until after it was too late. Because medicine that tastes good is a medicine that people will take. It's a medicine that's effective. 2019's Twilight Zone, however, is a medicine that tastes like medicine.
The Series Suffers by Comparison
Other than the 1960s Twilight Zone series, one of the biggest comparisons typically made against this series (or any current sci-fi/horror anthology series) is with Netflix's Black Mirror. That series is, in many people's opinions and reviews over the years, the true spiritual heir to The Twilight Zone. It's innovative, thought-provoking, scary, clever, keeps you guessing, typically has surprising twist endings, and hidden within each episode is a unique take and new angle on the cultural perception and direction of technology and social media.
With a show like this already in existence, and already being compared to the Rod Serling masterpiece, it makes it difficult for audiences to settle for much less when something new comes along. Especially when that new thing is an actual Twilight Zone-named series, where expectations are high to begin with.
Alas, however, the new Twilight Zone not only fails to live up to the original or its spiritual successor, but even other new and lesser shows, such as Amazon's Philip K. Dick's Electric Dreams, surpass it in every way. Perhaps a few years back, when there was little-to-no competition, you could get away with a less-entertaining anthology series. Today, however, you really need to step up your game. And this series just wasn't up to the task.
It's Hard to Follow a Legend
Perhaps the biggest obstacle this reboot had to overcome was the gigantic shoes it had to fill.
Rod Serling's original Twilight Zone is a classic in both television history and science fiction history, in general. In its short 5 seasons, it gave us one episode after another that's left a lasting impact on our cultural memories, sparked our imaginations, and grown to a higher and higher legendary status with each passing year. Its impact is so large that even those unfamiliar with the show know what someone means when they say they feel like they're in The Twilight Zone. It's just that ingrained in our collective minds.
So if any show comes along with the intention of using and profiting off its powerful title, it better be sure it can withstand the comparisons and expectations that come with it. You can't half-ass it if you dare call yourself The Twilight Zone.
Living up to this name wouldn't be an easy feat even for the best of shows. Let alone one such as this, which would be a difficult watch even if it weren't trying to stick out and be seen from under such an enormous shadow. Especially when there are so many better alternatives out there.
© 2019 The Gutter Monkey