“The Twilight Zone” was an idea machine. Led by prolific creator Rod Serling and his adventurous storytelling recruits, the episodic sci-fi anthology delighted and challenged viewers with its active creative ambitions and willingness to embrace taboo topics. But, despite first wrapping in 1964, “The Twilight Zone” didn’t go anywhere. The machine was self-sustaining, inspiring everything from ’80s and early aughts revivals to fresh original series like Fox’s “The X-Files” and HBO’s “Room 104.” Serling’s “dimension of imagination” never closed; just like the weekly episodes kept changing into something new, the series developed fresh for each new generation.
So the excitement surrounding the revived 2019 “Twilight Zone” isn’t really about resurrecting the old show. Sure, the eerie opening music and playful approach to ghastly one-off stories may trigger a touch of nostalgia for some, but what’s driving interest in the third official entry in the franchise is the same thing that gripped people from the get-go: who’s manning the machine, and what he hopes to do with it. Right now, it’s hard to picture a more ideal Serling stand-in than Jordan Peele, and after four episodes, it’s clear the sketch comedian turned horror auteur recognizes the power and opportunities within this template. His “Twilight Zone” (along with co-producer Simon Kinberg) is thoughtful, personal, and aggressive in its mission to expand our perspectives. And so far, it’s a more than worthy follow-up.
Though at times more somber than it needs to be, the CBS All Access edition can also be playful in construction and tone. Take the first episode, “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet.” A spinoff of sorts from the William Shatner-starring Season 5 episode, “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” the homage illustrates many of the facets that made the original so successful without turning into a redundant repetition of its story. For one, it’s only a half-hour long, just like four of the five original seasons. For another, it’s built around an inventive mystery the audience solves along with the episode’s lead, Adam Scott. Without getting into spoilers — and be wary of learning too much, as half the fun of these sort of anthology series is discovering what genre, star, and story will be served up each week — “Nightmare” quickly builds a boundless universe within a contained space, populates it with curious characters, and builds to a satisfying crescendo.
These were all staples of the original series, and they’re dutifully resurrected in 2019. As is the nature of starting over each week, not all episodes are created equal. One of the first two entries, “The Comedian,” is the weakest of the first four, though even its predictable path and plodding pace come with the benefit of Kumail Nanjiani’s nuanced performance and a moral message worth dwelling on. Episode 3, “Replay,” is more judicious with its hourlong structure, amping up the relevance, reality, and representation inherent to Serling’s politically-minded pieces. (Plus, “Shots Fired’s” Sanaa Lathan and “Snowfall’s” Damson Idris are the definition of dream casting for any devout TV fan.)
And here’s where Peele’s “Twilight Zone” really starts to define itself. While the 2019 team is happy to go off on a plot-driven joyride when the twists and turns are tight enough, most episodes are focused on message. That’s not to say they sacrifice narrative, so much as they recognize the genius of Serling’s setting. Yes, each narrative takes place in an alternate dimension, but they’re still telling stories to a real audience in the real world who will bring their own reality to the proceedings. Serling could bypass the limitations of typical television, like censorship and self-parroting, by moving to a new topic and temperament each week, allowing him to explore whatever mattered most as he was writing. Peele latches onto a similar mentality while shifting between moral lessons on the cost of fame, to being black in America, to a world imprisoned by its borders.
Peele and Kinberg select their cast and crew with an eye toward highlighting under-heralded talent. Steven Yeun gets to sing Christmas karaoke, but that same episode introduces us to the excellent Marika Sila. Adam Scott gets to show why his serious side is just as charming as his comedy chops, but Chris Diamantopoulos steals every second he’s on screen. Meanwhile, Episode 4, “A Traveler” is directed by “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night’s” Ana Lily Amirpour and “Replay” is written by New York Times essayist-turned-screenwriter Selwyn Seyfu Hinds. These producers aren’t hiring people to execute a predetermined vision — as often happens in TV — but hiring people with exciting perspectives to bring their own visions to life.
Peele is clearly an artist with many ideas. Setting aside the bursting realms within “Us,” he also launched a more comedic spin on “Twilight Zone” earlier this year: “Weird City” is like YouTube’s funny red tether to CBS All Access’ aboveground counterpart. Yet there’s room in this world for both shows, and clearly a demand for as many stories as Peele can produce. “The Twilight Zone” isn’t a filtered down version of the original, nor of its narrator’s own work. Peele’s stamp is all over it, but so are the many welcome imprints of various writers, directors, and stars. It’s an inclusive space as much as a creative one, making the 2019 “Twilight Zone” a new machine built to last.
“The Twilight Zone” premieres its first two episodes Monday, April 1 on CBS All Access. Subsequent entries will debut every Thursday, starting April 11.