“The Twilight Zone” is a beast to write about. On the one hand, the original series is so ingrained in shaping popular culture that to ignore it is all but impossible; if “The Simpsons” didn’t do it first, “The Twilight Zone” almost certainly did. On the other hand, the goal of a reboot is to simultaneously entice fans who didn’t watch the original as well as honor what came before. How do you bridge the two spectrums with a show so iconic as to be all but crystallized in time?
The first season of the Jordan Peele-produced remake had its bright spots, but it also suffered from coming after “Black Mirror,” which, as a “Twilight Zone” acolyte, had already said so much about relationships and technology. Many of the same problems that plagued Season 1 of “The Twilight Zone” reboot remain in Season 2, despite one episode that blows them all away.
The main issue that continues to be a sticking point is the length. For a majority of the history of “The Twilight Zone,” episodes were around 25 minutes — with the exception of Season 4 in 1963, when they were extended to 45 minutes or so to fill a pre-selected timeslot. That fourth season received a mixed critical reaction, and it remains a controversial element of the new series.
In some cases, an extended runtime can help, particularly in the case of this season’s third episode, entitled “You Might Also Like.” Surprisingly, of the three episodes screened in advance for critics, the Osgood Perkins-directed installment is the shortest and uses its 40-minute runtime effectively, as to leave you begging for more. It’s unclear how long the other seven episodes are, but it’d be nice to see more consistency in the runtimes this season; Season 1 saw episodes hit nearly an hour before eventually leaning closer to 30 minutes.
The premiere, “Meet in the Middle” — written by Emily Chang and Sarah Amini, and directed by Mathias Herndl — seems heavily inspired by film noirs, particularly “Double Indemnity.” Jimmi Simpson plays a man unable (or unwilling) to connect with women because they fail to live up to his high standards. But when he starts hearing the voice of an unknown woman named Annie (voiced by Gillian Jacobs), he wonders if he’s truly found his ideal mate.
Chang and Amini have a solid foundation for this episode with Simpson’s Phil being the type of guy who bemoans the fact that all women are vapid and shallow, yet doesn’t care that he acts standoffish and creepy, at one point criticizing a prospective date for not having curly hair like in her profile. If you’ve seen Simpson in “Westworld,” his Phil has several parallels. This episode isn’t nearly as long as Season 1’s premiere, “The Comedian” and that’s to its benefit, especially when Phil is our main source of physical connection.
That being said, this is Gillian Jacobs’ episode, even though she doesn’t appear for the majority of it. As the voice in Phil’s head, Jacobs evokes a cool, warm presence. You can understand why any man would gravitate toward her, and while the scenario plays out a bit too much like “Her,” you want her to be happy. Meanwhile, as the episode shows but never overtly states, Phil kinda sucks. His obsession and entitlement starts to take over, and it’s a shame that the episode ends on more a noirish finale, as it undercuts Phil’s clear desire to own Annie.
Similarly to “Meet in the Middle” is the second episode, “The Who of You.” Directed by Peter Atencio, who’d worked on the Jordan Peele-starring feature “Keanu,” and written by series executive producer Win Rosenfeld, it’s the story of a struggling actor, Harry (played by Ethan Embry) who, in his attempt to rob a bank, realizes he can jump into the bodies of others by looking them in the eye. The premise is highly compelling, especially as Harry jumps into the bodies of a police officer, an Asian barista, a Latina, and eventually a Black psychic played by Billy Porter.
It’s assumed “The Who of You” would be a remake of the segment in 1983’s “Twilight Zone: The Movie,” “Time Out,” wherein a racist learns the error of his ways by inhabiting the bodies of others. Instead, we just watch Harry chase the money he’s stolen from the bank by inhabiting others. He never spends time in one body long enough to interact with others or really learn anything from spending time within them.
It’s a 45-minute episode of “Hot Potato” and, with no real depth, it becomes a gimmick that overstays its welcome. Billy Porter is the highlight and gives a great monologue that would hint at checking Harry’s privilege, but the final frames seem to either lightly enforce that or ignore it entirely. “The Twilight Zone” doesn’t have to have a message with every episode, but a setup like this all but demands it. Ending where it does seems to say something about race, but doesn’t want to say it (or it realized it didn’t say it enough in the subsequent 44-minutes of runtime.)
What might go down as the best episode in the entire reboot’s run is “You Might Also Like.” There are connections, both overt and subtle, to the original series throughout the entire episode, making it one of the few episodes to benefit from repeat viewings. Gretchen Mol plays Janet Warren, a mother and wife living in some form of dystopian society where everyone is preparing for the arrival of their own individual “Egg.” What is it? No one knows, aside from the fact that it’s advertised as making “everything better again. And this time, it’s forever.”
The technical prowess of this episode is unlike the previous two, including complex costume and makeup effects. But at its heart, Perkins tells a story about our struggles to make America great again — free of partisan politics — and how that often ends up being to our detriment. Mol draws from other “Twilight Zone” characters, giving us a woman who has suffered personal loss. While others are finding happiness in materials, Janet knows she’ll never be able to replace what she lost. By the time the final frame comes around, with narrator Jordan Peele delivering one of the best outros, you’ll realize “You Might Also Like” is the timeliest episode of television around.
A majority of the episodes remain unseen, so I can’t accurately judge how well the season will turn out as a whole. These episodes certainly feel more strongly written than Season 1, and if the editing tightens up like it did before, these new entries could be amazing. It’ll be hard for any other episode to be better than “You Might Also Like,” though, which is a pure masterpiece.
“The Twilight Zone” Season 2 premieres all 10 episodes Thursday, June 25 on CBS All Access.