Ten days ago CBS dropped the first episodes of the revitalized The Twilight Zone on their all-access service. I wanted to talk about them together here, but they’re both so meaty that I think I need to separate it. I have a lot to say about each one, both good and bad, and they have to be separated. Just a heads-up.
So I adore Kumail Nanjiani. His standup is hilarious, his podcast appearances are always insightful and interesting, and the first film he wrote was a fun and romantic look at how he met his wife. Things like this just draw someone in, they endear you to an individual and help you feel comfortable with the slices of life they present. Few people have a story as wondrous and charming as Kumail, let alone write a film about it so the world can see just how much he loves his wife. Nanjiani’s work has been solid for years, and it’s this charm that showrunner Jordan Peele weaponizes to pull people into his new version of The Twilight Zone.
The first episode follows the life of a comedian, Samir Wassan, and his attempts to follow his dreams to become one of the premier names in stand-up. When he meets a legend after a tragically bad set he discovers that he has been gifted with the power to make people laugh by talking about specific individuals from his life. Only side-affect? The individuals are removed from existence after the set.
A simple premise, but one that begins to have consequences. This is standard for the brand, asking us to consider what we would do with the same ability. It’s straightforward, darkly hilarious, and disturbing. His jokes aren’t even funny, each one being either a political rant that constantly fails or just small stories insulting people from his life. The more that disappear, the more he develops a reputation for throwing people under the bus for a laugh. Eventually he stops even trying to be funny, just throwing out names to wipe people he dislikes from existence. It’s a contemplation piece on ego and the idea of absolute power, but placed into the isolated world of a comedy club.
The performances are confident and honest, with Nanjiani seemingly drawing from his own experiences. We also have Tracy Morgan serving as legend JC Wheeler, a character that seems to have disappeared into the ether and serves as a living representation of the Twilight Zone itself. He’s playing a comic that vanished from the limelight and has shown back up in a darker role, tempting others with advice. Both of these roles are openly drawing from real life experience to do something wonderful with the portrayals and I think both are fantastic. Across the board are wonderful performances, people who are chewing scenery and going over-the-top to stick landings for each scene without stumbling.
But let’s talk length. This one clocks in at 55 minutes and it feels like a journey. We’ve been told that these episodes are going to vary in duration, lasting just long enough to convey the story they are meant to. This one just feels too long. I get that they wanted to open with a longer episode, to drop in with something more impressive and establish the show as something to behold, but there are moments in the middle act that just drag. It’s confident, but it lacks proper execution. There’s a story in here that could justify the length, but I don’t think they pulled it off completely.
That said, Jordan Peele is a confident host for the show and what he’s doing is impressive. There have been attempts to bring the brand back for decades, and at long last someone has pulled it off in a way that may have been lengthy but it’s interesting and charmed me. I’ve missed the idea of a multi-faceted horror show. When I was a kid, The Twilight Zone was one of the first shows that grabbed my attention and really made me sit back and think of how I considered the world I lived in, the culture I was part of, and the people that inhabited my life. Despite length and pacing issues, this episode was a confident and strong leap out of the gate that left me wanting more. I was impressed by the awkward comedic strength of it, the desperate self-destruction that is so much a part of the art that Serling put into his original series, and the idea that in an era that offers so much in the way of anthology series that there’s room to reinvigorate a classic. Peele’s proved that he can handle the horror, and now he’s proving that he can handle these short little insights into the human condition that made the show special in the first place. With a premier that is far from perfect but still charming and fascinating, I think this new series is perfectly fitting into the vein of what we all love and long for. I can’t wait to see what comes next.