The new Twilight Zone succeeds far more often than it doesn’t, and Peele is clearly having a lot of fun delivering his staccato monologues.
One of the great things about The Twilight Zone, Rod Serling’s original series (1959-1964), was that it introduced audiences to filmmakers who later created some of the classics of their times.
For example, in 1963 Richard Donner (who’d go on to direct The Omen as well as Superman, two of the defining movies of the 70s) directed ‘Nightmare at 20,000 Feet’, the third episode of the fifth season, starring William Shatner as Robert Wilson, the only passenger on his flight who can see a gremlin lurking outside, on the plane’s wing. The episode, one of the most famous and frequently referenced TV episodes of all time, has become widely associated with the fear of flying (ironically, Shatner himself graduated from aircraft to spaceship in just three years, landing the role of Captain James T Kirk in Star Trek).
‘Nightmare at 20,000 Feet’ is, in many ways, the quintessential Twilight Zone story — the ‘rules’ of the world are all the same, apart from one thing (in this case, the gremlin), the protagonist (isolated, an object of suspicion) is losing their grip on reality and like Cassandra, is cursed to never be believed in their lifetime.
To Jordan Peele’s credit, his 2019 reboot of The Twilight Zone understands these narrative basics well. That puts it in a very small club of high-profile TV remakes that manage to capture the essence of the original. The second season of the new show premiered in India on June 25, on Voot Select — it builds and even improves upon the gains of the first season, thanks to a solid lineup of actors (Jimmi Simpson, Morena Baccarin, Jurnee Smollett, Topher Grace, Greg Kinnear et al) and some distinctive directorial voices. Peele returns to deliver Serling-esque introductions and conclusions for each episode.
If you’re looking for future superstars of the horror/supernatural genres, meanwhile, look no further than Ana Lilly Amirpour, the English-born Iranian-American director who has contributed one episode apiece to the first and second seasons of Peele’s reboot. She’s the director of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014), a unique and eerie vampire noir that became the toast of Sundance that year. The director’s 30 percent hearing loss means that her films tend to favour atmospherics and mood over heavy dialogue.
In the second season, Amirpour gives us ‘Ovation’, a classic Faustian fable — an Everyman selling their soul, so to speak, in order to achieve artistic success. At the beginning of the narrative, troubled pop star Fiji (Sky Ferreira) gives her medallion to struggling street musician Jasmine (Jurnee Smollett, fresh off her superb performance in Upload, another Amazon series), whose non-starter of a music career is supported by her sister Zara (Tawny Newsome), a surgeon. Right after giving away this medallion, Fiji walks into the path of a bus and dies on impact. Soon after, Jasmine realises that her medallion attracts applause — incessant, instantaneous applause that ironically, drowns her music out, whether she’s having a good or a bad night, musically speaking. As Peele notes, in perhaps his drollest voiceover of the season, “What exactly is the value of an ovation that’s so loud that it drowns out the performance?” In true Twilight fashion, this sentiment is taken to visibly ludicrous extremes — at one point, Jasmine is in a cab whose driver takes his hands off the wheel and starts clapping when her song plays on the radio.
Here’s what makes Amirpour stand apart from her peers — for most filmmakers, this particular story would end with Jasmine losing her mental balance and becoming another cautionary tale about the pitfalls of fame. And it would have been a perfectly adequate story, too. But Amirpour is much more ambitious than that; her story enters its most crucial phase at the point where most filmmakers would wrap things up. Instead, at the episode’s halfway point, Jasmine and Zara throw the medallion away at the docks, and predictably, the applause dries up overnight. We see Jasmine living by herself in the woods, in a cabin, alone and disheveled and making futile attempts to create new music; Smollett is excellent in this long, dialogue-free scene.
I won’t spoil the ending for you, but suffice it to say that Jasmine’s story goes way beyond the confines of its Faustian framework to become, instead, a distinctly modern take on millennial notions of responsibility and entitlement.
The Twilight legacy
“It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call the Twilight Zone.”
This famous voiceover, delivered over the opening credits of the show, is one of the few Twilight Zone elements that Peele has left untouched in the reboot. This is because these pithy sermons bookending the episodes were Serling’s way of telling the audience that what just transpired was a morality tale, an allegory. Moreover, Serling, who was dubbed ‘the angry young man of Hollywood’ was quite vocal about the urgent political issues of the day — a prominent liberal commentator, he spoke up against the discrimination faced by his African-American colleagues in Hollywood, against McCarthyism (targeting communists and left-leaning writers, artistes, and intellectuals; named after Senator Joe McCarthy), against the Vietnam war and so on.
A lot of these issues were discussed by proxy in the original Twilight Zone —which is to say, they were discussed allegorically. A 1962 episode called ‘4 O’ Clock’ gave us the character of Oliver Crangle (a stand-in for Senator McCarthy), a bigoted man (with Nazi-like ideas of ‘purity’) who likes to stalk political dissenters, call their employers on the phone and demand that they be fired. Crangle soon announces that at 4 pm in a few days, he will supernaturally shrink all the “evil people” in the world to a height of two feet — so that they can easily be identified and locked up (an allegory for Hollywood blacklisting supposed communists). At the end of the episode, however, it is Crangle who shrinks to two feet, prompting a clearly tickled Serling to deliver the closing speech, noting that “J for justice was served”.
The issue of racial segregation was broached indirectly several times in the early 60s. The November 1960 episode ‘Eye of the Beholder’ was a particularly memorable example. The story begins by telling us that the protagonist, a young woman who has her face wrapped up in bandages, suffers from horrific facial deformations and will undergo surgery soon. We only ever see the hospital and the doctors from a distance, from behind screens, as silhouettes. It’s only towards the end of the episode that we see that the woman happens to be conventionally attractive by real-world standards, whereas the doctors, the nurses, and everybody else around her have pig-like faces — a commentary on biased, white-centric notions of physical beauty. Remember, it wasn’t easy to discuss racism directly in the America of 1960. Earlier that year, Harper Lee’s publishers had advised her to write something else, for they didn’t feel a book about racism would be a massive commercial failure (the book released in July 1960).
In that vein, the second season of the new Twilight Zone also begins with an allegory, one that feels custom-made for the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic (although, of course, the makers couldn’t possibly have planned it that way).
The first episode, called ‘Meet in the Middle’ is about an eccentric man looking for love: Phil Hayes (the dependably excellent Jimmi Simpson from Psych and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia), who is sleepwalking through another Tinder date when he realises he has an unexplainable, telepathic connection with a woman named Annie (Community’s Gillian Jacobs).
They can literally talk to each other inside their heads, even as they continue to be hundreds of miles apart, physically. Soon, they embark on a long distance relationship like no other, conducted entirely via telepathic conversations. Could there be a more perfect allegory for couples who have been forced apart by quarantines and no-fly rules? Of course, this is The Twilight Zone, so a conventionally happy ending remains steadfastly off the menu.
Similarly, the episode ‘Try, Try’ works both as a metaphor for online stalking—and as a subversion of the battered-woman trope. Marc (Topher Grace, destined evermore to play creeps, apparently) is stuck in a Groundhog Day/Russian Doll-like scenario where he relives one day over and over again — the day he spent with Claudia (Kylie Bunbury), the woman he has a crush on. Based on his previous failures, Marc begins to escalate his interference in Claudia’s life, all in the service of what is clearly a one-sided romance.
On the whole, the new Twilight Zone succeeds far more often than it doesn’t, and Peele is clearly having a lot of fun delivering his staccato monologues. It’s not the cutting edge of streaming entertainment circa 2020, but The Twilight Zone is a lot of fun nevertheless.
Jordan Peele’s The Twilight Zone is currently streaming on Voot.
(All images from Twitter)
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