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Can Jordan Peele’s ‘Twilight Zone’ Break Through Its Paywall?

The reboot—streaming exclusively on CBS All Access—is still a work in progress. But its producer (and narrator) is very much a brand name.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Spoiler alert

“Nightmare at 30,000 Feet,” the second chapter of the Twilight Zone series that premieres this week on CBS All Access, is a reboot within a reboot. The show itself, narrated by Jordan Peele and born of a collaboration between Peele and X-Men franchise veteran Simon Kinberg, is a revival of Rod Serling’s iconic anthology, which originally ran on CBS from 1959 to 1964. (In between, there were ill-fated resurrections in both 1985 and 2002.) The episode, meanwhile, reimagines the classic Twilight Zone fable “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” with Adam Scott taking over the role of a paranoid airline passenger from William Shatner.

Such hallowed precedent makes “Nightmare” a prime opportunity for this Twilight Zone to demonstrate what, if anything, it plans on doing to differentiate itself from its source material. At 37 minutes, it’s certainly longer than the original, which ran for a tight 20-odd minutes, like all Twilight Zone episodes apart from a failed experiment with a full hour in Season 4. The central plot device—the apparent delusion that convinces the hero’s fellow passengers he’s imagining things—switches from a hokey gremlin on the plane wing to a true crime podcast that appears to narrate the disappearance of the very flight Scott’s magazine journalist is taking to Tel Aviv. The themes, too, shift slightly. The original’s revelation that the gremlin is real, despite the Shatner character’s history of mental illness, conjures the horror of having one’s fears disregarded even when they’re justified. Scott’s Justin Peterson, meanwhile (and spoiler alert), inadvertently causes the plane crash he’s trying to prevent, bringing up questions of fate and determinism.

Supersized runtimes, at least, are extremely 2019. So, too, is the inclusion of podcasting as a signpost for modernity. But while these tweaks are real and perceptible, they’re also the biggest ones Peele and Kinberg’s Twilight Zone makes to the format. The twists are still dramatic, if now accompanied by internet-enabled expletives; the heroes are still tragic, if played by recognizable comic actors. The Twilight Zone doesn’t want to fix what’s broken, but in a landscape that’s changed so much both creatively and structurally, can homage be enough?

Back in the 1950s, TV shows defined more by their concept than their cast were the norm. Known as episodic anthologies, the SAT phrase for series that change stories and key players from one week to the next, shows like The Twilight Zone or Playhouse 90 eventually gave way to the reassuring consistency of serialized narrative. In the 2010s, however, the anthology has come back into vogue. First, Ryan Murphy reinvented American Horror Story from season to season; then, Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror compressed the turnaround time even further, telling high-concept, stand-alone tales of tech-driven dystopia that invited comparisons to, naturally, The Twilight Zone. Black Mirror has since been joined by High Maintenance, Room 104, and The Romanoffs, shows with varying levels of creative success that have collectively made TV a friendlier place for loosely connected one-offs. On the one hand, the viewing public may be perfectly primed for a new Twilight Zone. On the other, The Twilight Zone doesn’t register as novel or unusual the way it might have before the anthology boom.

There’s also the matter of where and how The Twilight Zone has made its return. In 2019, distribution is increasingly destiny. Benefit from the promotional powers of Netflix’s mighty home screen and you’ll make the weeknight agendas of millennials across America; get stranded behind the paywall of a less omnipresent streaming service and your cultural impact is handicapped from the start. Recently, I bemoaned the persistent obscurity of The Good Fight, which The Twilight Zone now joins as an All Access exclusive. Between these two series and Star Trek: Discovery—a spinoff and a couple of reboots—All Access’s strategy seems to be betting on properties with preexisting fan bases to bolster its subscriber base. (With slight concessions to marketing reality; the first Twilight Zone episode is available for free on YouTube.) It’s a solid theory, though in practice, it only raises the burden of proof for The Twilight Zone even higher. If potential fans can choose from plenty of Twilight Zone analogs that happen to be dramatically more accessible, what incentive do they have to pony up an extra seven or 10 bucks a month?

The Twilight Zone brings All Access one show closer to a critical mass of fee-worthy offerings, but it may not be the one that tips choosy consumers’ scales. Both “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet” and “The Comedian,” the 55-minute premiere starring Kumail Nanjiani as a floundering stand-up, are handsomely shot and suitably eerie. They also don’t leave much of a lasting impact, a natural downside of the franchise’s signature wrapped-up-with-a-bow approach to message-forward fantasy. Anthologies, in general, must navigate the difficulty of crafting an appeal without beloved regulars or ongoing action to lure audiences back week to week. The Twilight Zone, in particular, often functions as a delivery device for an “oh, shit” moment: tons of anticipation before the payoff, not much of a reason to stick around, or spend much time in contemplation after.

The pacing is especially counterproductive, with an allegory’s destination often apparent long before the episode actually gets there. In “The Comedian,” Nanjiani’s Samir Wasan encounters a mysterious, almost Chappelle-like retired legend, played by Tracy Morgan. Inadvertently, Samir strikes a sort of Faustian bargain: the more of his personal life he puts into his routine, the more laughs he’ll get. There’s a catch, of course. “Once it’s theirs, shit’s gone,” Morgan warns. He means it literally: When Samir namedrops a friend or loved one in his act, they disappear, magicked out of existence. Condensed into less than 30 minutes, “The Comedian” could be a nifty, if literal, exploration of the price of art and what performers must sacrifice to achieve greatness. Stretched out to nearly an hour, the episode gives the viewer’s mind ample time to follow its logical breadcrumbs.

“The Comedian” is written by longtime Key & Peele staffer Alex Rubens; “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” is credited to showrunner Marco Ramirez, with story contributions from Peele and Kinberg. With such a flexible template, in noted contrast with Brooker’s near-total control over Black Mirror’s scripts, there’s plenty of room to experiment and showcase a wide variety of talents, one of the most exciting aspects of the anthology setup. (I’ve already seen Twitter start to fantasy cast future installments.) Still, the face of the project is Peele, whose nameless narrator appears on-screen, as Serling’s once did, to introduce and cap each story.

Coming just weeks after the mega-lucrative premiere of Us, The Twilight Zone aims to cement Peele’s ownership of the zeitgeist across all sizes of screen. What Peele has accomplished at the box office is nothing short of extraordinary, building an audience for original, ideas-driven horror where studios has once presumed there was none. What Peele has to accomplish to make The Twilight Zone a success is no less daunting, preserving the legacy of a beloved institution while also updating it enough to attract attention in an overcrowded marketplace. At least at first, the strain of the effort shows. In between Key & Peele and The Twilight Zone, Peele acquired the clout necessary to sell himself as an all-knowing guide to the paranormal. Selling the show is still an effort in progress.