TV review: The Twilight Zone (2019)

SyFy broadcast latest entry to the The Twilight Zone franchise in March 2020. The series was first broadcast on CBS All Access last year in the US, and since then many UK viewers have eagerly awaited the new series. 

The Twilight Zone needs no introduction to most SFF fans. It is a anthology series (there’s no other word to describe the wild mix of SFF, horror and thriller that populates the Zone), first developed by Rod Serling and broadcast way back in 1959. That original series last for several seasons (between 1959 and 1964). It was reimagined in the 1980s (running between 1985 and 1989), as well as a movie (in 1983). The concept was reviewed again in 2002, then most recently in 2019. In between times, there have been a multitude of comics, books and other media, as well as imitators of the general concept. 

So, in short, while the arrival of a new Twilight Zone series is a pretty big event in the SFF calendar, it also brings with it very high expectations. Does the new series, developed by Simon Kinberg, Jordan Peele and Marco Ramirez, satisfy viewer expectation? I’m happy to say that, overall, it does. I’m going to take a brief look at each of the ten episodes, then give you my final thoughts at the end of this review. It goes without saying: SPOILERS AHEAD! You’ve been warned…

Episode 1 is “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet” (by Greg Yaitanes). SyFy chose to reverse the order of some episodes for broadcast in the UK. The reason for this isn’t very clear; in the US, “The Comedian” is episode 1. For my money, “Nightmare” is one of the weaker episodes in the series, and “Comedian” is much stronger, so I don’t understand why this was done. “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet” is inspired by the classic “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” from the original 1959 series. In the modern retelling of this story, a journalist takes a plan to Tel Aviv and finds a mysterious MP3 player which apparently tells of the demise of Flight 1015 – which just so happens to be this very flight… It is well-acted and drips with menace, but the limited pay-off undermines the set up. It also exemplifies my biggest criticism of the new Twilight Zone – the longer running times. Most episodes in the 2019 season are around an hour in length (allowing for commercial breaks), and some don’t feel like the running time can carry the concept. “Nightmare” is such an example. It doesn’t really help that it is based on such an iconic classic from the 1959 series; I was really expecting something bigger than the eventual twist. However, it’s perfectly proficient and it thankfully doesn’t represent the quality of the rest of the series.

Episode 2 is “The Comedian” (by Owen Harris). In this episode, a struggling comedian meets a comic legend in a bar, and is given the power to make people laugh. However, the comedian soon suffers the consequences of using this power. This is far more like it. “The Comedian” feels like classic Twilight Zone, with modern production. I enjoyed this one a lot, even if I could see the twist coming very early. That last comment probably isn’t fair, because – again in variance to earlier versions of the Zone – the 2019 season doesn’t really rely on last-minute twists to achieve a payoff.  

Episode 3 is “Replay” (by Gerard McMurray). A woman finds that she can rewind time using an old video camera. However, someone (or something) continually chases her across these temporal events and she finds that she cannot outrun fate. Another very strong episode, “Replay” again feels like classic Zone, but with modern sensibilities. Serling often attempted to import real world issues into episodes of Twilight Zone; he wanted to consider real problems through the lens of SFF. “Replay” does that very well, considering racism and discrimination. There is a final payoff to “Replay” that demonstrates the subtle horror angle that 2019’s Zone focuses on.

Episode 4 is “A Traveler” (by Ana Lily Amirpour). It’s Christmas, and an unknown man appears in the cells beneath an Alaskan police station. He claims to have come to the town because of the station’s famous Christmas party, but it soon becomes clear that he isn’t what he claims. I struggled with this episode. It is steeped in paranoid and has a very good set up, but ultimately doesn’t achieve a strong enough resolution. There are some excellent performances, and the implications of the traveler’s arrival are certainly horrifying, but the secret of who or what he is feels like it is introduced too early: it should’ve been a final-scene twist. 

Episode 5 is “The Wunderkind” (by Richard Shepard). This is the story of a young boy who becomes President of the USA. Supported by his campaign manager, he becomes everything that the public want. But is it a good idea to put absolute power in the hands of an eleven-year-old child? This is clearly another “inspired by true events” episode, and no prizes for guessing what I’m talking about! Oliver (the child-president) bluffs and whines through his presidency, but is shielded by his popularity. However, his demands become increasingly irrational and he won’t listen to the advice of his advisors. Perhaps this episode was inspired by “It’s a Good Life”, without the fantasy angle. It’s one of the stronger episodes, although the abrupt ending does take out some of the force. 

Episode 6 is “Six Degrees of Freedom” (by Jakob Verbruggen). A space ship is launched as a nuclear war breaks out on Earth. The astronauts are destined for Mars. The journey will be long and tortuous, but is it real? This episode dallies with SF but it doesn’t truly break into that territory. That’s perhaps a comment on the revival in general: almost every episode feels firmly in the horror camp, even when other styles are introduced. That does make this series quite different to the earlier versions of the Zone. I think this is a byproduct of the long run-times and limited number of episodes; each episode gets far more attention, but feels more “corporate” than say the 1980s series (which took a more comic-book approach, with episodes varying in length, style and substance). But “Six Degrees” is enjoyable and well-acted, and it does have a decent ending.

Episode 7 is “Not All Men” (by Christina Choe). The men in a small American town have started to act aggressively. What’s behind this change? Could it be the meteor-shower than hit the town a few days ago, or is it something else? This is a strong episode that wears its theme on its sleeve: being an examination of misogyny and toxic masculinity – in this case, quite literally, as the men of the town tear each other and the woman around them apart. The horror theme is particularly apparent here. The final denouement is more terrifying because of its absence: the lack of a twist is the payoff here. 

Episode 8 is “Point of Origin” (by Mathias Herndl). When the housekeeper of an affluent American family is taken away by immigration officers, no one speaks out. But when those same officers come for the lady of the house, things take a darker turn. This episode again doesn’t dice with its subject matter; exploring the concepts of everyone being immigrants in one sense, and also the implications of not speaking out against the authorities in aother. This feels very Twilight Zone, and is well done. There aren’t any real answers to the protagonist’s predicament (is she really an alien?) but that’s okay – sometimes we don’t need to be spoon-fed. 

Episode 9 is “Blurryman” (by Simon Kinberg). This is another very strange episode reversal; “Blurryman” has swapped places with “The Blue Scorpion” in the broadcast schedule. In “Blurryman”, a scriptwriter for the Twilight Zone finds that she becomes part of the story – being chased across the episode by a mysterious figure. This is classic Zone territory, and very well done – definitely the strongest of the series. It really feels like it should be the final episode and I don’t understand why it wasn’t. The “Blurryman” turns out to be someone very important to this franchise, and as a result I can even forgive the rather ropey CGI effects!

Episode 10 is “The Blue Scorpion” (by Craig William MacNeill). A man inherits a mysterious gun – the Blue Scorpion – which seems to have a life of its own. Even stranger is the bullet found with the gun, which contains the new owner’s name. This is more of a slow-burn episode. I felt that the repetition of the name “Jeff” didn’t work. It would’ve been stronger to save this until the very end of the episode, in a final twist. However, it’s well done and Chris O’Dowd gives a great performance. Overall, however, it should really have been episode 9 – the ebb and flow of the series runs much better in that order. 

My final thoughts on the Twilight Zone? It’s a very well-executed addition to the franchise and I enjoyed it a lot. I wouldn’t say that it was quite as strong as the 1980s revival, which for my mind explored a wider territory in terms of presentation and format, but it is stronger than the 2002 version. Jordan Peele is a great narrator, and every episode has very high production values. Some feel like they string out the concept for just a little too long, but that’s probably me being a perfectionist. Overall, I’m very glad that to see this series come back to our screens.  

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