There was something very Cold War creepy and “of its time” about The Twilight Zone. The classic CBS series, which ran from 1959 to 1964, was a perfect fit in a black and white era where no colour ever distracted from the stark reality at the heart of all good science fiction.
Somebody, someday, will figure out how to bring Rod Serling’s parables into the 21st century, but — based on the first few episodes — it doesn’t seem to be Jordan Peele. A talented comedian and director of scary movies (“Get Out,” “Us”), Peele serves as executive producer and tries to fill Serling’s shoes as host of the new Twilight Zone (streaming on CBS AllAccess in the U.S. and airing on Citytv Thursday nights in Canada).
The new series is basically Twilight Zone for the “Scary Movie” generation. The profanity-laced first episode, “The Comedian,” stars Kunail Nanjiani (“The Big Sick”) as a lame comedian trying to sell First Amendment jokes at a too-fancy club called Eddies. He’s belittled by his peers and barely endured by the silent club audience.
After he flops on stage he heads straight to the bar and meets the character who steals the episode. His name is J.C. Wheeler but really he’s Satan played by the perfectly cast Tracy Morgan. Wheeler teaches the struggling comic a lesson (an important component of all Twilight Zone episodes): be careful what you wish for.
What you wish for is that this episode did not seem like three hours jammed into 56 minutes. Everybody in the Vancouver crew tries too hard to creep you out, including the tilt-happy, face-crowding cameraperson and the set designer trying to disorient with random light sources in aggressively dark rooms.
A pet peeve for me: not one funny joke is told by any comedian at the club. At best what is heard are potty-mouthed cliches. When audiences are shown roaring with laughter, there has to be something funny happening on stage.
Another thing: something very predictable happens every 10 minutes. This sometimes occurred on the old series, but not every 10 minutes. (The old series, by the way, was always at its best when it was half an hour long.) Only at the very end, when there is a nice little homage to Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining,” is there something approaching a true Twilight Zone moment.
Peele as narrator is also a disappointment. His voice sounds like a place filler for the real guy who is going to be edited in later. Based on his cameo here as Satan, Tracy Morgan would have been a more effectively unhinged choice. Maybe that’s the only way to follow Serling: have a different guest narrator zap you with a little TZ surprise at the end of each episode.
There are a lot of talented people taking part in other episodes of the re-boot. Adam Scott, in a remake of the classic William Shatner episode “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet,” Seth Rogen, Chris O’Dowd, John Cho, Greg Kinnear, Ike Barinholtz, Ginnifer Goodwin and Jacob Tremblay are all in The Twilight Zone.
People have tried, and failed, to re-boot this anthology series before. My most vivid first hand Twilight Zone memory, aside from being rattled by the original as a stay-up-late youngster, concerns the 1985-87 CBS remake. On that signpost straight ahead could have been written: “Warning: Clueless journalist.”
It was also an uneven revival, despite contributions from writers like Stephen King and Arthur C. Clark and even a reluctant Harlan Ellison. Wes Craven directed some episodes. Bruce Willis and Morgan Freeman got a little facetime on the revival; one episode which stood out in my memory featured the great Sid Caesar as a past-his-prime magician.
I was living in LA at the time and as a photo editor and writer was just starting to get into this typing racket for TV Guide Canada. A photographer I knew back then, Maureen Donaldson, introduced me to her boyfriend Timmy. He was an amiable Texan who knew this guy who was hired to re-do the music for the series. Really the musician just tweaked it; it was madness to try and improve on Marius Constant’s eerie, iconic theme, which remains blessedly intact on the new Peele version.
Timmy figured he could get the musician on the phone if I wanted to interview the dude. Why not, I thought, looking to fill space in the TV magazine’s front page “Grapevine” section.
The call came through and we talked about staying true to the original melody, so closely identified with the old black and white series. This guy was a guitarist, and said he tried to add a bit of a rock edge to the iconic theme. He was a pleasant gent on the phone and seemed happy to chat about being pulled into the Twilight Zone.
It wasn’t until I sent the short piece back to the office in Toronto that a much more music savvy editor asked if I knew who the hell I had just interviewed.
It was a name I was not at the time that familiar with. It lay somewhere between the pit of man`s fears and the summit of his knowledge. Submitted for your approval: Jerry Garcia of The Grateful Dead, a rock icon now found only in…The Twilight Zone.