With him being propelled by critics and fans as one of modern horror’s most esteemed new voices, Jordan Peele has a lot riding on his shoulders. And in an era where reboots are ubiquitous, people are bound to be cynical. Those nervous about Peele’s update of The Twilight Zone shouldn’t be too worried, though. Based on the first two episodes, Peele already has a considerable understanding of what makes Rod Serling’s classic anthology series so beloved.
EPISODE 1, “THE COMEDIAN”
We all know how hard it is to make someone laugh. Luckily for most of us, it’s not our day job. Samir Wassan (Kumail Nanjiani), however, is someone who wants to only make people laugh. Though lately, that’s becoming harder and harder to do. As host Jordan Peele says, Samir is “a man who refuses to compromise his beliefs for a cheap joke.”
“The Comedian” opens with our protagonist doing what he does best these days: tanking royally in front of a crowd at Eddies Comedy Club (and yes, the lack of apostrophe is intentional). It’s clear from the start that Samir is someone who tries to be more thoughtful in his act. His set on the Second Amendment is met with scanty laughter. Samir‘s idea that “your comedy’s never going to matter” if you “don’t make people think” is challenged by the acts of his two fellow comedians. Didi Scott (Diarra Kilpatrick) not only has 59,000 online followers, she snares people with a biting sense of humor about relatable and uninvolving subject matter. Despite the oafish and lewd Joe Donner (Toby Hargrave) literally killing some people by plowing into a nearby bus stop, his misdeed is forgiven because “funny is funny.”
After Samir is ridiculed by Didi, he meets one of his stand-up idols—JC Wheeler (Tracy Morgan). He’s sure to mention how Wheeler used to be “everywhere” until he “disappeared.” Wheeler engages Samir by giving him a motivational speech about how he’ll be successful so long as he puts himself out there. He adds that whatever audiences connect to in Samir‘s act will then become “theirs” before it’s “gone forever.” These ominous remarks steer Samir in a direction that will make him realize just how powerful his voice really is.
Back on stage, Samir abandons his usual routine in favor of a more approachable one about his annoying dog named Cat. Although this change of humor welcomes a positive response, it doesn’t come without a cost. At home, Samir find his girlfriend Rena (Amara Karan) sleeping and his dog nowhere in sight. Neither Rena or her visiting nephew Deven (Marc Joseph) have any recollection of Cat either. Samir posts some “Missing Dog” flyers in vain before performing again at Eddies. Seeing his girlfriend’s inattentive nephew in the audience spurs Samir to go into a well-received bit about how Deven was making fun of him earlier. Backstage, Samir searches for Deven, but no one has seen him or even knows who he is.
If viewers at home haven’t figured out what’s going on here, Samir reminds them of what JC Wheeler said earlier. The seasoned performer has somehow blessed Wassan with an inexplicable gift: the subjects of Samir‘s roasts will immediately vanish from all of existence. Awareness of this dangerous power might deter anyone else, but Samir becomes drunken by the ability. Sometimes his actions facilitate positive outcomes—doing away with Joe Donner saves the people he killed while drunk behind the wheel—but then others will result in destruction.
Kumail Nanjiani is appropriately cast as the comedian with more to say than a one-liner. He brings know-how and substance to an increasingly unlikable character. Director Owen Harris (Kill Your Friends) and writer Alex Rubens (Community, Key & Peele, Rick and Morty) weave a heavy tale about sacrificing one’s integrity for fame. In addition, their collaboration comments on a topic everyone is familiar with nowadays—cancellation culture. Some might find the execution a bit on the nose, but how horror tackles topical and contentious issues can be refreshingly frank.
EPISODE 2, “NIGHTMARE AT 30,000 FEET”
Jordan Peele and co-writer Simon Kinberg (Dark Phoenix) broach a source material every Twilight Zone fan knows and loves. Based on the Richard Matheson (Duel, I Am Legend, The Box, Trilogy of Terror) short story and teleplay of a similar name (“Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”), this is one episode that people have been anticipating. Unlike the cinematic retelling from 1983, Peele’s take is rather disparate. The basic setup is near identical to those of previous adaptations, but viewers soon learn they’re boarding a very different flight.
Adam Scott (Krampus) is Justin Sanderson, an anxious journalist on his way to a thirteen-hour flight to Tel Aviv, Israel. A few months ago, he suffered a mental breakdown that has left him ill at ease. At the beginning of this “unscheduled stopover in The Twilight Zone,” Justin soothes his nerves by doing what many people do every day: listen to a podcast. On his MP3 player is the episode “The Tragic Mystery of Flight 1015” from an investigative podcast called Enigmatique. His plane hasn’t even left the runway when Justin makes the connection that he is in fact a passenger on the aforesaid missing fight.
The further he listeners, the more Justin learns how exactly the airliner went down. In his attempts to prevent what seems like the inevitable, he worsens the situation at every turn. He upsets the plane’s staff, the captain, the air marshal, and many of his neighboring passengers. Only one man, Joe Beaumont (Chris Diamantopoulos), appears to believe Justin’s conspiracy that 1015 is en route to its own demise. Unfortunately for Mr. Sanderson, his good intentions will lead everyone on a “flight path to hell.”
“Nightmare at 30,000 Feet” is almost twenty minutes shorter than the first episode. The brisk pacing is ultimately what keeps this sunken plane afloat in spite of its plodding developments and so-so outcome. Anyone expecting to see a gremlin perched on the wing may be disappointed, but do not for a second think there isn’t an external threat amid this airborne chiller.
In the end, this reboot is off to a good start thanks to “The Comedian.” The premiere is very much in tune with the inward-looking narratives found in Peele’s socio-horror films thus far. On the other hand, “30,000 Feet” is a minor dip in quality as it suffers from a lack of innovation. Change is great, but said change should also be worthwhile. That withstanding, Peele for sure has more great things in store for us as we re-enter The Twilight Zone.
By the way, did you catch the easter eggs in these first two episodes? Pay attention to the wallpaper of Eddies in “The Comedian”—those grotesque, painted faces are a reference to the 1964 Twilight Zone episode “The Masks.” And what about that one magazine on the top rack in “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet”? Yep, that’s Kumail Nanjiani’s character Samir Wassan on the cover.