Through Another Dimension: Considering “Twilight Zone 2019” (Part 2) – Season 1, Episodes 1-5

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Hello again, readers! I’m back with a commentary/analysis of Episodes 1-5 of The Twilight Zone (2019) Season 1!

Rather than giving a deep-dive review of each episode, I’m just going to provide some initial thoughts and observations. Frankly, there are better blogs and podcasts out there who can give you deeper analysis, especially since I’ve only watched each of these episodes 1 time. What you’ll find below are my thoughts and observations, with some influence and insight from Tom Elliot and friends on The Twilight Zone Podcast. (Quick caveat: I’ve tried to note where an idea came from them and not originally from me, but if I miss any, let me know. Sometimes it’s hard to remember if I’m coming up with an observation or repeating it!)

Be forewarned: While each “premise” synopsis below will be spoiler-free, my subsequent comments on each episode will not be. Scroll accordingly!

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Episode 1.01 – “The Comedian”

The Premise: A struggling comedian meets a stranger in a bar who gives him some career-altering advice. But the comic finds out that success comes at a price–and there are some things you can’t get back once you give them away.

The Payoff: Okay, starting with one more disclaimer–I watched this episode when it was offered as a sneak preview for the series, over a year ago, so my recollection of finer details will be a bit fuzzy. But overall I thought this story was a good start to the season. Samir, the struggling comic (played by Kumail Nanjiani), is offered a kind of Faustian bargain by a mysterious stranger (played by Tracy Morgan) and begins to find fame after years with little success. Thematically, the story examines what you give up when you put increasingly more of yourself out there for public consumption, as Samir literally begins to lose people and relationships once they become fodder for his stand-up routine. Looking back over this season, I have to admit this episode is one that feels more like classic Twilight Zone in terms of style: a main character with a fatal flaw receives his comeuppance. The foul language felt a bit heavy-handed, but I assumed at the time that was due to the setting (turns out, that’s just the norm for the new show). All in all, a nice creepy tale to kick things off.

Episode 1.02 – “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet”

The Premise: A journalist battleing PTSD boards a plane from Washington D.C. to Tel Aviv for an assignment, when he finds a strange mp3 player in the seat-back pocket. On it, he hears a podcast detailing the mysterious disappearance of his very own flight.

The Pay-off: This is the only episode of the season that is blatantly presented as a re-imagining of a classic episode (and one of the most famous) from the original series. Adam Scott plays Justin Sanderson with a slow-burn panic that keeps the tension high and makes his increasingly-erratic actions seem almost reasonable, at least at first. While we as the viewers can recognize how his actions appear more erratic and crazy over time, we’re allowed into his world enough to see the logic of his decisions. Throughout the episode, Adam tries to determine who will be responsible for the potential crash, with interludes from the podcast (read by the great Dan Carlin) providing a sort of real-time narration. As Tom and his guests noted in the TZP commentary, there is also a sort of Fight Club element with the character of “Joe,” whom Justin meets in the airport and talks to throughout the flight. I too found myself wondering if Joe was real or a figment of Justin’s stressed imagination. (Maybe because “Jack” first meets Tyler Durden on a plane in Fight Club?) This episode provided a fresh take on a familiar scenario for fans of the franchise and kept the tension high throughout. The coda at the end was unnecessary, but included a fun (and obvious) callback to the original episode and took is in a different direction (literally) than the previous iterations. All in all, great work.

Episode 1.03 – “Replay”

The Premise: On their way to freshman orientation, a mother and her son are menaced by a racist state trooper, just as she discovers her father’s old camcorder can reverse time. But can it prevent what feels inevitable?

The Payoff: This was the first episode of the season that wore its message squarely on its sleeve, but that didn’t prevent it from being a compelling story.

Nina Harrison is driving her son Dorian to school to study filmmaking, when they are harrassed by a shark-like state trooper, Officer Lasky. Thanks to the “magic” camcorder, Nina is able to rewind time and undo the escalating confrontation. However, no matter how Nina tries to change the timeline to avoid this threat, Lasky keeps finding them, with increasingly dangerous results. Ultimately, Nina realizes that the only way to alter the timeline is to take a detour and return to her childhood home to visit her estranged brother. He shepherds them through sewer tunnels and back alleys until they reach the university campus, but they can’t escape without one more encounter with Lasky and his men.

While it’s certainly possible for viewers to assume the message is “all cops are dangerous,” I think the theme is a bit more nuanced than that. While the presentation of the ever-present Lasky felt (to me) like something more fitting to the 60’s, setting it in the present emphasizes the idea that people of color still sometimes deal with discrimination and injustice from police. The inevitable encounters with Lasky represent racism as an ever-present threat that must be navigated but perhaps cannot be avoided. In the third act, Nina’s brother Neil acts as a sort of modern-day Harriet Tubman, at one point taking his family literally underground in their quest for Dorian to find “freedom” (via education). In the finale, they had to stand up to Lasky and his men, and they did so with a crowd of families at the university who all produced cellphones to record his behavior. While this episode premiered over a year ago, I watched it just weeks after George Floyd’s murder, and this moment felt particularly powerful and timely. All in all, this episode felt like the *right* way to lean hard into an issue in this format. (Later entries would not be so successful, in my mind.)

Episode 1.04 – “A. Traveller”

The Premise: Every Christmas Eve, the chief of police in a small Alaskan village “pardons” someone being held in their often-empty jail. This year, a mysterious stranger suddenly appears in one of the cells and asks to be the lucky recipient of the sheriff’s gesture.

The Pay-off: I gotta be honest–this was the first episode for me that didn’t quite “work”–at least on a script or story level. The technical elements and performances were excellent. The cinematography and editing were moody and ethereal, contrasting the dark, shadowy “underworld” of the cellblock with the tinny, red-lit Christmas party and the cool blue-black of the outside night sky. The acting was on-point, as it is throughout the entire first season, and the characters were interesting. It just felt like the story and theme were a bit muddy, as if the writers tried to pull together too many disparate threads. It was a story about hidden secrets being revealed, a fable about getting the thing you want and finding out it’s a trap, an allegory about manifest destiny and the erasure of indigenous culture (?). Honestly, the part that works best is the premise itself: a charming stranger in a suit and fedora appears suddenly in an underground prison cell of a snowy village on Christmas Eve, during the police station Christmas party. It had the intial markings of one of the sweeter episodes from the original series, like “Night of the Meek,” and could have taken a turn and become an interesting and heartwarming tale about “welcoming the stranger.” But rather than resolving with lessons learned amid the “magic of Christmas,” it devolves into a tale of people being awful to each other at the brink of an alien invasion. Throw in some cheap “hypocritical Christians” commentary, and it just turns a bit too bitter for my taste. I hear that this one improves with rewatches. Perhaps I’ll give it another try.

Episode 1.05 – “The Wunderkind”

The Premise: In the aftermath of an embarrassing campaign defeat, a young up-and-coming campaign manager finds a new candidate to champion in the next election cycle: a 10-year-old Youtube celebrity.

The Pay-off:  I thought this was one of the worst episodes of the season, and not for the obvious reasons. Let’s just get this out of the way: it’s about Trump. The boy-president is an avatar for Trump. That alone wouldn’t be enough to turn me off or irritate me (I’m certainly not a fan of the man). But the reason why I think this episode roundly fails is because the premise strained credulity so painfully that the satire turned into farce–and the worst kind of all, a boring farce. While some of the performances were solid (John Cho was a perfect lead), and there were some insights about the mercenary nature of presidential politics that they could have played with a bit more, the idea of everyone kowtowing to a 10-year-old boy (including his parents?!?) was just too much to work with. Obviously, they want to recall “It’s a Good Life” from the original series, but that’s one of the most fantastical episodes of the classic run. Taking the exaggerated dynamic of that episode and wedging it into a realistic setting just doesn’t work. I get it–you’re using a petulant child to represent the fickle and capricious nature of the current administration. Good for you. Now show me something interesting.

If they had instead aged up the candidate, made him (or her?) a Youtube influencer more like the Paul brothers or a similar personality, it might have been more effective, because you can bring in other ideas like the manipulation of an audience or office for financial gain (also a pertinent critique). You even could have made the child-president concept work better if you didn’t have his parents on board at some point (and perhaps having the president “disappear” them ominously, which would have been a better allusion to the previous iteration). All in all, this episode sunk into a bog of “huh-huh baby Trump” caricature, and it could have been so much better. (To quote an old meme: “I’m not mad, I’m just…disappointed.”)

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Five Season 1 episodes down, five to go! Do you agree with my takes? Disagree? Did I miss something? Comment below!

Next up: Episodes 6-10 of The Twilight Zone (2019) Season 1!

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