You may be thinking, “Didn’t this movie come out months ago?”
Yes it did. Welcome to the life of a parent of three littles. We…don’t go to the movie theater much. So my wife and I just finished this one (split over two nights) on DVD a few minutes ago, and I figured I’d give you my raw initial reaction. Ready?
It was fine.
I heard several commentators online talk about how bad and disappointing and woke the movie was, so my expectations were pretty low. But it was fine.
Some of the fight choreography was super-hokey. Some of the dialogue was clunky. The transparent painting of Maxwell Lord as the comics version of DJT was eyeroll-inducing. But the premise was just goofy enough to work, some of the ideas (e.g. truth being essentially the greatest good) were really nice, and the tender father-son moment at the end made me tear up, which was unexpected.
When it comes right down to it, the film stands or falls on the performances of the leads, and Gal Gadot is just excellent as Wonder Woman. She elevates the material. And despite the strained justification for his return, Chris Pine is great on screen and he and Gadot have excellent chemistry.
So yeah. If you haven’t seen it yet but are still planning to, it’s worth a look if you go in expecting it to be middling at best.
I know that sounds like damning with faint praise. It’s really not. I just think I’m at the point where these movies don’t hype me up like they used to. That peaked with Endgame and everything since has been “yeah, okay, sure.” It’s not life-changing. It’s amusement. A-muse. Says it right there in the etymology of the word itself: don’t think to hard about such things.
Anyway, that’s what I got: WW84 is an imperfect but entertaining popcorn movie that benefits from the viewer expecting little and being pleasantly surprised.
Finally! I’m back with some thoughts on the first five episodes of The Twilight Zone (2019), Season 2. As noted previously, the premise descriptions will be spoiler-free but my thoughts/response will not be. So, be forewarned. Also, unlike the posts covering Season 1, I (mostly) haven’t listened to or read anyone else’s analysis, so…well, hopefully my takes aren’t too terrible–okay, let’s go!
Episode 2.01 – “Meet in the Middle”
The Premise: A lonely man suddenly discovers a psychic connection to an intriguing woman he’s never laid eyes on, and the two strangers begin a long-distance telepathic relationship. Once things start becoming more “real” and the couple decides to meet, their rom-com story takes a sinister turn.
The Pay-off: After the ups and downs of Season 1, ending with the fantastic “Blurryman,” I was bracing against a let-down to start Season 2. Instead, we got a pretty solid season opener. We are presented with Phil, a bachelor on a blind date who suddenly hears the voice of a woman named Annie in his head. While the script plays a bit with the idea that perhaps Phil was just imagining this voice, I never doubted that she was a real person (man, if they had “Tyler Durden”-ed this episode…). Part of that confidence may have been that I didn’t think they would pull in Gillian Jacobs as Annie and not have her show up on screen at some point.
The first half of the episode played like a strange but sweet romantic comedy, as the two characters fall in love via long-distance (kind of like a telepathic “You’ve Got Mail”). Then the story turns sinister about halfway through, and you remember, oh yeah, I’m watching “The Twilight Zone.” Once it’s revealed that Annie is married, I wondered if this would become a Double Indemnity situation. Add in Phil’s frightening outburst of anger as his obsession with Annie gets the better of him, and it had all the makings of a real creepfest. The entire time Phil was on the train heading toward Annie and they talked of running away together, I kept waiting for the bottom to drop out–which it did, in a big, bad way.
As Phil searched for her at the train stop after listening helplessly to her screams that she was being followed about an hour before, I half-expected him to come across her body and then be somehow discovered and accused of her murder. But when he gets to the house in the woods, I immediately realized how it was about to go down. As he went inside, I kept waiting for the camera to pan up and show a picture on the mantle of Annie and her husband. Instead, we are left with the chilling image of Phil covered in blood after bludgeoning the poor man to death, with Annie and her horrified daughter looking on. The scene of Phil sitting in the police car as the weight of what just happened fully lands on him was really well-delivered but tough to watch, and then Annie’s voice cuts in and reveals that it was all a set-up. Oh man, what a nightmare. This was a chilling tale about obsession and unmet expectations, and it kicked off the season in a satisfying way.
Episode 2.02 – “Downtime”
The Premise: After landing a much-deserved promotion, it looks like Michelle Weaver’s perfect life has finally come together…until everyone around her stands up, eyes transfixed on the giant orb in the sky.
The Pay-off: This was an episode with a great premise and a couple of really great performances that still left me a little cold in the end. First of all, the acting: Morena Baccarin is fantastic as always, and even given just a few pages of dialogue, Tony Hale is a delight on-screen. The visuals of this episode were top-shelf: the shot of everyone standing around looking up at the orb is one of the most vivid images in this new TZ run, and it captures the vibe so well. The central conceit of the episode–a person learns that her life is actually an avatar in a simulation–is pure sci-fi, and the idea of an avatar becoming sentient when the user dies while connected to the system is a concept worth exploring. I even loved how Michelle’s interactions with the “customer service reps” of the simulation company reflect her own interactions earlier in the episode. The writing was pretty crisp, and the episode didn’t overstay its welcome. If anything, the first act could have been extended a little to ramp up the creepiness.
Where the episode started losing me was the introduction of the “user’s” wife, which I thought that was a bit clunky (the whole “I know you’re still in there” thing has been done). In the end, Michelle stays in the simulation (because what else was she going to do?), but her user’s wife comes back to the hotel to stay for a while (implying they would carry on a relationship)–WHICH DOESN’T MAKE SENSE because while there may be some traces of the man’s psyche or personality extant in Michelle’s programming, she’s still not the same guy, and his wife (who had no prior relationship with Michelle inside the simulation) is going to seek to spark some sort of romantic relationship with a woman who is only tangentially like her husband? It just seems unlikely. This just felt like a lazy way for the writers to throw in a same-sex relationship just to say they could. In the end, cool set-up, good performances, but they stumbled at the landing.
Episode 2.03 – “The Who of You”
The Premise: When Harry Pine discovers he can switch bodies with people at will, the struggling actor makes one desperate and foolish decision after another in the hopes of saving his relationship.
The Pay-off: First of all, ETHAN EMBRY. Totally didn’t realize it was him, though I knew the lead was familiar to me somehow. He and his impressive beard deliver a great performance as a struggling, selfish, slightly-conceited actor who decides to rob a bank in a fit of desperation and ends up switching bodies with the teller. I really like that there is no explanation given for this–true to the show’s central conceit, it just *is* because he’s in the Twilight Zone. I also liked the way the body-switching was handled, with people being returned to their bodies once Harry “hands off” to the next person. This allowed the police detective to “follow” Harry in what would have been an otherwise impossible pursuit. Instead, it provided a clean narrative device for moving the plot along.
In many ways, this episode reminded me of “The Four of Us are Dying” and “The Self-Improvement of Salvadore Ross” from the classic series–stories of desperate and selfish men who abuse their abilities in order to get out of jams or improve their situations. In the case of “The Who of You,” however, you don’t get the same kind of tragic, morality-play ending–at least not the one that you expect. I definitely assumed the stand-off in the psychic’s storefront would have ended with Harry dying, but instead, he comes away from it unharmed, yet now without another body to go back to. The twist is when, having accepted his permanent “role” as the detective, he goes to his now-former apartment in the guise of the detective to inform Harry’s girlfriend of his demise, only to realize that she’s been cheating on Harry with the detective the whole time. (Unfortunately, this was pretty obvious when the episode kept lampshading his phone calls to an unknown woman.)
The strength of an episode of like “The Who of You” resides in its performances, and I think, for the most part, the various character actors were pretty solid (I was most impressed by the kid, because child actors don’t usually have that kind of control). Billy Porter was a bit of stunt casting that doesn’t distract from the story, because they had him play essentially himself but as a fake psychic. Embry steals the show, however, as he portrays not just Harry but every person he “inhabits,” and there are subtle differences in each character that make his performance very effective. All in all, a good entry in this season’s list, and a nice throwback to past episodes in the classic run.
Episode 2.04 – “Ovation”
The Premise: Jasmine struggles to get her music career off the ground, until she’s given a gift that brings her the adulation she’s dreamed of. Soon, the dream becomes a nightmare.
The Pay-off: From the first scene, I basically had this episode pegged, but I still enjoyed the execution, for the most part. The “be careful what you wish for” story is staple in The Twilight Zone, so when the pop star asks Jasmine, “What do you want?”, the audience knows what’s coming. What made this one work was how much the episode leans into the weirdness of the “cursed” coin. It’s not just that Jasmine suddenly has a meteoric rise to stardom; it’s that the rise was immediate and uncanny. Even though she starts buying into her own fame and begins alienating her sister, she quickly realizes that there’s something off about how popular she’s becoming. Suddenly, people seemed to be enchanted by her every move and sound, to the point where her nervous fumbling in the talent show finals receives thunderous applause. Even the heart-surgery patient on the operating table suddenly starts applauding despite being under anesthesia! (I kept thinking of the scene from the Josie and the Pussycats movie, after a montage showing the band’s rise to fame, when Josie says, “Does anyone else think it’s strange that all this happened in a week?”) In the first half of the episode, as the public’s growing obsession with Jasmine becomes more frantic and frightening, the viewer is pretty familiar with how the beats are playing out.
(One brief side-note: I loved the cornyness of the “Ovation” talent show. While such televised talent shows are commonplace, the whole vibe was straight out of the 1950’s, all the way down to the physical “applause board.” What a wild choice. I love it, because it fits with the whole bizarre tone of the episode.)
Then the episode throws us a narrative curveball: Jasmine throws the coin away, escapes to her family’s cabin, and waits out the publicity “storm.” During this sequence, as she stops taking care of her self and just coasts, subsisting on ramen, she learns that another pop idol has supplanted her. Suddenly, her relief at returning to normal life evaporates, and she becomes obsessed with this new unknown star called Mynx (we conveniently never see more of her face than a glimpse of her made-up eyes in an advertisement). She finally goes to confront the celebrity at an in-person appearance before an adoring crowd, pulling a knife as she walks up and stabs her, only to realize that Mynx (DUM DUM DUMMMM!) is actually her sister, who retrieved the enchanted coin from the lake and became a pop star herself. (As soon as they refused to show Mynx’s face, this seemed like the obvious twist ending.)
The very best part of this episode, honestly, was the final shot. As Mynx is bleeding out on the ground, the sound of the tumultuous crowd around her, her hand opens and the coin rolls out. Two shoes come into frame, as we see Jordan Peele bend down, pick up the coin, stick it in his interior breast pocket with a wry look to the camera, and walk out of frame. No ending monologue, just that little visual button–because what else is needed with this story? We all know the lesson.
The weakness of this episode was that the second half felt too rushed, so the ending didn’t feel earned. Jasmine’s “descent into madness” was portrayed more through edits than acting, and it felt very clipped and quick. If the idea was to portray an addict going through withdrawals, that needed to be a bit drawn out. And then there’s the idea of her sister, a successful surgeon, who decides to fish the coin out of the lake so she can become a pop-star…why? The motivation for that seems completely absent because there’s nothing up to that point that would lead you to believe the character would do that. She had been set up as almost dismissive of show business, choosing instead her “real” (and important) job. So this “twist” was both predictable and a bit hollow.
On the whole, decent but predictable, with a few nice moments but a rushed ending.
Episode 2.05 – “Among the Untrodden”
The Premise: A new student at a girls’ boarding school enlists the help of the queen-bee of a mean-girls clique in studying the existence of psychic abilities. What they learn is that the the darkest influences come from the most common of places.
The Pay-off: Of the first 5 episodes of this season, I think “Among the Untrodden” surprised me the most, and I really didn’t expect it to. Once the set-up of the episode was laid out–outsider-Irene helps Mean-Girl-Madison learn to develop her powers–I saw this going one of two ways: either Irene was going to be the villain, manipulating Madison (or perhaps having more terrifying powers of her own) toward some terrible, “be-careful-what-you-wish-for” end; or Madison, having developed these psychic powers, is either driven crazy by knowing too much about other people (echoes of “A Penny for Your Thoughts” from the classic series?) or abuses the powers and makes the people around her suffer (“It’s A Good Life”). What we got instead was something a bit more thoughtful, if a bit muddled: an exploration of the loneliness of popularity (interesting that this episode comes right after “Ovation”).
Rather than leading us to sympathize with Irene as the outsider, the episode leads us to start seeing Madison in a new light; instead of being a cliche, she becomes a more fully-formed character (her posse does not). Madison’s position in the clique is tenuous at best, and as she reaches out for a more authentic friendship with Irene (and begins to be protective of her, sensing the other girls’ motives), she begins to lose her position within the group. Once the science-fair set-up is revealed (buckets of pig’s blood replaced with a monitor bank of embarrassing video playback), Madison’s suspicions are confirmed and the villains are punished, swiftly and horrifically. No need for gore here; the dead-eyed stare of each girl as they are trolleyed into the back of the ambulance was chilling. The final scene between Irene and Madison really worked me over, as I started guessing and then second-guessing what was really going on. Even when the truth was revealed, I was still confused–it took Peele’s closing narration for the last piece to click into place for me.
And that was one of my two issues with the episode: while the story was both familiar and unpredictable, and the way it played out effectively undercut my expectations and kept me guessing, the script and direction could have been a bit tighter, clarifying thematic elements like Madison’s subconscious loneliness. For example, the shot of the pencil disintegrating at the very beginning was visually effective but a bit unclear in retrospect, given what is revealed in the narrative (did she manifest the pencil because she wanted exactly that object to throw at the new girl?). It felt like one more editing pass could have refined the storytelling even more.
The other problem I had with this episode, perhaps unsurprisingly, was the coarseness of the dialogue. I haven’t talked a lot about the “mature content” in this series, because it’s an adult-rated show that clearly indicates in its advertisements and parental warnings that you’ll get strong, profane language and “adult” dialogue in certain episodes. (As with anything I review or discuss in this blog, I ask and expect you to use your judgment when choosing what media to consume.) With this episode, the dialogue felt especially coarse and crude, as these (ostensibly) teenaged girls were discussing sexuality wtih a frankness that I didn’t think was necessary. Others may argue this is “realistic” for teenaged girls (Lord help us), but it still felt gross to listen in on that kind of conversation, especially coming out of underaged girls.
All of that said, this was definitely one of the best episodes from the first half of Season 2, even despite the writing/direction issues.
Half-way through Season 2! So what are my thoughts thusfar?
I’m reminded of the Season 1 finale, in which the main character argues that The Twilight Zone should be about the message and not the scares, and she then learns from the Blurryman that the scares are important, too–as in-universe Jordan Peele says, there’s no reason it can’t be both.
Even though Win Rosenfeld, one of the series’ producers, said in an interview with Tom Elliott right before Season 2 aired that he definitely wanted it to be a message show, it honestly feels like these first five episodes of Season 2 have played it relatively safe–almost too safe. And I realize that I could be accused of wanting to have it both ways, because I critiqued the first season’s preachiness, but in my defense, I said how much I enjoyed the well-done “message” episodes. I’m not against social issues in art–just the ham-fisted presentation of them.
This season, the writing is more focused on the narrative hook, which is a nice change of pace. While some of the twists seem to be telegraphed (e.g. the ending of “Meet in the Middle” or the identity of Mynx in “Ovation”), it’s still been enjoyable to watch these twists play out. I’m hoping that the second half of the season has even greater surprises. The showrunners still have to be willing to take some chances, even if they don’t all land. So far, they’ve done solid work, and are set-up to finish the season strong.
I’ll be back with the back-half of Season 2 in a few weeks. Until then, I’d love to hear your feedback in the comments below!
The Premise: During the final countdown before a manned mission to Mars, the 6-member crew of the Bradbury learns that nuclear war has begun. Facing certain death if they abort the launch, they decide to complete the mission without hope of support–only to begin questioning later what really happened.
The Payoff: Finally, a space travel episode! Not to say that The Twilight Zone is limited to science fiction, but it’s nice for them finally to touch base with the genre that was so associated with the original series. The opening of this episode was killer—the playful elation of the crew as they finish up pre-launch checks, abruptly undercut by the dread and horror of the announced missile strike and the awful implications of their next vital decision: complete the mission, knowing they likely won’t have any support from home, or accept their fate and perish with the rest of the city?
The episode unfolds as a series of snapshots or vignettes, each tagged with the number of days left until the team expects to arrive on Mars. You get to see little pieces of most of the crew’s backstory, though the focus is mainly on the captain. The crew tries their best to keep things going as they should, even under these circumstances. One of the concepts bandied about during these sequences is the idea of a “great filter”–that a species’ level of advancement depends on whether or not they develop the technology (and wherewithal) to explore other worlds, before they destroy themselves.
During these sequences, it’s clear that something’s just a bit off with Jerry, one of the crew members. He finally snaps during a potentially life-threatening solar flare, and tells his panicked crewmates that they have nothing to worry about–he’s convinced this is all a simulation. When he goes out into the unshielded air lock to prove it, he disappears, apparently consumed by the heat, and the rest of the team resigns itself to completing the mission–but always with a question in the back of their minds: “What if Jerry was right?”
Well, here’s the spoiler: he was…and he wasn’t. The crew makes it to Mars (presumably) but the final scene reveals that some unseen higher beings have been observing their efforts. The “great filter” idea pays off here, as the aliens comment on the perseverance of the humans, as well as the actions of the one who figured out they were watching (whom they saved from the solar flare). This opens up the idea of aliens within this TZ2019 universe (and it is a shared universe, as there are references to this space mission back in “Nightmare”), but it seems that this thread will not be picked up again, at least in Season 1.
This episode was strange but fun, and I probably could use another viewing to really “get” it. In some ways, this felt like a set-up episode for a future storyline (which is weird, since this is an anthology show–right? Maybe, maybe not…)
Also, I had no idea what the title refers to, so I looked it up. Per IMDB, this refers to directional movement within a simulation: up/down, left/right, forward/backward, pitch, roll, and yaw. So that’s fun; thanks, IMDB!
Episode 1.07 – “Not All Men”
The Premise: A meteor storm in a small town affects the behavior of about half of the residents, in increasingly terrifying ways.
The Pay-off: This episode…oof. The thing is, I suspect any negative comments I have about this episode might be written off as “male fragility” or “mansplaining” or somesuch, so it makes me slightly hesitant to bother laying out the problems I had with it. Truth be told, there were a lot of things I thought this episode did rather well. The way the main character Annie was depicted enduring instances of everyday sexism was a thought-provoking way to address the real misogyny that exists in our society. The quiet admission of her sister Martha that she had been (presumably) assaulted during her dating years was heart-breaking. The cinematography of the birthday cake scene was terrifying and effective. The acting was pretty solid across the board. And though I sometimes struggle with the phrase “toxic masculinity” (especially since it is often attached to any traditionally masculine ideals/tropes, rather than just negative ones), there are legitimate conversations to be had about the way some men treat women in our culture, and art is often a great way to instigate those conversations.
That said, the big problem with this episode, as with “The Wunderkind,” is that the writer/director took the central conceit of a meteor rock bringing out the worst traits of the men in the town, and used it like a sledgehammer. Once the chaos ramped up and the episode shifted to almost a zombie-horror tale (which, again, I thought was a cool choice, honestly), all subtlety from the first part of the episode was destroyed, to the point that the end narration of the episode basically argues, “yes, basically all men.” (Get it? The episode title was ironic.)
This is an episode I wish I could hash out in friendly coversation, because it’s worth discussing and my feelings on it are truly mixed. The two biggest issues I have with the writing of this episode are 1) the story’s thematic inconsistency, and 2) the inadequate worldview expressed. In brief:
1) Annie and her sister Martha seek to escape the deranged men of the town, and they hope that police or military responders will help to defend/rescue them from the threat–even though these organizations also employ *gasp!* men. So, is it that all men are capable of these evils, except for those in uniform? (We know the answer to that.) Despite the best efforts of the progressive writing, this common theme still peeks through: Annie and Martha are hoping for a defender who will protect them by displaying courage and sacrifice (two traits classically associated with noble or honorable men [though not exclusively men]). What felt so broken about this plot was that there were no noble men. (Or at least, noble straight men, as the only example shown of a man resisting the meteor madness was a gay teenager. It almost seems as if acknowledging a need for noble heterosexual men would undercut the whole point of the episode. Maybe it would.)
And I want to be very clear: I’m not saying that these characteristics of nobility are exclusive to men–not at all. But the episode seems to imply that such men do not exist in the real world, that all men can be seen as potential threats, and that rings false, at least to me. But I’m not a woman, so perhaps the point is that this is true from a woman’s perspective (though that seems to categorize the female experience as monolithic).
2) The story seems to present toxic masculinity as a product of masculinity and not a product of sin. For this, I’d point to the gas station scene, in which Martha tries to gin up some reaction to the meteor rock but can’t do so because she doesn’t have the…testosterone, I guess? (Frankly, if they somehow linked the meteor rock to reactions with testosterone, that would have made more sense, but whatever.) The clear implication is that she isn’t reacting because she isn’t a man. As a Christian, I believe that instances of (actual) toxic masculinity are the product of a sinful nature–which is not limited to only one gender. The more interesting writing choice, I think, would have been for the meteor rock to affect both men AND women, if in different ways. This would have opened up an interesting exploration of the darkness of human nature as a whole, in a sci-fi/horror context, in which you could still address male sexual aggression and random acts of violence. But then again, that doesn’t seem to be the goal of the writers.
Like “The Wunderkind,” “Not All Men” was an episode I didn’t really enjoy–not because the subject matter bothered me, but because I thought the simplistic execution wasted the storytelling opportunity in order to score political/cultural points.
Episode 1.08 – “Point of Origin”
The Premise: Eve, an upper-class housewife in a picture-perfect suburb, suspects that something is not quite right with her idyllic life. After she is taken into custody by mysterious agents, this suspicion is proven correct as Eve’s entire reality is turned upside-down.
The Pay-off: This episode was another mixed-bag for me. The overarching theme of immigration is pretty on-the-nose, but I still liked several elements of this episode. Perhaps my issue is that I was hoping for a bit more to it. Granted, it’s an anthology show, so we can’t expect deep lore when there’s only a single episode to work with, but when you drop parallel-dimension travel on me, along with an agency that’s tasked with capturing the people who don’t belong in this world, I’m going to want to see how this progresses. Of course, these are all analogs for real-world groups and organizations, but this episode does just enough to make this scenario feel different and fresh. Ginnifer Goodwin gives a fantastic turn as Eve and drew my sympathy almost immediately. The actor playing her main nemesis brought the appropriate amount of cold, bureaucratic creepiness, and that beautiful machine they used with the “Eye of the Beholder” facemask was a glorious Easter egg.
The immigration commentary was laid on a little thick at parts (the “ladies who lunch” were basically all right-wing stereotypes in fancy outfits), and the part when Anna calls out Eve’s shallow interest in her life was a little heavy-handed but still worked for me. And then there was Jordan Peele’s tsk-tsking closing narration about how we’re “all immigrants.” Okay, y’all. We get it. Now let me get back to the science fiction, please.
I agree with Mark Ramsey’s comments on The Twilight Zone Podcast‘s discussion of this episode: part of the problem was that the people the showrunners wanted to zing with this social commentary probably won’t relate to the upper-crust, fancy-home-with-a-housekeeper type (though I would also suggest that those who fit the main character’s social set may also harbor such views, at least subconsciously, but would see themselves as champions of social causes).
I guess I don’t have much else to say about this one. As I said, it felt like an interesting teaser but left me wanting more.
Episode 1.09 – “The Blue Scorpion”
The Premise: An anthropology professor comes into possession of an allegedly cursed pistol when his father commits suicide with it. This strange and beautiful object begins to control the man’s life, with possibly deadly results.
The Pay-off: I loved this episode…right up until the closing narration. Chris O’Dowd (of “IT Crowd” fame) plays the lead character’s descent into obsession in this episode as a slow boil, and it really makes for a captivating performance. The episode is beautifully shot, and the set decorations and props are top notch. The eponymous gun is a beautiful piece, and it makes sense that it is such a point of fascination for so many. I thought the “JEFF” bullet was a nice touch and added a sense of dread as more and more Jeff’s enter the story. While the episode didn’t resolve the way I expected and was a bit anti-climactic after the growing tension of the episode, it wasn’t bad. Just a little underwhelming.
But then you get the closing narration, in which Peele talks about how…we love guns more than people? I mean, I guess you can make that connection (see the statement, “I love him more than I ever loved you” throughout), but it reeeeeeally feels like a stretch. Aside from the shooting-range scene, this whole episode could have centered around another “cursed object” and it still might have worked with a few narrative tweaks. After enjoying the episode as a well-done “cursed object” story, Peele’s moralizing at the end confused me. I thought, “Wait a minute–was that really what this was all about?”
I don’t know, Mr. Peele. Sometimes a pistol is just a pistol.
Episode 1.10 – “Blurryman”
The Premise: Sophie, a writer for the 2019 reboot of The Twilight Zone (!!!), finds herself in a strange and terrifying situation, as the wall between reality and fiction dissolves and she is stalked by a mysterious, shadowy figure.
The Pay-off: In a season of up-and-down episodes, the first series ends with one of the very best outings, both in terms of writing and execution. I absolutely loved the meta-references, and the reveal of the “Blurryman” having been present in earlier episodes of the season blew me away.
There were so many things to applaud in this episode. The acting was on-point. Zazie Beetz killed it as the writer Sophie, Jordan Peele played a slightly more arch version of himself, and the cameos were all delightful. (Truth be told, I’d love to see an actual TZ episode with Seth Rogen playing a lead role, but I think that’s ruined now!) The set design and use of previous locations and props were delightful (for example, including the bar from “The Wunderkind” was a great call-back). The creepiness of the Blurryman’s slow approach was pitch-perfect, even if the chase was perhaps a bit over-long. The only production weakness was a wonky bit of CGI on the Blurryman reveal, but I can forgive that. It’s high-end TV, but it’s still TV.
[SPOILER] And in the end, what’s chasing Sophie is the “ghost” of Rod Serling himself, because of course it is. This was pretty obvious early on (though that may be because Tom Elliot and Luke Own actually pointed out the Serling-like blurry figure in the background of the climax to “Replay,” so I was already a bit primed for it! But from a metaphorical standpoint, it’s just so perfect. This iteration of the show has been trying to both honor and differentiate itself from its legendary godfather. Reportedly, Serling’s widow was involved in the production of this episode as well, so there was a real care taken to honor the legacy with which they have been entrusted.
This episode, like “Replay,” had me literally sitting up at the edge of my seat, mouth agape and slightly smiling, muttering responses back to the TV throughout the episode. I was fully and thoroughly engaged and delighted. And in the end, when “Rod” takes Sophie through the doorway to another dimension, I just shook my head and smiled. Perfect ending. (Plus, I loved the fact that young Sophie’s touchpoint for The Twilight Zone was one of my all-time favorite episodes, “Time Enough at Last”!)
“Blurryman” was nearly perfect as a Twilight Zone episode and helped to successfully cap off a generally-good first season of the 2019 update.
So what did I think of the season as a whole?
One of the most important exchanges of the season finale was early on, when Sophie and “Jordan”discuss what The Twilight Zone *should* be: is it just scary campfire stories, or a vehicle for social commentary? “Jordan” suggests it can be both. Sophie struggles with this idea until the Blurryman shows her that there is room for both: you shouldn’t lose the childlike wonder and delight of a scary campfire story, even as you are trying to point to larger issues.
This right here is the crux of the season, the series, and my sometimes-frustration with the 2019 version of the show. There were times throughout this first season when the balance of story and social commentary felt really off. A recent interview on The Twilight Zone Podcast with the show’s executive producer Win Rosenfeld indicated that he very intentionally wants to make political statements with the show–which is fine, in my view. However, political statements don’t guarantee good or even effective art.
There were episodes in Season 1 that handled social commentary in a way that felt natural to the story, such that the use of tropes and cliches were minimized and the narrative worked very well. There were other episodes that felt like the writer was assigned a message or moral, and tried to slap a story around that like papier-mache. Frankly, the stories that felt the least political seemed the most successful as Twilight Zone episodes, even if they didn’t move me particularly as a viewer.
I find myself going back to a word I’ve used repeatedly so far in these reviews: subtlety. When the message is surface-level and the characterizations are cliched, the show feels clunky like every other politically-driven scripted show on television. But when the story comes first, when the characters feel authentic, then even a plainly-moralizing episode still works, because that’s what the original series did, in my opinion. The most overtly-political episodes still worked because the writers/showrunners were storytellers first and pundits second. My favorite episode of the season was clearly a “message” episode, but it had enough layers and complexity that it rewarded more contemplation after viewing.
My hope is that Season 2 continues that trend, with strong narratives and characterization, so that the thematic takeaway isn’t front-and-center in each episode.
Here’s my personal ranking of worst-to-best for this first season of the 2019 Twilight Zone reboot series:
10. “The Wunderkind” 9. “Not All Men” 8. “A. Traveller” 7. “Point of Origin” 6. “The Comedian” 5. “Six Degrees of Freedom” 4. “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet” 3. “The Blue Scorpion” 2. “Blurryman” 1. “Replay”
That’s all I’ve got for Season 1 of The Twilight Zone (2019)!
What did you think of the first season? What were your favorite epispodes? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.
Coming soon: I’ll review the first 5 episodes of Season 2! See you there!
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!
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.”)
Five Season 1 episodes down, five to go! Do you agree with my takes? Disagree? Did I miss something? Comment below!
My earliest memory of The Twilight Zone was from 7th or 8th grade, at my friend Adam’s house, staying up late watching an all-night marathon on a local TV station (aired on New Year’s Eve, as I recall). Much of my early exposure to The Twilight Zone was in that format: holiday marathons of the “top” 10 or 20 most popular episodes on late-night local TV or cable channels.
It wasn’t until a few years ago that I realized that I really hadn’t seen very many episodes of the classic series–certainly fewer than 50 out of the 120+ half-hour episodes. With the advent of Netflix streaming (and discovering online resources like Tom Elliot’s fantastic Twilight Zone Podcast–definitely check that out!), I not only started filling in the gaps of my Twilight Zone viewing, but I also became aware of an entire season I had missed because those episodes were made for an hour-long format and most stations never air those longer episodes as reruns.
Over the last 2 years, I have almost completely caught up on what has become one of my favorite television shows of all time. While not every episode is a masterpiece, each season was packed with inventive ideas and challenging storylines. Serling and his team didn’t shy away from tackling social issues and political viewpoints, but they often did so under the cover of allegory and genre storytelling so that the message became a little more palatable. Serling himself became a modern-day Aesop, often underlining the moral of the story in his closing narration.
When I heard in 2018 that CBS was developing an updated version of the series, with Jordan Peele producing and starring in the “narrator” role, I was cautiously optimistic. I had just recently watched Get Out and was struck by how deftly (even Serling-like) Peele had been able to weave social commentary into an otherwise straightforward horror story. Like so many other TZ fans, I kept thinking, Don’t mess it up. Please don’t mess it up.
So did the new Twilight Zone live up to the legend of the classic? It took me more than a year to find out, as it happens. Life got busy, as it so often does, and it wasn’t until I heard that Season 2 would be released in its entirety in late June that I decided to “step through the door.” The question remained, however: what exactly would I find on the other side?
In Praise of Peele (and the Production Team)
So far, I’ve watched all of the first season. I’ll provide a brief analysis of each episode in the next few posts in this series, but I wanted to give my initial (spoiler-free) impressions here.
Let’s start with Peele himself. Stepping into the black suit (sans cigarette, naturally) would be a daunting task for anyone, but Peele brings the requisite mystery and cool restraint to the role (except…when he doesn’t–we’ll get there). He isn’t trying to recreate Rod Serling (except…well, we’ll get there), but instead to honor his legacy by taking up the mantle of the enigmatic, omniscient Narrator. He’s the one taking us on this journey (except…you know), and he does a bang-up job helping this show really feel like The Twilight Zone.
The show is cinematic and gorgeous to look at. The music evokes the appropriate off-kilter vibe, even reusing the end credits music from the original series. The production design and cinematography are spot-on, even down to small details like the fonts and layout of the title screen and end credits text. While a little bit of the CGI is limited by a TV-show budget, the practical effects are on point. Almost every episode includes very subtle easter eggs and callbacks to the original series that will make longtime fans positively giddy but will rarely distract a casual fan who’s only interested in the current story.
As an anthology show, The Twilight Zone runs the gamut in tone and tension, with some episodes being strange and intriguing and others being downright squirm-eliciting and bone-chilling. The production elements are employed well to create the mood of each episode, helping to draw the viewer into the story effectively.
All of that being said, production values aren’t (often) what made the original series stand out. It was always first and foremost the story and themes that captured our imagination. Does the current iteration have the same magic?
A World of Difference
My best answer to that question is: sometimes? The writing is solid from a technical perspective. The dialogue pops, and the characters generally work. The issue I had at certain points during the season was with how this iteration of the show handled the themes and messaging of each episode.
The Twilight Zone has always been a political show. This is a fact I never really appreciated until I started listen to Tom Elliot’s Twilight Zone podcast (again, recommended if you’re a fan of the series!). Elliot often discusses how Serling and the original show’s writers would sometimes use the genres of sci-fi and horror to make serious and pointed social commentary. When done well, this approach to genre storytelling elevates the form to something timeless and resonant.
In other episodes, the original series would present a type of morality play. Characters with a fatal flaw (hubris, vanity, greed) would receive their comeuppance via a type of karmic justice–as if the Twilight Zone itself was balancing the scales. Down-on-their-luck innocents would finally (usually, fantastically) get their big break. Then there were the episodes that were just strange for their own sake–creepy campfire stories to tell in the dark, strange tales of unimaginable situations and dark ironies. The original series seemed to balance these storytelling approaches fairly well, but I think the first season of the 2019 version struggled in this regard.
Several of the episodes in Season 1 of the 2019 series keyed in on a particular social issue, almost to the point where you could reduce the descriptions of the episodes to “the gun one,” “the racism one,” “the immigration one,” “the toxic masculinity one.” In some cases, the episode was still masterfully written, so that the clear allegory didn’t detract from a compelling story. Other times, it felt like the message was driving the narrative beats, instead of vice versa. The political bent of the show is predictably to the left, but as an ideological conservative I can still find pleasure in an interesting story well-told, even if I disagree with the worldview being expressed. Unfortunately, there were a few times this season where the cliches were a bit too much to overcome.
The other problem I have with this series thusfar is the “mature-rating” content that is employed throughout. Because this new series is written in 2019, it carries with it 2019’s social mores, in terms of sexuality, profanity, and morality. The show is only available on CBS’s premium streaming platform, so they are not constrained by broadcast standards (even 2019’s comparatively relaxed rules). For example, while it wasn’t enough to stop me from finishing the first season, I found the level of profanity in every episode (especially “R-rated” profanity) to be tiresome and entirely unnecessary. There are also a few instances of sexual content sprinkled throughout that, while tame by streaming-TV standards, still didn’t add to the stories and could have been alluded to instead of shown. I recognize that this show is competing in the same market as Black Mirror, Stranger Things, and Dark, but my hope was that The Twilight Zone could find a way to be provocative without being salacious. Some may find that corny; I prefer the term “classic.”
All that to say, I would strongly advise my readers and friends to look into the specifics of what would warrant “parental advisory” or a “mature” rating for this show, and then use their discernment on whether or not to watch (and I definitely wouldn’t recommend any of it for the kiddos).
The New Exhibit
All of that said, I did enjoy the first season of the 2019 series and look forward to checking out Season 2 very soon. (Obviously I did, otherwise I wouldn’t have bothered writing almost 1500 words about it!) I’ll follow up this post with some brief episode-by-episode analysis of both Seasons 1 and 2. (If you’ve made it this far, I assume that might interest you! If not, then thanks for scrolling!)
In summary, if you enjoyed the original Twilight Zone series and aren’t put off by the content issues I’ve addressed, the 2019 TZ might be worth checking out. If you do so (or if you have done so already), I’d be interested to hear your feedback in the comments below and the upcoming episode summary posts!
On the other hand, if the “modern” tone and tenor are enough to keep you away, I’d still recommend going back to the original series and giving it a(nother) watch. Even though some episodes definitely don’t hold up anymore, it’s still a fun ride to take (by yourself or even with the whole family) through a door to another dimension.