Through Another Dimension: Considering “Twilight Zone 2019” (Part 3) – Season 1, Episodes 6-10

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Welcome back, friends!

Assume the same caveats from my last post, and let’s get into it, shall we?

Episode 1.06 – “Six Degrees of Freedom”

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.

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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.

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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!

Through Another Dimension: Considering “Twilight Zone 2019” (Part 1)

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The After-Hours

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.

Coming Next Week: My thoughts on Twilight Zone 2019 Season 1, Episodes 1-5!