Rod Serling has always been a bit of a ghost hovering over my life. I grew up in Central New York, where Serling once lived, amidst the places whose names littered The Twilight Zone. When I was a young teenager, I watched the entire run of the The Twilight Zone in order and then the Night Gallery after that. Although I was born years after Serling died, my parents knew some of his friends, and I heard many stories about his life, particularly times spent boating with him on the Finger Lakes. I went to the college where Serling taught in his final years and took classes in the classroom where he once held court. For many years after I graduated, my picture hung in the hall of the Roy H. Park School of Communications next to Serling’s Emmy awards. Discovering that Serling had helped to shepherd the ancient astronaut theory from the fringes of science to mainstream media success shaped my research and formed one of the lynchpins for my first book.
All of this is a long way around saying that I watched the second season of Jordan Peele’s new Twilight Zone, which began airing on CBS All Access (with a preview on Pluto TV) this week, and I thought it was pretty bad. To be fair, most Twilight Zone continuations have been bad. Too much weight comes with carrying on one of TV’s most famous names, but even on its own terms, it’s neither original or successful.
When Peele launched the new Twilight Zone last year, the episodes were a grab-bag, and like any anthology, it was uneven. It generally trended toward more better episodes than terrible ones, but there was a self-referential level that undercut its intentions by calling too much attention to the show insisting it was The Twilight Zone both to viewers and to itself. Last season’s finale, which involved the show literally breaking down into an episode about the show itself being haunted by Serling’s ghost took the conceit too far.
This season doubles down on the worst instincts of the first, grossly misunderstanding what made the original Zone work. Indeed, the episodes this season are dark, skewing into horror far more often than the original Zone ever did. Had Peele renamed the series The Night Gallery, after Serling’s horror-themed successor series, it would have been more appropriate, and I wouldn’t bat an eye. The trouble, though, is that the writers don’t seem to have ever read a horror story, and they are inordinately pleased at turning science fiction premises into horror, apparently unaware that the clichéd stories that feel long at only 30-40 minutes each had been done almost a century ago in the pulp fiction that inspired the original Zone and went much farther than Serling ever could in either series. It doesn’t help that most episodes end on depressing notes that never once reach the sense of clever inevitability that the best of the original achieved.
Perhaps this is best exemplified by “8,” starring comedian Joel McHale as a scientist tangling with an octopus in an Antarctic research station. It is simultaneously a poor pastiche of The Thing and Deep Blue Sea and an awful didactic moral lesson on human arrogance that treats a depressing message as a clever revelation. Even though the octopus was CGI, I felt bad it had to be part of it.
Too many episodes telegraph their conclusions in the first minutes. “Meet in the Middle” bears an uncomfortable resemblance to HBO’s Run, but its psychic element adds nothing but discomfort before ending on a nasty note many viewers will see coming. “A Small Town” with Damon Wayons, Jr. is handsomely produced and has a cute premise about a model of a town that is connected to the real world in a mysterious way, but as soon as the model is introduced, you know what will happen.
“The Who of You,” featuring Ethan Embry and Daniel Sunjata, has more of a classic feel. Embry plays a struggling actor who discovers that he can temporarily trade bodies when he makes eye contact with someone. Sunjata is the detective tracking him down. It had the requisite twist ending and almost felt like the story would be clever, right up until I realized that the writers never actually worked out the rules of the psychic power. They require triple swaps sometimes and doubles other times.
“Ovation,” about a coin that forces audiences to clap for its bearer, is a mindless horror story that thinks it is saying something new about the dangers of fame. It also features singularly unimpressive production design in its several shows within the show.
“Among the Downtrodden” is a pastiche of horror movies about teen girls with magic powers, qualifying as the Twilight Zone only because they are framed as psychical abilities rather than witchcraft. Otherwise, it’s a poorly condensed copy of a 1970s exploitation film, or a slightly less demure copy of one of R. L. Stine’s Haunting Hour episodes.
“Downtime” and “A Human Face” both feature well-known actresses, Morena Baccarin and Jenna Elfman respectively, learning to accept reality. The former would have been a clever story 40 years ago, but it’s not even the first story of being trapped in a computer-generated reality this year. Amazon Prime’s Upload was the better one, though this one rips off The Matrix more. “A Human Face” doesn’t know that it’s a bad copy of an episode from the 1990s Outer Limits, “If These Walls Could Talk,” and it certainly never bothered to think through the implications of its story. A ghostly alien is mimicking Elfman’s daughter, and the writers tell us that it has absorbed the years-dead girl’s “waves” from the energy in the house, including her personality and memories. The episode gets very slippery on issues of epistemology, and it accidentally evinces a belief in life after death and the immortality of the soul, while not actually realizing it did so. There’s also the issue—common in this season—that a real person, after running across an alien that’s threatening to kill them might, you know, run away rather than stick around to monologue about it.
However, credit where it is due: “Try, Try” with Topher Grace and Kylie Bunbury is easily the best of the season. Grace uses his nice-guy persona to good effect, transforming seamlessly from a potential romantic interest to something much more frightening. The episode takes its inspiration from Groundhog Day but plays out the subtext of the Murray character’s creepy stalking by re-centering the story on a baffled woman who refuses to be victimized by toxic masculinity. The episode manages to take on a compelling social issue while keeping the focus on the horror story it is telling, leaving the viewer to make (most of) the connections between its science-fiction narrative and pick-up artist culture, incels, and male entitlement. It’s the only one of the bunch I’d watch again.
The final episode of this season, a subpar Black Mirror pastiche called “You May Also Like,” revisits the classic episode “To Serve Man” to imagine an alternative timeline when the aliens invade in our era. The result, in which a “Karen” type meets the aliens, who talk in TV advertising’s buzzwords and snark, is such a misbegotten piece of “comedy” that it retroactively makes the original Zone’s unfunny episodes seem charming. (Kristen Lopez of Indie Wire called it a “pure masterpiece,” which goes to show that there is no accounting for taste.) It, like last year’s finale, devolves into rather obvious self-referential meta-commentary about the nature of television and how a country run by TV can never be great again. (Subtlety!)
This is actually a theme we see throughout the entire season. Eight or nine of the episodes are either centered on the visual or performing arts or contain significant conversations about them. If the original Zone was outwardly obsessed with outer space, air travel, and wars hot and cold, this season focuses inward, fascinated by the question of why viewers are watching. It highlights, unintentionally, the hall of mirrors our lives have become. But more disturbing, while the original Zone was often dark, it ultimately felt that humans could be great and could choose to have lives of value and worth. This Zone literally argues that we don’t deserve to live and are better off dead.
Time and again, this season hammers home the idea that we are struggling to escape from an unsatisfactory reality by pursuing fantasies that fail us, or deceiving ourselves by ignoring the real world. This may be the great theme of our era, but The Twilight Zone earns no points for doing what every other show on TV is already doing with the same theme.
What’s more interesting, perhaps, is the subtext that emerges from watching all of the episodes together. First, it’s impossible not to notice that Peele has admirably expanded the original Zone’s virtually all-white world into a multiracial one. Last year, the show explored race as an issue, but this year, the characters’ race is irrelevant to the story. Anyone could be slotted into the roles. This strips a layer of depth from the show, but the second bit of subtext makes it worse: Almost every episode this season deals with gender by using the worst gendered stereotypes. Women are either put-upon, flighty and emotional, or shrewish. Men are buffoons, arrogant douchebags, or seemingly nice guys harboring monstrous and violent intentions. “A Human Face” emphasizes the point, with Christopher Meloni’s arrogant douchebag playing off Elfman’s flighty basket-case, but all the episodes are some variation on the theme. It’s depressing and reductive. Only one (presumably) gay person shows up across ten episodes, a predatory queen played by Billy Porter (Pose) with theatrical flair and flowing silk and sass. It’s a weirdly retrograde choice for the only sexual diversity in the season, compounded by reducing the talented Porter to a bit part. Peele has created broad and varied characters of every race, but gender and sexuality in the Twilight Zone remain firmly fixed in the midcentury ideas of the early 1960s.
Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone, at its best, created a sense of the uncanny and aimed for humanism and compassion, that even when we witnessed evil, we could understand how to find the good. Jordan Peele’s Twilight Zone doesn’t think much of humanity, and it never reaches the uncanny because it is always winking and nodding at the audience. You can quote dozens of lines from the original show, but this one had only one memorable one, when an outraged woman yells at a group of space aliens while being abducted and demands: “Your supervisor! Take me to your supervisor!” We get the heroes we deserve.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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