“The past is the past,” repeats writer Justin Sanderson (Adam Scott) to himself in “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet,” the second episode of CBS All Access’ The Twilight Zone, resurrected for streaming audiences (beginning April 1) by Jordan Peele, Simon Kinberg and Marco Ramirez. Justin’s mantra is a nod to his story’s status as a reimagining of one of the series’ most beloved tales (1963’s “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”), which itself was remade by George Miller in 1983’s The Twilight Zone: The Movie. Alas, no amount of wink-wink gestures can overshadow the fact that this reboot, at least on the basis of its first four installments, reinforces the lesson learned by the so-so 1985 and 2002 attempts to revive Rod Serling’s masterful 1959-1964 anthology: it’s hard to recapture the magic of a true original.
“Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” concerned a passenger (played by William Shatner, and then John Lithgow) who freaks out aboard an airplane after seeing what he thinks is a monstrous creature on the craft’s wing, destroying its engine. Peele’s new Twilight Zone updates that material by focusing on the strange techno-situation that lands in its protagonist’s hands. A journalist famed for penning a recent magazine article about “The End of Civility,” Justin has no sooner embarked on his transatlantic journey when he discovers, in his seat pocket, an MP3 player boasting a podcast about the mysterious disappearance of the very flight he’s on. This sends him into an understandable panic, racing to stop a catastrophe by deciphering the audio program’s clues, much to the alarm of the staff and his fellow cabinmates. Think Serial as paranoia-inducing prophecy.
Throughout, The Twilight Zone casts its ominous action in distinctly modern terms. The problem is that, in three of its maiden four outings (which run anywhere from 36-54 minutes), both the message and the twist—if a stab at the latter is even made—are so obvious that their wannabe-timeliness can’t save them. Whereas executive-producer Peele has melded supernatural suspense and social commentary to considerable success in his horror films Get Out and Us, his latest—in which he serves as the Serling-stand-in narrator, appearing at each chapter’s beginning and end—is often short on surprise and subtlety.
If “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet” telegraphs its destination early on, it’s nonetheless craftier than the show’s debut, “The Comedian,” about struggling stand-up comic Samir Wassan (Kumail Nanjiani), who spends each night bombing with a didactic routine about the Second Amendment. Salvation arrives in the form of his idol (Tracy Morgan), spouting the sage advice: “Fuck politics. The audience don’t care about what you think. They care about you…Put yourself out there and you will get laughs.” By mining his personal life for bits—first his disobedient dog named “Cat,” then his girlfriend’s nephew, and finally other people he knows and dislikes—Samir becomes a sensation.
Of course, there’s a catch to Samir’s newfound ability to “kill” (pun most certainly intended), and “The Comedian” gives it away so quickly that the entire scenario feels exhausted as soon as it’s begun—all that’s left is to wait for the inevitable cautionary-tale denouement. Like Scott, Nanjiani is an engaging presence who helps keep his vignette from being an outright chore. But the Faustian-bargain nature of his saga, replete with Morgan surrounding himself in clouds of vaping smoke like a 21st century Devil, further gives the entire thing away, leaving only the sight of Nanjiani going through the losing-sight-of-what-really-matters motions.
Still, the series’ early low point is “Replay,” a novel spin on 2002’s “Rewind” which wholly ignores Morgan’s aforementioned advice about avoiding political sermonizing. While driving her son Dorian (Damson Idris) to college, lawyer Nina (Sanaa Lathan) learns that her old camcorder has the power to rewind time. That’s a handy trick, given that white police officer Lasky (Glenn Fleshler) is determined to terrorize them along their way. No matter how many times she tries to redo their trip using different strategies, Lasky proves a persistent menace—thus establishing a clearly defined social-injustice set-up (replete with a Colin Kaepernick reference!) that one assumes will conclude with a thorny, reality-upending revelation. As written by Selwyn Seyfu Hinds, though, “Replay” charts a direct course for defiant-uplifting preaching about the need to reconnect with the past in order to triumph over racist oppression. It’s more of a well-intentioned op-ed piece than something resembling an actual Twilight Zone episode.
Mercifully, things finally get on track with “A Traveler.” Written by executive producer (and long-time The X-Files scribe) Glen Morgan, and directed by The Bad Batch’s Ana Lily Amirpour, this knotty Yuletide yarn shines a glaring light on the tiny enclave of Iglaak, Alaska, where boorish Captain Lane Pendleton (Greg Kinnear) presides over a jolly Christmas Eve party in his police station, highlighted by his annual tradition of pardoning a prisoner. In this case, that would be Jack (Patrick Gallagher), an Inuit who agrees to go along with this charade in order to please his cop sister, whom he criticizes as a “sell-out” for working for the state’s white interlopers. Yet before Jack can be ceremonially released from confinement—and get some of the pumpkin pie he so craves—the evening is upended by the sudden appearance of another cell-block inhabitant. Dressed in a dapper pinstriped suit, the gentleman calls himself “A Traveler” (Steven Yeun), claims to be the host of a YouTube “extreme tourism” show, and is eager to receive an on-camera pardon from Pendleton.
Yuen’s jovial stranger also brings presents of a sort, which puts a Kris Kringle-ish twist on the episode’s portrait of corrupt self-interest. There’s no one-note pedantry here, just an unnerving snapshot of man’s capacity for prizing himself over all other concerns, damn the larger consequences. Enlivened by the superbly sinister performance of Yuen (whose smiles radiate unholy cheer) and Amirpour’s svelte direction, full of creeping camerawork and grotesque close-ups of eggnog, fruit molds and other assorted holiday accouterments, it’s the most visually and narratively inspired of The Twilight Zone’s initial offerings. Moreover, by channeling Serling’s trademark eeriness and ingenuity for a contemporary critique of individual and societal failings, it establishes a template that one hopes proves the rule, rather than the exception, for the series going forward.