‘Twilight Zone’ strays from strengths of original

Photo courtesy of CBS

On April 1, CBS debuted its reboot of the classic sci-fi anthology series, “The Twilight Zone.” The show, which is hosted by Jordan Peele (“Get Out,” “Keanu”), will be released weekly on CBS’s subscription streaming service, CBS All Access. The pilot episode, however, is available for free on Youtube.

While the new series shares its anthology format with the original, it differs drastically from Rod Serling’s series in its style and production quality. Whereas the original series aired in a half-hour time slot, episodes of Peele’s version fill a full hour long slot. The longer time slot is accompanied by a much larger production budget and more elaborate cinematography and effects.

These changes might seem inevitable; television has come a long way since 1959, and film-like production qualities are the norm today. Still, there’s no reason why the new series could not retain the original half-hour format, and fans of the original might be disappointed that the new series didn’t keep things simpler.

The good news for fans of Serling’s masterpiece is that the reboot does not wander too far from the original in tone. The pilot has the same darkness which first made the series famous. 

The pilot episode, titled “The Comedian,” follows a comic portrayed by Kumail Nanjiani (“The Big Sick”) as he achieves success on the standup stage after receiving advice — and a warning — from an older comedian whom he admires. The set-up of the episode is classic “Twilight Zone” — a mysterious, supernatural figure leads the main character down a path to his ruin.

As the episode progresses, the comedian discovers that he has much more success with jokes which are about him and his life personally, and he begins to make personal jokes rather than the political ones around which he used to structure his routine.

The twist comes when Nanjiani discovers that everything he jokes about — from his dog, to his nephew, to his fellow comedians — disappear from existance when he uses them for a joke. 

If the pilot is any indication of things to come, the new show has all the thematic consciousness that made the original great. In addition to simply being a cool story, “The Comedian” has a universal truth at its core. 

Where the new show differs from the original is in the depth with which it covers a topic. The original series, with the exception of a few episodes, was essentially a set of morality tales set to a sci-fi background. Episodes of the new series, however, explore individual concepts for a full hour. The result is that episodes are more thematically deep, but in focusing so much time on one subject, episodes also lose some of their broad appeal. 

“The Comedian” is a great example of this. On its surface, the pilot episode is a Faustian tale of a comedian who gives up everything he holds close in exchange for success on the stage. This is exactly the point at which the original series would have stopped, but a closer examination of the details of the hour-long episode reveal a deeper and more complex message about the nature of comedy, fame and art as a whole.

The episode sees the comedian isolate himself from everything which was actually important in his life on his way to attaining fame, commenting on the side effects of celebrity. 

While this is an interesting development, it requires more effort of the viewer than an episode of the original series would have, and some might argue that the episode over-explores its concept, leading the viewer in too many directions at once.

The pilot does not stop there, either. Observant viewers might notice that the jokes which the comedian tells are not actually particularly funny, despite the laughs they get from their on-screen audience. This is not due to poor writing; rather, it is an intentional choice which the writers use to make their point about comedy. 

The episode argues that comedians do not succeed by telling funny jokes, but rather by exposing their personal lives to the world. Comedy which is not personal will never succeed, because a joke is made first and foremost by its sincerity.

Additionally, the episode seems to be commenting broadly on how artists in general damage their lives by exploring the human condition through the lens of personal experiences. Just as the comedian loses the things in his life about which he jokes, an artist loses his personal identity by exposing it to the world. 

Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with a show commenting on art, comedy or other aspects of the human condition. The problem with “The Comedian” is that it tries to do all of these things at once, all the while working in a format which was once all about simplicity and clarity. The episode ends with none of the finality and certainty which each and every episode of the original series ended with.

The new series also departs from Serling’s show stylistically. The fancy cinematography, the high production values and the dramatic acting, while powerful and immersive, are somehow disappointing when held up next to the style of the original series. Gone is the comfortable simplicity of a show which didn’t lean on camera tricks and loud sound effects to hide flaws in its storytelling. The original series’ greatest strength — at least from the perspective of the modern viewer — was that there was simply no where for the writers to hide. Every episode had to be excellent in every way, because there was nothing with which to distract the viewer. 

Compared to the original, the new series is downright disorienting, distracting the viewer with over-the-top camera effects and taking away from the beauty of the writing and the narrative.

Fans of the original series are probably going to approach Jordan Peele’s take on “The Twilight Zone” with some caution ­— reboots rarely live up to the quality of the original — and that is a good thing. While the new series is objectively better than the original in practically every way, those who fell in love with the original for its beautiful simplicity will most likely hate the reboot for all of the things which on the surface make it better.