A classic episode of “The Twilight Zone” follows a bookish, bespectacled bank teller so desperate for an escape from his demanding wife and wicked boss that he’s delighted when a nuclear explosion obliterates everyone on Earth but him. Finally he has “time enough at last” to read, uninterrupted. Amid the post-apocalyptic rubble, he happens upon the ruins of the public library and giddily sorts tomes of Shakespeare, Shelley and Shaw into neat little piles to pore through this month and the next month and the one after that. Just as he settles in with a hardcover, though, he slips, his glasses break and he is rendered virtually blind. “It’s not fair! It’s not fair!” the man is left whimpering, surrounded by books he’ll never get to read.
If you were to reboot the story in 2019, it might go a little something like this: Everyone is very excited to see how a buzzy auteur reimagines a beloved sci-fi anthology franchise, but in a cruel twist of fate, nobody can watch the show because it is only available on the risibly obscure streaming service CBS All Access.
For what it’s worth, CBS has tried admirably to make the subscription service worth it, stocking the network’s complete back catalogs and some streaming originals — a deliciously gonzo spinoff of “The Good Wife” and a new “Star Trek” show — behind the paywall. But unless you are the rare TV watcher with a predilection for old episodes of “JAG,” the consumer surplus calculation doesn’t really justify the purchase. That means some genuinely good shows on the site will have very small audiences. And very large potential audiences probably won’t get to watch them (It’s not fair! It’s not fair!)
One of these shows is now Jordan Peele’s (“Us”) uneven, stylish reboot of “The Twilight Zone,” which first aired on CBS from 1959 to 1964, and has actually been revived twice before (both times to middling reviews).
Peele’s version differs conspicuously from the original created by Rod Serling: The episode runtimes are longer, the signature black-and-white motif eschewed for luscious production design that just betrays menacing undertones. The episodes are also rooted in a very different present. In the second episode, “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet,” it is not a Muppet-like gremlin that warns a flight passenger of an imminent crash as in the original, but instead a prophetic podcast.
But not everything of the original “The Twilight Zone” is lost. Still intact are the ominous Faustian bargains, the contrapassos that would raise an eyebrow from Dante, the staunch commitment to poetic justice that is equal parts amusing and agonizing. Peele steps into Serling’s narrator role and does it effortlessly. It’s only when he opens his mouth that you’ll wish he had been a bit more involved — Peele neither writes nor directs the show (though he is an executive producer), and its insipid script is practically screaming for a more inventive hand.
Serling’s original was pithy — sometimes funny, usually chilling, often didactic. And though Peele clearly understands “The Twilight Zone” and its manifest politics, the new version has forsaken what made the show work the first time around: A tight half-hour time-slot meant the twists came so quickly, the repercussive punchlines so unexpectedly, that you couldn’t quite decipher a given episode until it had ended, and you were basking in its lasting impression. The pacing here is assuredly off — the first episode, “The Comedian” is nearly a full hour long, but the thrill of the story wears off well before it ends.
Maybe this is inevitable when an old classic is recalibrated for the prestige TV age. (Fortunately, the show’s portraits of modern anxieties dare to go beyond the reflexive technophobia of “Black Mirror.”) But a show’s new home on a streaming service should ostensibly free it, not limit it. “The Twilight Zone” is, as the show’s opening credits famously declare, a middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition. This reboot treads a far less exciting middle ground: not untethered from convention, but intractably lost, chasing after a purpose that shouldn’t be so difficult to articulate.