The CBS All Access reboot of The Twilight Zone has already received countless column inches in praise or condemnation of its attempts to adapt the iconic TV show for a modern audience. Many of those inches have revolved around heated, knee-jerk audience reactions to the overtly “political” nature of its stories, bickering back and forth about whether The Twilight Zone ought to be an outlet for this kind of discourse. And the thing that pretty much all of these arguments have in common is that they entirely miss the point.
There’s no sense in debating whether a series like The Twilight Zone “should” have episodes that are derisively labeled as “political.” From its inception, Rod Serling’s masterwork anthology series always shined a light on socioeconomic inequality, racism, irrational prejudice and the futility of abject hatred or blind faith. The Twilight Zone was “political” from the start, but it would be fallacious to act as if the show’s political statements always aged well, or were executed effectively. We fondly remember the series’ best and most timeless episodes today, but a cursory glance at our ranking of all 156 original episodes includes just as many that now radiate naiveté, or badly mishandle their attempts at allegory.
You can say this for the original series, though: At least it typically made an attempt to wrap its themes in allegory to begin with. “Replay,” the third episode in the Jordan Peele-produced reboot, hits CBS All Access today with a story that pretty much eschews subtlety altogether. It’s well acted, well produced, well shot, and entirely on the nose—less “fantastical” and more “ripped from the headlines.” You can’t argue against its social relevance, but it’s simultaneously tough to make a case for it as entertainment, given that the latter feels like an afterthought to its timely (but clumsily direct) message. Is it asking too much that a show airing in 2019 present its stories with a bit more sophistication than a series that first aired in 1959? It’s 60 years later, people. Surely our storytelling should have grown in complexity by now, rather than regressed. Instead, “Replay” is like a neon sign, the size of a building, reading “WE ARE MAKING A STATEMENT.”
This episode is the story of single mother Nina, played with effective confusion and mounting desperation by Sanaa Lathan, as she attempts to shepherd her would-be filmmaker son Dorian (Damson Idris) to his university orientation. Stopping at a roadside diner along the way, the pair run into a cartoonishly racist highway patrolman (Glenn Fleshler, doughy and tyrannical), who follows them and begins to hassle/actively threaten Dorian until Nina discovers a helpful trick: The antique camera she’s possessed all her life suddenly seems to be imbued with the ability to rewind time. But can even this device save her son, when fate seems dead set against them?
It’s a classic Twilight Zone premise, quite similar in structure to the uninspired 1963 episode “A Kind of Stopwatch,” about a watch that can literally stop time. That episode was, in and of itself, already cannibalizing many of the themes of the earlier “Time Enough at Last,” but “Replay” isn’t terribly concerned about its deus ex machina. The camera, and its ability to rewind time and re-start the episode’s loop, is simply the device for telling its story about racial discrimination. Never does anyone grapple with the grave implications or responsibilities inherent in possessing such a powerful device in “Replay”—the ways it might be used to change one’s life or be abused for personal gain. It’s merely a tool, a means to an end for Nina to protect her son.
Problem is, no matter what Nina does, things still seem to turn out badly—an obvious commentary on profiling and bias in the justice system, especially as it pertains to situations such as roadside arrests. Fleshler’s “Officer Lasky” is made out to be 100 percent inhuman and cold from the get-go in his interactions with Nina and Dorian, as if every possible interaction he could have with them is destined to inextricably (and immediately, within 60 seconds or less) escalate to violence. No matter how many times Nina uses her newfound camera to rewind time and begin the sequence over again, and no matter what route the two take, they still seem to run afoul of Lasky eventually. And in every scenario, he bluntly and immediately volunteers his racism to the world. There’s never any question of his motivations, his desires, or the root of Lasky’s behavior. As far as this story is concerned, he’s simply a symbol of evil to be overcome. Given the way he treats the protagonists, he seems like someone who would have murdered dozens or hundreds of people in the course of minor disputes already.
With that said, there are a few things “Replay” does do well with its characters. Lasky’s initial appearance, wherein he’s friendly with the Black café owner, does a nice job of showing us that his racism is situational—he doesn’t mind being served chicken fried steak by a Black woman, presumably because he believes on some level that this is the correct station in life for her. Seeing Nina and her son get into a “nice car,” on the other hand—a car that is clearly too nice for them, in his mind—challenges his preconceptions about where black people should exist in society, and activates his instincts as a petty, vindictive tyrant of a small stretch of highway. These are not profound psychological traits, but at least it’s something.
Likewise, I appreciated Nina’s futile attempt to buddy up to Lasky in the diner during one of the camera reboots, stroking his ego as a “public defender” in the hopes of receiving some kind of preferential treatment down the line. It speaks to a universal experience in American society wherein members of minority groups are held to a higher standard than their white neighbors, and feel they must ingratiate and humble themselves before authority figures in order to receive fair treatment. “Replay,” of course, doesn’t trust that any of this is sinking in to its audience, so it has Nina directly reference the Black Lives Matter movement, literally telling Lasky that Dorian “matters.” So it is with this episode: Its few effective moments are undercut by the awkwardness and unnatural cadence of its characters when they start soliloquizing.
The lack of a more measured hand in telling this particular story is all the more disappointing, considering how both producer Jordan Peele and “Replay” director Gerard McMurray have handled similar themes with more finesse and success in the past. Peele’s own Get Out more effectively (and less directly) captures the same anxiety and deep-seated fear of police authority in only a few of that film’s short scenes—especially the early scene with Daniel Kaluuya and Allison Williams being pulled over by an officer who requests identification from Kaluuya. Likewise, McMurray’s horror sequel The First Purge offers a more nuanced allegorical subtext on modern American race relations. “Replay” seems clumsily direct in comparison, running out of supporting ideas quickly, even at a 44 minute runtime.
As a screenwriter, how might the likes of Rod Serling have approached such a situation differently? We’d like to think that he might have found a way to suggest such ripped-from-the-headlines storylines through suggestion rather than blunt force. Perhaps a similar story could have been set in an alien society, or a world of automatons. Perhaps there could have been more consideration of the ethical implications of this magical camera itself. Regardless, it at least seems likely that Serling would have had a little more faith that his audience would understand what he was trying to say.
Here’s hoping that the modern Twilight Zone eventually comes to reflect the obvious talents—and the capacity for subtlety—possessed by its producer and directors. Powerful allegory demands as much.
Read Paste’s previous reviews of The Twilight Zone here.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident genre geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.