The Twilight Zone’s genius blend of sci-fi/fantasy/horror campfire stories—those brave and unflinching moral, ethical, and existential commentaries in the form of modern fables—is universal enough to ensure the series’ timelessness. Rod Serling’s anthology masterwork is, in my opinion, still the greatest TV show that ever graced the small screen. It has resurfaced in one form or another since the original series’ cancellation in 1963. Yet specifically in our deeply divided and volatile sociopolitical times, we’re in desperate need of The Twilight Zone’s wisdom and moral conviction to balance us, giving us fantastical stories about the curious imbalances in the universe.
Thus, after the 1983 movie and the 80s and 00s reboots, The Twilight Zone returned to the zeitgeist in the form of CBS All Access’ Jordan Peele-hosted resurrection, perhaps the most loyal to Serling’s original vision in terms of both technical execution and narrative tone. Peele, whose two features as a writer/director, Get Out and Us, already promised him as Serling’s successor thanks to his distinct ability to boldly examine society’s ills through the prism of pure genre spectacle. But he’s also the perfect host for the new Twilight Zone, as his Serling-like stoic demeanor is balanced with a twisted sense of humor, thanks to his time as a sketch show veteran.
When it comes to Season One’s episodes as whole, it’s a bit of a hit and miss, with more hits towards the end of its run. So let’s enter another dimension and rank all Season One episodes of the new Twilight Zone, from worst to best:
The gun debate—as in, who should have access to what kind of guns in a culture in love with what’s exclusively an instrument of death—is a potent one that feel as if it will tragically never go away. Therefore it makes sense for the contemporary Twilight Zone to tackle it with a story about a liberal professor named Jeff (Chris O’Dowd) who’s shocked to find out that his hippie father has killed himself using a rare gun known only as “The Blue Scorpion.” Not only does the bullet in the gun bear Jeff’s name, but everyone who crosses him also has his name, leading him to believe that he will eventually either kill himself or someone else, while gradually falling in love with the gun due to its hypnotic power. The premise is intriguing, but unfortunately the metaphor around obsessive gun culture is too obvious, and the morally murky ending flat lines by trying to appease both sides of the debate.
This claustrophobic and paranoid thriller, about the officers of a remote Alaska police station at a loss about how to deal with a mysterious tourist (Steven Yeun) who magically appears in a holding cell, starts off promisingly as a slight send-off to original series episode “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street.” Essentially, the tourist seems to know every secret of the officers as well as the town’s tiny population, and uses it to turn them against one another during an especially secluded Christmas party. The tourist’s true identity becomes obvious far before his big reveal, but that’s not why the episode fails. While “Maple Street” opened broad and then tightened its focus to deliver a poignant message, “A Traveler” takes the opposite route and becomes more unnecessarily convoluted as it moves along, to the point where it’s hard to even gauge what the tourist’s motivations and plans were from the start.
The 2019 Twilight Zone has a handful of general issues, but its biggest failure is ignoring the clear lesson to be taken from the original series’ misguided fourth season, which doubled the length of the 25-minute format, resulting in pointless filler that turned most of the episodes into chores. The half-hour length has been, and still is, perfect for a modern fable structure. Streaming shows don’t have to adhere to such strict runtimes, but that doesn’t mean they have to be bloated beyond reason. Take this overlong episode as prime example: The paranoid story (inspired by the classic original series’ “gremlin on the plane” episode “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”) is about a journalist (Adam Scott) listening to a podcast that seems to lay out how the flight he’s on will crash. It could have ended up a streamlined genre tale with a devious twist, but is far too long at 40 minutes, bogged down by too many subplots and character details that go nowhere.
A lot of modern comedy relies on the honest and bare representation of the comic’s personal life. How many times have we seen acts that talk candidly about friends and family members in a way that wholly recreates their essence for the audience? Does the real person then still exist as part of his or her own autonomy, or does their image told through the prism of comedic exaggeration belong to the audience? This intriguing idea is deftly examined in this tongue-in-cheek episode about an up-and-coming comedian (Kumail Nanjiani) who becomes more successful the more he talks about people in his personal life. The catch: Whoever he mentions on stage disappears without a trace, with no else even remembering their existence. Is his success worth his eventual social isolation? The first and third acts do a fine job of driving the point home, but the second act in this hour-long tale gets stuck in an episodic rut as we see one character after another disappear without building any new development in the narrative.
Given our current era of Trumpism, it makes sense for The Twilight Zone to imitate real life in a literal fashion and present this broadly satirical tale of a campaign manager (John Cho) who actually manages to get a child (Jacob Tremblay) elected to the highest office in the land. Peele and Co. have a lot of fun skewering parallels from the 2016 election, with the electorate defending the “freshness and passion” of the kid while touting his lack of experience as a desperately needed change of pace. The problem is that once the initial premise is introduced, we know exactly where the story’s heading, and the episode eventually lacks that cynical Serling bite it desperately needs. “The Wunderkind” seems to be a non-supernatural take on the original series’ episode that perfectly exemplifies our current situation: “It’s a Good Life,” about a tyrant child (Bill Mumy) who uses his telekinetic powers to force adults into worshipping him. Watch that one to drive the point home. Then watch “The Wunderkind” for some harmless fun.
This tense chamber mystery about a crew of astronauts on the first manned mission to Mars, who become stuck in space after Earth is destroyed by nuclear holocaust, contains some of the tightest pacing and buildup of the season. As the crew mourns the loss of not only their loved ones, but their entire civilization as a whole, a rift about the meaning behind their mission, or whether or not it holds any meaning at all anymore, begins to tear apart what may be the last specimens of their species left in the universe. This tense nod to the original series’ many apocalyptic tales does such a good job of establishing its many mysteries, it’s almost a shame that we get an underwhelming explanation that also seems to have been influenced by “Maple Street.” This is one Twilight Zone that should have done away with the twist.
With virulently xenophobic anti-immigrant sentiment on the rise around the world, The Twilight Zone was almost contractually obligated to create an episode around the subject. Ginnifer Goodwin plays Eve, a rich housewife whose Latina maid (Zabryna Guevera) is taken in by immigration. Unironically taking on the role of the white savior, Eve tries to have her maid released, only to find herself in prison and treated as a sub-human creature. But how could that be? She’s a citizen and she’s white. Doesn’t she have any rights? As Eve finds out her true identity, she relies on her friends and even her immediate family to look over this revelation, but she’s in for a rude awakening as she gradually faces what it truly means to now be “the other.” With an exciting prison break sequence at its center, this morally pointed episode exemplifies the saying, “Check your privilege.”
Just adding a hashtag to the start of this story’s title should tell you all you need to know about its subject matter. This episode, written and directed by women, fearlessly skewers toxic masculinity and the normalization of abusive behavior even in the post-#metoo era. It begins with Taissa Farmiga’s Annie going on a date with his co-worker Dylan (Luke Kirby), who flips out on her when she won’t respond to his sexual advances. Annie’s understandably shaken by the experience, but Dylan’s behavior is about to spread into an apocalyptic nightmare, as mysterious pieces of a fallen meteor seem to hypnotize men into acting like monsters. The episode quickly turns into a nerve-racking gender-based survival horror that could have also worked as a killer premise for a feature. The IMDB user reviews of the episode shows a heavy load of #notallmen dudebros bitching about the brilliant final twist, not realizing that their criticism proves its point.
This haunting tale, made all the more despairing and socially immediate due to its bitter connection to real life, takes the premise of the original series’ episode “The Hitchhiker” and deftly applies the ongoing tragedy of police brutality against people of color. Sanaa Lathan is Nina, proudly driving her son (Damson Idris) across the country for his first day of college. On the way, a racist cop (Glenn Fleshler) targets them and makes it his mission to violently harass them. Thankfully, the tragic circumstances of the cop’s actions can be reversed with Nina’s old camcorder, which has the power to reverse time. But no matter how many times Nina travels back to the starting point, and no matter how many ways he tries to avoid him, the cop always finds a way to destroy the lives of her and her son. An especially painful sequence shows Nina trying to become friendly with the officer as she swallows his many racist and hurtful comments, only to be faced with his prejudice once again. This is an especially vital episode for those who find any excuse for abhorrent behavior, and blame the victim for not complying with the police, completely ignoring this country’s ingrained systemic racism in the process.
This brilliantly trippy and meta episode is both a love letter and a cautionary tale for the hardcore Twilight Zone fan. As a die-hard fan who almost went insane ranking all 156 episodes of the original series, I can’t tell you how much I loved the post-modern trickery of “Blurryman”, perhaps the most apt season finale for The Twilight Zone since the original show’s own first season capper, “A World of His Own.” That episode was well ahead of its time with its self-referential nature, so “Blurryman” seems to be obviously inspired by it. It tells the fourth wall-breaking tale of a TV writer (Zazie Beetz) being haunted by a hostile blurry figure with telekinetic powers as she struggles with capturing the appropriate tone of the show she’s writing for. The clever and hilarious way the episode messes with the opening narration is just the start in this thriller full of welcome surprises, especially for fans who have been paying extra attention during the previous nine episodes. The second act might be criticized for turning into a generic monster thriller, but that’s kind of the point considering the story’s themes on art versus entertainment. The emotionally charged finale contains some dodgy CGI, but it’s the thought that counts.