Everyone knows what The Twilight Zone is, even if some have never even seen an episode of the seminal television show. As with pop-cultural landmarks such as Star Trek, Star Wars, or Seinfeld (just to name a few), the familiar tones of “do dee doo doo, do dee doo doo, do dee doo doo” are instantly recognizable as The Twilight Zone theme.
But while the original run of The Twilight Zone (1959–1964) is universally recognized as a classic, any attempts to recreate it have met with mixed success. Now, 60 years after the original series aired—a six-decade time period that included a polarizing big screen adaptation (1983’s Twilight Zone: The Movie) and a failed network television reboot (UPN’s version of the show in 2002)—The Twilight Zone returns on the CBS All Access streaming platform.
But in whose hands do we trust this treasured property? That is perhaps what will make the new version live or die with critics, fans, and newcomers. In the case of this new, unrated version of The Twilight Zone, its caretaker is Hollywood heavyweight Jordan Peele, who is coming off two monster-hit films and an Oscar win. But most importantly, Peele has the cultural cachet as a powerful, believable social commentator which, of course, is what The Twilight Zone was (and is) all about.
On the opening night of the new Twilight Zone, two episodes became available to stream. The first, titled “The Comedian,” is the perfect way to start off the new series. Based off an original script by Alex Rubens (Key and Peele, Rick and Morty) and directed by Owen Harris (Kill Your Friends, Black Mirror), “The Comedian” tackles two major ideas. One: how sacred is originality? And two: if given great power, what do you do with it?
“The Comedian” stars Kumail Nanjiani as Samir Wassan, a comedian with clever material that goes over the heads of most of his audience. In fact, Samir is generally considered unfunny, mostly because he’s going too highbrow and niche. After he bombs one night, Samir comes across legendary comedian J.C. Wheeler (Tracy Morgan) who starts giving Samir advice that turns ambiguous and mildly threatening. In essence, what Wheeler is saying is that once you’ve put your material out into the world and it is embraced, it is gone forever.
Seemingly overnight, Samir goes from unfunny and awkward to getting lots of laughs. His material isn’t as sharp, nor is it as clever, but it seems to appeal to the audience’s base sensibilities and the claps get louder. There seems to be one problem, though. Whenever he brings someone up in his act, to the increasing bemusement of his audience, that person disappears from existence. It starts small, with his own pets and former acquaintances, but soon his family and friends become victims. Once Samir realizes the power he has, his enemies become his new prey.
Nanjiani (who Academy Award trivia nerds know actually lost the Best Original Screenplay Oscar to Jordan Peele in 2018) is his usual self, taking advantage of awkward situations and, when necessary, playing a believably manic personality. Since he is the hero of sorts throughout “The Comedian,” we ride the emotional roller coaster of a constantly shifting reality with him.
What makes the premise so interesting is that we can see both the positives and negatives of Samir’s accidental powers. In some cases, he seeks to right wrongs. But, as an emotional human, he also seeks revenge and his ever-changing world collapses on him. Nanjiani, not known as a deep dramatic actor, does a fantastic job of unraveling throughout the episode’s 55-minute run time.
The episode’s home run is in casting Tracy Morgan as J.C. Wheeler. When I saw Morgan for the first time, I was skeptical. I’ve never exactly been a fan of his comedic style and I didn’t think I could take him seriously in any kind of dramatic role. But Tracy Morgan is—and I can’t believe I’m saying this—genuinely creepy as the Faustian Wheeler. It is clear that Wheeler had sold his soul long ago in order to be generally funny for the masses as opposed to innovative or honest, which would have been more challenging. As a result, it appears he now exists to trap unsuspecting victims in the same vortex he found himself in.
“The Comedian” is a great pilot episode for this new version of the show because it takes a greatest-hits approach to The Twilight Zone mythos. The episode has moments of pure eeriness, bizarre comedy, loopy visuals, and compelling chills. It also creates a back-and-forth debate regarding such concepts as art vs. commercialism and compromise vs. honesty.
I was very surprised at how compelling the first episode of the new Twilight Zone was, so much so that I didn’t want the episode to end. The amount of “woahs,” “uh-ohs,” and “oh gods” that came out of my mouth surprised me a bit. In these cynical times, it is hard to be impressed but “The Comedian” truly grabbed me.
The bittersweet part of any anthology series is that if you find yourself attached to a set of characters or a particular setting, you can only cherish that for 30–60 minutes of viewing time. Since it is not an ongoing series, that one episode is all you get. The world of “The Comedian” is a place I wish I could spend more time in, and I can’t think of a better way to praise the opening episode of a new series.