After Get Out and Us, goodwill for Jordan Peele is soaring. The Twilight Zone might pull it back to earth.
The trailers for Peele’s Twilight Zone reboot were released last week and they seemed to open a portal into a dimension, not to sight and sound or of mind, but to worn out scenarios brought to life by beloved but tragically miscast comic actors Adam Scott and Kumail Nanjiani. Scott plays the William Shatner role in a remake of “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” while Nanjiani portrays a comedian who strikes a Faustian bargain with a shadowy, possibly infernal, Tracy Morgan. Peele seems to be drawing on his sketch comedy background, casting comedic actors for dramatic roles—comedy legends Chris O’Dowd and Seth Rogen are also set to appear. So if the show is offering agreeable comedy stars in Twilight Zone-ready premises, why do the trailers seem like they’re hacking at a tree that was chopped down years ago?
Nostalgia-hungry baby boomers have tried to recreate the The Twilight Zone several times since it ended in 1964 and failed horribly each time. Three people died in a helicopter accident on Steven Spielberg’s 1983 Twilight Zone: The Movie set, perhaps the first sign that Hollywood should’ve left well enough alone. CBS rebooted the series for 65 episodes starting in 1985, casting movie stars Bruce Willis, Helen Mirren and Morgan Freeman. The series fizzled due to poor ratings, limping through a third season solely so the network could sell it into syndication. UPN revived in 2002 with Forest Whitaker as the host/narrator, but only managed one 44 episode season that included a cringeworthy sequel to the classic The Twilight Zone evil psychic child episode “It’s A Good Life.” Neither revival came close in capturing the ambience of Serling’s revolutionary series.
But even if the brand itself hasn’t produced further glory, The Twilight Zone has clear descendants. With its mix of expert visual storytelling and preoccupation with the frightening and uncomfortable possibilities of technology, Netflix’s science fiction anthology Black Mirror is the closest thing we’re likely to get to a modern iteration. Like The Twilight Zone, it reflects and explores its current moment.
Each Twilight Zone reboot failed for the same reason: lack of modern relevance and purpose. They were ill-conceived, poorly made retreads trying to capture the magic of a well-executed original idea. Serling created a show uniquely suited for its time. But in attempting to remake The Twilight Zone, nostalgic producers relied too much on past success instead of the show’s (and its creator’s) visionary ability to look at the past and future. If the new revival sticks to the same formula, it’s destined for failure.
Peele himself could make all the difference. The creator of allegorical horror masterwork Get Out is enough of a draw on his own. CBS hopes fans of Peele’s movies love him enough to subscribe to CBS’ streaming service to watch Twilight Zone. But surely they see him as a visionary worthy of reviving the vaunted sci-fi brand—like Serling, Peele wants to tell audience-pleasing stories that also mean something. He’s also proven he has far more insight into race than the original Twilight Zone or Black Mirror, a show whose biggest flaw is imagining dystopian futures where racism is less of a problem than iPhone apps. Peele’s involvement offers hope for Twilight Zone, while failed revivals of years past should provide fair warning.