CBS All Access’ new version of “The Twilight Zone” is certainly putting itself out there. Using the name of the revered Rod Serling series (1959-64) that hasn’t lost its cachet despite all the times it has been resurrected (this is the fourth series by that name), the new series is demanding attention but also setting the bar high. The network has made the pilot episode available for free on YouTube. But like the titular “Comedian” of the episode, its confidence is misplaced and unearned.
In a dreary hour written by Alex Rubens, “The Big Sick’s” Kumail Nanjiani plays Samir, who goes from unlikable to detestable after accidentally making a devil’s bargain with another famous comedian (Tracy Morgan). It’s certainly the point of the episode that none of the jokes are funny, but still it’s remarkable how flat the episode comes off. “The Twilight Zone” – especially an episode about stand-up comedy — should be a little more fun than this, right?
The point it makes isn’t a bad one: When comedians use material from their real lives, they lose something from their real lives. Writers of any stripe have encountered this before: Their inspiration might come from a real person, but by putting that reality into their writing, they risk offending that real person. Additionally, their fiction (or nonfiction meant for entertainment) can get tangled up with reality. “The Comedian” includes a telling moment when Samir describes himself as a human garbage can that needs to be filled up with validation; he wants to become so successful that he can claim he hates the validation.
These are valid issues for writers and entertainers, but it’s still a lightweight and ridiculous episode. (Samir could’ve figured out to talk about things people find funny – rather than his standard opening about gun control — without having to make a devil’s bargain. It’s such obvious advice it need not come from an ingenious devil figure.) Of course, “Twilight Zone” premises are always ridiculous on the face of it, but in a more surprising and chilling way, ideally.
If this is the episode CBS All Access chose to hook viewers, it doesn’t say much for what’s to come. The previews, too, are a messy hodgepodge aimed to emphasize familiar faces like “Parks and Recreation’s” Adam Scott and “The Walking Dead’s” Steven Yeun. On the other hand, recently minted superstar writer-director Jordan Peele (“Get Out,” “Us”) is the host, and it’s a neat touch that he appears within the sets of the episodes. He co-writes episode two, based on a work by legendary horror novelist Richard Matheson, and “X-Files” veteran Glen Morgan writes episode four.
Still, I was more into the previous “Twilight Zone,” which aired from 2002-03 and was hosted by Forest Whitaker. It definitely had a more engaging pilot, starring Amber Tamblyn as a teen who finds everyone turning against her; Jill Blotevogel, later of “Harper’s Island” and “Scream: The TV Series,” wrote that one. I admit, though, that I didn’t stick around for its whole 43-episode run. There was a lot of good TV on the air back then.
That’s even truer now, with Netflix’s “Black Mirror” exciting folks with its technological premises. I personally dug Amazon’s “Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams” (2018) because of the experimental nature of modern writers adapting PKD short stories with whatever degree of faithfulness they see fit. The new “Twilight Zone” slots into this landscape as the safe-for-CBS series (even though All Access presumably contains niche content). It’s not terrible, but with everything else that’s out there, it’s not worth paying extra for.