Rod Serling’s classic “The Twilight Zone” made its debut almost 60 years ago, but each generation seems destined for its own revival. The latest incarnation, courtesy of streaming site CBS All Access, tries to give the sci-fi anthology a new coat of “Black Mirror” polish, with intriguing but mixed results.
Riding high after directing “Get Out” and now “Us,” Jordan Peele has overseen the reboot with Simon Kinberg (a veteran of the “X-Men” franchise), and they have brought the concept to life with both knowing winks to nostalgia and a clear desire to upgrade it for the current moment. The format, moreover, is a casting boon, enticing marquee actors to drop in for an episode.
The four episodes previewed, however, feel a bit more hit-miss than one might have hoped. Some of the stories have firm roots in previous versions of the show, the most obvious being “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet,” a title that recalls not only the gremlin-on-a-plane original featuring William Shatner but the 1983 movie that cast John Lithgow in the role.
Here, the danger isn’t on the wing, but in the cabin – and perhaps the head of a frazzled passenger (Adam Scott), who is convinced the plane he’s aboard is going to crash. It’s the weakest of the four hours, whereas another about a time-zapping camcorder proves the most provocative and urgent, with a concerned mother (Sanaa Lathan) desperately trying to use the device to protect her college-bound son (“Snowfall’s” Damson Idris), triggering unforeseen consequences with each rewind.
Kumail Nanjiani, meanwhile, plays a struggling comedian who discovers the means to achieve fame, albeit at considerable cost; and Steven Yeun is a mysterious prisoner in a remote Alaskan town, in an installment that hews most closely to the Cold War/alien invasion paranoia that was one of the original’s most salient themes.
Lacking the same arsenal of big guns as some other entertainment companies launching streaming services, CBS has been very shrewd about leveraging the genre-friendly titles that it controls, from “Star Trek: Discovery” to this, the granddaddy of all anthology series.
Peele serves as narrator, a task he earnestly approaches with barely a raised eyebrow. Addressing racism, inhumanity and injustice were always a hallmark of the series, and the producers clearly intend to build upon that foundation.
What people remember most, though, were the quality of the twists – from deciphering the riddle of “To Serve Man” to the upside-down world in “Eye of the Beholder” to the reminder to take good care of one’s glasses in “Time Enough at Last.” There was also that sense of strangeness, which explains why the mere mention of entering “The Twilight Zone” evokes images of the inexplicable.
At least initially, little here rises to that level; still, the series generally does an admirable job of paying homage to its origins without being bound by them – not a small feat given the numerous programs and movies that have emulated “The Twilight Zone” without the benefit, and associated burden, of bearing its name.
“The Twilight Zone” premieres April 1 on CBS All Access.