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Jordan Peele’s Twilight Zone reboot leans too heavily on the original

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The first four episodes rehash classic plots, but one is brilliant

Photo by Robert Falconer / CBS Interactive

Rod Serling’s anthology series The Twilight Zone has been remade, parodied, and imitated so many times since it premiered in 1959 that almost everyone can name its episode components: something weird happens, the narrator lets viewers know a bit more about what’s going on, then there’s a twist and a moral message, which is elaborated in the narrator’s parting lines.

What makes a good episode of The Twilight Zone is much harder to articulate. But it’s clear from CBS’s first four episodes of the newest version of the series, produced and hosted by Get Out and Us writer-director Jordan Peele, that it doesn’t involve playing it safe. All four of the initial episodes parallel specific earlier episodes, and the closer they hew to the originals, the weaker they are.

Case in point is “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet,” a remake of the classic 1963 episode “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” which starred William Shatner as a man who recently suffered a nervous breakdown who’s now trying to figure out whether a gremlin trying to destroy the flight he’s on is real or a hallucination. (The same episode was remade in 1983’s Twilight Zone: The Movie, with John Lithgow in Shatner’s role.) The new version puts Adam Scott (Parks and Recreation, The Good Place) in essentially the same role, though instead of a gremlin, he’s facing an episode of a true mystery podcast that’s devoted to discussing the disappearance of the flight he’s on.

Scott’s proven ability to play a calm straight man capable of escalating into heights of agitation and alarm isn’t enough to sustain interest in the story, which delivers an obvious twist and then tries to build on it with a ridiculously implausible ending. Getting Hardcore History’s Dan Carlin to narrate the podcast is an excellent touch, but otherwise, the writers don’t provide any reason why this episode should have been remade yet again.

Photo by Robert Falconer / CBS Interactive

Equally disappointing is “A Traveler,” which is reminiscent of the 1960 episode “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street.” It was previously remade in 2003 at “The Monsters Are On Maple Street.” Like those episodes, “A Traveler” focuses on the residents of a small town who descend into infighting after a series of power outages. But while the previous versions were clear parables about McCarthyism and the fear of terrorism, respectively, “A Traveler” muddies its message by trying to be about too many things and giving the paranoid residents a legitimate target for their fears.

Set on Christmas Eve in a tiny Alaskan town near an Air Force listening station, the episode stars Greg Kinnear as self-important police captain Lane Pendleton, who has a holiday tradition of gathering all of the local luminaries to get drunk, sing karaoke, and watch him magnanimously pardon someone in jail. Kinnear does a great job of eliciting contempt, particularly in his treatment of his subordinate Yuka (Marika Sila). When the time comes for the grand gesture, Yuka finds a previously empty cell occupied by a dapper, cheerful man (The Walking Dead and Burning star Steven Yeun) claiming to be a YouTube travel blogger who’s heard of the captain’s pardon parties and desperately wants to be this year’s guest of honor.

Photo by Robert Falconer / CBS Interactive

While Pendleton is immediately charmed, Yuka sets out to prove that the stranger has a more sinister motive through every means except going on YouTube. The narrative is a mess that shows a poor understanding of why the source material worked by attempting to assign the town too much individual importance while also trying to simultaneously tackle xenophobia, ambition, spite, and convenient ignorance.

The new episodes only succeed when they start using the old framework in ways that are both focused and fresh. “Replay” has the same basic concept as the 1960 episode “A Most Unusual Camera,” but while the classic episode featured a bunch of degenerate gamblers using a future-predicting camera to win big, the updated version puts a camcorder with the ability to reset the past into the hands of Nina (Sanaa Lathan), a single mother taking her son Dorian (Damson Idris) to college for the first time. She uses her power over and over again to try to protect Dorian and herself from racist state trooper Officer Lasky, played with chilling malice by Billions’ Glenn Fleshler.

“Replay” is anchored by genuinely tender moments between Nina and her son that establish their strong bond and address Nina’s unease with decisions that gave her and Dorian a better life but left the rest of her family behind. Writer Selwyn Seyfu Hinds does strong work in establishing their characters, which makes their repeated travails even more tragic and tense as they alternate obsequious and conciliatory roles when confronted by the police. “Replay” lacks a twist, though, and its message about the value of the Black Lives Matter movement is powerful but too heavy-handed.

Photo by Robert Falconer / CBS Interactive

One of the opening episodes lays out a template for how The Twilight Zone can nail the original series’s tone while still telling cohesive, surprising, novel stories. In “The Comedian,” Key & Peele and Community writer Alex Rubens teams up with director Owen Harris, who was responsible for two of Black Mirror’s most emotionally evocative episodes, “San Junipero” and “Be Right Back.” While “The Comedian” has some clear parallels to the 1987 episode “The Card,” it’s really a tribute to the series’s long history of telling stories about people making deals with the devil.

In this case, the devil is wonderfully played by Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock star Tracy Morgan, who appears in the guise of a standup star offering struggling comedian Samir Wassan (Kumail Nanjiani of Silicon Valley and The Big Sick) some notes on how to improve his act. Nanjiani is always great as a sad-sack underdog, and it’s riveting to watch success contort him into a monster as he experiments with his newfound power. Acting like a version of Death Note’s Kira, he convinces himself that what he’s doing isn’t selfish but actually good for the world. The result is an enjoyably twisty tale that keeps its intentions hidden and its action suspenseful until the last moments, finishing with a combination of clever visual and narrative touches that fit perfectly with the series’s sense of disturbing mystery.

Photo by Robert Falconer / CBS Interactive

While The Twilight Zone’s first four episodes have more misses than hits, the series has strong fundamentals. It’s made a commitment to casting diversity, and it’s continuing the series’s original mission statement of using science fiction to talk about the very real issues that face society. Jordan Peele also does a wonderful job as the Narrator, affecting a voice that’s highly reminiscent of the soothing tones Rod Serling used to calm nerves as he introduced and closed out the show’s most disturbing tales. The Twilight Zone has a powerful, intimidating cultural legacy. The reboot’s writers just need to continue to find creative ways to pay tribute to it without being afraid to make the show their own.

The Twilight Zone premieres on Monday, April 1st, on CBS All Access with two initial episodes. New episodes will be available on demand weekly on Thursdays, beginning on April 11th. As of April 1st, the episode “The Comedian” was available to watch on YouTube free without a subscription, on CBS All Access’ channel.

Photo by Robert Falconer / CBS Interactive