Sophie Gelson in ‘Blurryman’ states that the idea of Twilight Zone goes beyond ‘simple campfire stories’ and ‘monsters on a plane wing’, she believes that Rod Serling took these ‘silly genre stuff’ and made it into ‘art for grown-ups’. These words are perhaps intended to show that the makers of the new Twilight Zone (2019) have their hearts in the right place while they go about trying to recreate the magic that Rod Serling was able to generate over six decades ago.

Why was it necessary to state the same? Perhaps the fact that the previous two attempts at remaking the show (1985 and 2002) couldn’t sustain the popularity and duration of the original or maybe the presence of formidable rivals like ‘Black Mirror’ made it necessary for the creators to stress on the ‘originality’ of Twilight Zone; to inform the viewers that it will be different from ‘silly genre stuff’ and will delve into issues not explored in other science-fiction shows. By harking back to the ‘glory’ of the original, it sought to stress on its claim to the legacy of the original as well as attract viewers to something completely different.

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The original Twilight Zone was an anthology series which ran between 1959-1964. Its format included episodes which were about mysterious events with elements of science fiction, horror and supernatural. This became a platform on which the creator Rod Serling (along with a host of writers and directors) was able to engage in social commentary, explore the inner depths of human emotions, make the viewers question their preconceived notions and most importantly, bring excellent stories to life.

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The appeal of the original was in its novelty (‘Judgment Night’ had the perpetrator of a ghastly crime go through a unique ordeal), inclusivity (‘The Big Tall wish’ had black actors in prominent roles, an extremely rare occurrence for its time) and unmasking the unexplained i.e. many unsolved mysteries which have always aroused the curiosity of human mind were given a form and solution. (‘The Odyssey of Flight 33’- dealing with a mysterious disappearance of an aircraft, ‘The Last Flight’- A pilot lands himself into the future).

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The episodes usually had a trigger event, then a middle part: which sometimes involved a decision-making process and finally, an ending that wasn’t conventional. There was a moral message present in several episodes and usually, an unexpected/cruel twist in the end. However, the twist ending could be dispensed with on occasions to stress on the former. For instance, ‘One for the Angels’ has a salesman making a pact with death to take him only after he’s made his greatest pitch of his life and retires thereafter (having seemingly escaped his fate), soon finds himself compelled to make the greatest pitch of his life for a greater cause. In some episodes, the supernatural or science fiction elements could be played down as well, (‘The Brain Center at Whipple’s) focus instead being on the human emotions being dealt with or the social message to be conveyed.

It is but natural that creators of the new series had a great task in recreating the magic of the original, which has often been called one of the greatest and most influential shows of all time. Sadly, other than pressing forward with the intention to be like ‘Twilight Zone’, the first season of the recent revival has little in common with the original. Even worse it suffers from issues with respect to the script, story, characterization and plot development that take away from all the effort that the creators put into making their show believable.

Twilight Zone (2019)

The show has bright moments in terms of good narrative work by Jordan Peele, a genuine attempt at dealing with social and human issues, several tributes to the original, decent acting for most parts of the series and an attempt at creating something new. The basic idea of several episodes is an interesting one such as ‘The Wunderkind’ which has the repercussions of a popular culture icon being given powers in political sphere, ‘Not All Men’ has men of a town unleashing their toxicity after a meteor shower and ‘The Blue Scorpion’ has a mythical gun which has a propensity to change the life of its owners as the basic idea. And that is what makes its failure all the more frustrating.

One of the issues suffered from is lack of a ‘trigger moment’ or cause of action in some of the episodes. For instance, ‘Not All Men’ is a commentary on the machismo culture that pervades in the society and how men act in a physically and sexually aggressive fashion after consumption of certain substances (here reflected by them coming in contact with meteorites), wherein regressive societal attitudes tend to blame the substances for such conduct. The ending shows that the meteorites were merely placebo and this ‘aggression’ was inside them all along (which they could have controlled).

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The concept turns out to be a dud on the screen, because one of the first acts of aggression in public is a bunch of men breaking into a free-for-all at a bar, which then translates into a much larger situation of anarchy in the town. Before this particular event, we are shown two separate cases of men acting in an aggressive fashion while coming in contact with the meteorite.

Nothing else to inform others as to what is the specific quality of this meteorite which should make the townspeople wary (Remember how in Night of the Living Dead the constant news updates over the uncertainty of the new condition creates the fear and panic in minds of the characters as well as the audience), just the very fact that they come in contact with it makes their faces and eyes go red, veins nearly popping out of their bodies and turns them into mini-Hulks. This makes little sense in context of the explanation given at the end of the episode.

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In the end a brilliant idea becomes a sub-par episode. Maybe a shorter episode set in a limited time-space with complex character development (imagine a group going out for a camping trip, out of touch with the outer world comes in contact with the meteorite) would have worked better. For context, ‘The Shelter’ from the original Twilight Zone, was a brilliant study of human nature when pressed to its limits.

The scripts aren’t the strongest suit in some of the episodes and it shows in ‘Nightmare at 30,000 Feet’, where a mysterious podcast from the future acts a guide to a PTSD afflicted journalist on a flight to Tel Aviv. The podcast predicts that the flight would go missing in a few minutes and the journalist tries to race against time to prevent the same. The episode is riddled with sequences where the dialogues between characters feel inadequate. For instance, there is a scene where he tries to interfere with two Sikh gentlemen who are taken aback and remark, “What is he, the Cricket police?” These sequences could’ve been helped if they were phrased better.

Twilight Zone

One of the qualities about the Twilight Zone was its ability to depict social issues by using metaphorical examples in its supernatural world. ‘I am the Night- Color me Black’ from the original had skies turn dark over certain places on Earth with no explanation. By using example of one particular town, it was shown that this was happening over places where hate had overtaken humanity.

The one episode in the modern series that is able to live up to this task is ‘Replay’ which deals with the issue of racial prejudice. A mother uses a magical camcorder (with properties to turn back time after being put on rewind) to save her son from harm, which comes in the form of a policeman. However, every time she tries to switch back and restart things in a manner to not antagonize the policeman (even striking a conversation with him and buying him a dessert), she finds that the policeman still finds one reason or the other to follow them. It becomes clear to the audience that the reaction of the racist policeman would not be any different irrespective of the timeline in which the interaction takes place. Like The Whisperers starring Dame Edith Evans was able to show the idea of elderly isolation and loneliness without ever making it obvious in words, ‘Replay’ makes the viewer feel the agony of being trapped against a prejudiced individual.

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The problem with the first season of the Twilight Zone (2019) is that it remains a mediocre affair. Only two episodes (‘Replay’ and ‘Six Degrees of Freedom’) stand out from the rest, while none of the rest are as bad as ‘The Wunderkind’ (which seems like a quick hash-up of events rather than an actual episode), they fail to elevate themselves to something higher. In the end we must return to ‘Blurryman’ where great promises are made as to the potential of twilight zone, but the very episode acts as a subversion of the classic twilight zone.

The Blurryman appears to torment Sophie: attacking her, chasing her and making her life hell, only to reveal himself eventually as Rod Serling, who promises that they have a lot of work to do and takes her into the Twilight zone. If the intention of ‘Rod Serling’ was to help Sophie and take her into the twilight zone (a symbolic representation of how the new set of writers would carry forward the legacy of Rod Serling), what was the need to torment and torture her through supernatural acts?

It’s as if the new series fell into the trap of engaging in ‘monsters on a plane wing’ and created ‘silly genre stuff’. The original had several episodes where there was no need of a dark ending or a mind-boggling twist in the end. ‘Walking Distance’ was about a simple event of a man walking back into a plane of different time and space, educating the viewers as to the importance of valuing what they have in present instead of living in the past or worrying about future, ‘Nothing in the Dark’ starring Robert Redford, was about a lady who was too afraid of death, only to realize in the end that “…there was nothing in the dark, that wasn’t there when the lights were on…”. There could be several issues to be reflected upon: maybe the length of the episodes could have been improved, the stories and writing definitely need a push for the better, but the makers would have done best by trying to implement the essence and simplicity of the Rod Serling series.

Twilight Zone (2019) Links: IMDb, Wikipedia

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