THE TWILIGHT ZONE
Season 1, Episode 1
Available on CBS All-Access (new episodes uploaded every Thursday, starting 4/11)
Every single night, comedian Samir Wassan (Kumail Nanjiani) goes on a stage and attempts to be topical. He starts each one of his sets ridiculing The Second Amendment for being just 27 words long, three of which happen to be “A well regulated”. He remarks that it’s “11 percent” of the entire Amendment which is sad because it’s like an airline flight “that only gets you 89 percent of the way to your destination”. I’m paraphrasing here but you get what Wassan’s attempting to say. Or perhaps you don’t. Or perhaps you’re worn out by the extensive coverage of tragic shootings on television that you can’t bring yourself to laugh. Or…whatever. Nobody’s laughing. But this doesn’t stop Wassan as he struggles each night, attempting to get more than a giggle from his audience. By talking about evil Presidents and horribly flawed firearm laws, he believes he’s doing the world a service. Except nobody else agrees with him.
Luckily, his fortunes change when he meets the great “JC Wheeler” (Tracy Morgan) at the bar inside the club. Wheeler, as it turns out, is a comedy legend who walked away from the game at his height. For some reason, Wheeler knows the secret of comedy: “put yourself out there, get personal and greatness will come”. Everything that Wassan opens up to his audience about will end up being forever theirs and, somehow, gone for good. Wassan learns this fast when he compares his apathetic, confused audience to his “dog while he’s taking a shit”. He’s surprised when his joke sticks the landing and gets over with the audience, so he hits that note over and over, topping off a fairly successful set. Wassan is excited to tell his girlfriend (Amara Karan) all about his night, but wonders where their dog went since he’s used to him greeting him at the door. That’s when Wassan gets a bit of a mild shock: his girlfriend tells them that they don’t have a dog and never did.
Thinking it’s a prank, Wassan continues with life as usual, inviting his girlfriend’s 10-year-old nephew, Devon, to watch his set. When he mocks Devon during his set, Devon disappears, too…and nobody except Samir remembers he was even a thing. After the initial shock passes, Samir realizes he can finally use his newly-acquired powers for good, targeting terrible people on the Internet: right wing nutjobs, misogynists, white supremacists, and the like. But Samir has underlying issues: he’s the type who seeks validation from others. He wants to be liked and he has hang-ups about the people he knows and loves. So, when his insecurities drive him to eliminate people who are barely on the cusp of irritation, Samir does so without question.
When one thinks of “The Twilight Zone”, the first word that one may think of is “legendary”. It’s been 60 years since we first took a trip into the Fifth Dimension and got gut-punched nearly every single week by host and writer Rod Serling as he gave us glimpses of the darker sides of our imaginations. His stories, morals and messages still resonate today as evidenced by three re-boots, a feature film, a television special featuring “lost” episodes, a magazine series, books and a pinball machine which stands as one of the greatest of its type by several connoisseurs. Peele is fresh off his critical successes of “Get Out” and “Us” which felt like Twilight Zone stories. But while he produces the series, he has yet to write or direct anything we’re seeing here. Thus, “The Comedian” is only a decent start to Jordan Peele’s version of “The Twilight Zone”, one of the most hyped-up re-boots in recent memory. However, like its protagonist, it’s also frustrating when it should be engaging.
While Tracy Morgan plays his role with gusto, the Satan in Human Form trope (something the series has been famous for) feels a touch worn out, as is endowing protagonists with supernatural abilities and putting them in situations that have no real explanation beyond the sake of being creepy or unsettling. The problem, I think, is that there’s no background for Wheeler. He’s just “a legendary comedian” who just happens to stop by Eddies Bar (yes, “there’s no apostrophe in ‘Eddies’ as Devon points out) and, by the way, he has superpowers now and he can pass them on to whomever he chooses. It’s also unbelievable that Samir would actually invite and subject his very young nephew to his and other comedians’ comedy sets when 1) the entertainment is foul-mouthed and 2) late night comedy clubs don’t actually let minors into the building because of the first point. But, here we are. That’s what’s put on the table and the entire point, I suppose, is that we’re being taught a lesson on sacrifice for personal gain. It also fails to stick the landing which, anyone could tell you, is pretty important in this series, serving up four different “twists” (if you’re counting the reveal after Peele’s ending monologue), one that’s fairly obvious; one that is just plain unexplainable, seemingly existing just to give us a somewhat “happier” ending (Devon?! Come on…); one that just serves to make the audience say “here we go again”; and one that’s just ill-advised, especially with regard to its execution. With a runtime of 55 minutes, that final shot of the club’s wall (shamelessly ripping off “The Shining”) could have been something. Instead, it feels like Pink Floyd done by a cheap cover band. One of these endings would have been enough but it seems as writer Alex Rubens (Rick & Morty, Community) wanted to toss everything but the kitchen sink at the audience in an attempt to be clever when keeping it simple might have been the best choice.
That isn’t to say the episode doesn’t work.
The atmosphere is beautiful, giving us that flawless paranoid Zone noir we’ve come to know and love. Even when the episode shows us a comedy club and we’re hearing jokes being flung at the audience, the place feels creepy thanks to claustrophobic photography and close-ups of a nervous Samir as he gets through another shaky performance. When Samir is angry and loses his mind, focusing his rage on his targets, and his audience laughs until they’re choking on their drinks, there’s no humor to be had. Samir is fire and brimstone. His audience is cult-like, cheering him on, lapping him up, worshipping him like a god on social media. These moments are ironically nightmarish and chilling, just as they should be. The club’s mural in the background recalls the creepiness of Rod Serling’s “Night Gallery”, his lesser-known foray into the unknown, post-Zone. Every performance in the episode is outstanding. The chemistry between Nanjiani and Karan is wonderful and feels real, so it’s that much more heartbreaking when Samir ends up inadvertently wrecking part of life with his girlfriend when his insecurities get the best of him, a twist that really could have served as the episode’s final moral had the episode been shorter and more tightly written.
So, “The Comedian” is a good start into Peele’s fifth dimension, not a great one. But, then, not every single episode of the original was a classic. It’s just that the good ones were so great, they made us forget the lesser efforts.
LOST IN THE ZONE
- Astute viewers with a sharp eye will recognize the ventriloquist dummy from the 1959 series’ classic “The Dummy” sitting in the breakroom of the club.
- Nobody can top Rod Serling and Jordan Peele knows that even though he’s there with the trademark suit and deadpan narration. He is, however, perfectly at home and at ease here as if he was made for this and he’s the best re-boot narrator thus far.
- The end credits are a great callback to the classic series consisting of the credits playing over a signature shot from each episode as Marius Constant’s end credit variation of the T-Zone theme plays, ominously, to complete the effect.
- The club is “Eddies” with no apostrophe. Some speculation here: an “eddy” is a “circular movement of water, counter to the main current”. Since there’s no apostrophe, one could assume that “Eddies” is the plural of “Eddy” which explains how the episode sees Samir attempting to go against the grain, only to send everything looping around toward the beginning.