The latest iteration of the groundbreaking, influential TV classic The Twilight Zone takes some great chances with its first two episodes, both available now on CBS All Access. Here's a quick rundown:
- One of the episodes is Nightmare at 30,000 Feet, a riff of Nightmare at 20,000 Feet, one of the most famous Twilight Zone featuring a riveting William Shatner performance.
- "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" has been remade once before, for what is generally considered as the best segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie starring John Lithgow and directed by George Miller.
- ] The original "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" was not written by the serial creator of Rod Serling. Instead, Richard Matheson adapted his own short story. (The director "Richard Donner", who will make later movies The Omen Superman and Lethal Weapon .
- "Nightmare at 30,000 Feet" has a similar premise to its predecessors: a nervous man (played by Adam Scott in this version) becomes panicked and paranoid during a long flight, disturbing his fellow passengers.
This is a good premise for a Twilight Zone episode (or even an episode of Rod Serling's Night Gallery which told a similar "desperate comedian gets more than he bargained for" with "Make Me Laugh," directed by young Steven Spielberg). But is it a good enough premise to stretch past the 50-minute mark? Friends, it is not. The first sign that "The Comedian" is going to be a slog is pretty early, when Rubens and Harris get to the part where Jordan Peele shows up in his dapper suit, telling us in a deadpan voice that Samir Wassan has entered … The Twilight Zone.
The main problem with "The Comedian" is that it gets too hung up considering every angle of its poor protagonist's "gift," to the point of grinding repetition. It takes too long for Samir to understand that he has the power to erase people from being. Then once he realizes that some of his small changes have big ramifications-costing him, for example, his relationship with his long-suffering girlfriend Rena (well-played by Amara Karan) -the plot is not really twist any further.
Nanjian is a strong lead, and Diarra Kilpatrick gives feisty performances as an ambitious colleague who insults, infuriates, and inspires Samir. The episode as a whole has an intriguing perspective on comedy and fame, suggesting that the public demands their favorite celebrities to sacrifice their souls. But this is a pretty sour point-of-view to stew inside of for almost an hour. Nearly an hour! There's absolutely no excuse for "The Comedian" to be such an endurance test.
"Nightmare at 30,000 Feet" is also maybe a bit too long. (For one thing, the episode's coda is a mistake. But I'll get back to that.) But at least most of its superfluities are entertaining, and thematically defensible.
Co-written by The Defenders and Daredevil writer / producer Marco Ramirez and stalwart The X -Files writer / producer Glen Morgan, and directed by Emmy-winner (for the House episode of House's Head) by Greg Yaitanes, "Nightmare at 30,000 Feet" by Adam Scott playing Justin Sanderson, a A successful but stressed-out investigative reporter, taking transatlantic Flight 1015 to Tel Aviv, at 10:15 pm, on a stormy October 15th. In the original "Nightmare" -and in the Twilight Zone movie-the jittery passenger freaks out because he sees a gremlin tearing up the airplane's wing. In this updated version, Sanderson discovers a digital audio player in his seat-pocket containing an unsettling podcast … about the mysterious disappearance of Flight 1015!
In essence, "Nightmare at 30,000 Feet" tells the same story as the earlier " Nightmare. "Justin wears everybody's nerves as warns that they're all in mortal danger, according to the disturbing details he's picked up from the podcast. Ultimately, after he was restrained and the plane lands, we find out that just like the characters played by Shatner and Lithgow-Scott's Justin Sanderson were right to be terrified, albeit for different reasons, than the flyers who traveled through the Twilight Zone before him before
There are several big differences at this time though, though, beyond a prophetic podcast taking the place of a tiny, plane-destroying monster. From the start, Ramirez, Morgan, Yaitanes, and Scott, they Justin's paranoia to more than just a nervous condition. The episode begins with him getting extra screening from security, and it shows him buying a magazine at the airport with cover story he wrote about the contemporary society's fractious politics, entitled "The End of Civility?"
The creative team also pushes at the viewers' preconceptions and at the hero's-by having this plane bound to Israel to be occupied by bearded Muslims, muscular Russians, and drunk ex-pilot played with maximum oiliness by Chris Diamantopoulos. As the podcast, Justin is off for who his fellow passengers are, and insinuating that one of them may be responsible for the Flight 1015's troubles-he's overreacting, and who judges who's who, and what they're up to.
The episode Never makes a big deal about Justin's presumptions … at least until the climax, when he seals his and his flight mates' doom by effectively turning the jet over to Diamantopoulos's unhinged flyboy. Even though he's heard this guy talking about how he lost his job for "one too many mistakes I can not take back" -and even though he's seen him guzzling many mini-bottles of liquor-he seems to trust implicitly that the affable white Guy knows more about what to do than all the darker-skinned and thicker-accented folks on the plane.
My one big beef about "Nightmare at 30,000 Feet" is that it has a perfect ending: Adam Scott giving a very Adam Scott line-delivery of, "Oh, he's the pilot!" As his Sanderson realizes whom the podcast has been talking about all along. Then it undercuts that stinger with a cutesy epilogue, as the hero wakes up on an island and discovers a new podcast, which describes his death on the hands of all other passengers who survived the plane's crash. Cut it: those very passengers, headed his way. Ha ha.
Still, "Nightmare" makes a much better case for the relevance and viability of this new Twilight Zone than "The Comedian" does. Stylistically, it plays with a very particular kind of modern alienation: the feeling of being constantly under surveillance, yet completely alone. Flight 1015 has cameras set up so passengers can observe the pilot; and almost everyone has a phone ready to document each of Justin's meltdowns. Yet whenever he puts his noise-cancelling headphones to listen to the podcast, the episode's audio mix subtly changes to emphasize his isolation. No one is sharing his delusion-if that's what it is.
At one point, an air marshal tries to pull our man back from the brink, telling him it's "easier to recover from being wrong" than to atone for whatever stupid thing he's planning to do it. But despite his anxiety, he's a confident dude, this Justin Sanderson. He's going to keep smugly insisting he knows what's right, all the way down to the ground.
- The grade attached to this double review is averages the two episodes. If I were to grade them individually, I would give "Nightmare at 30,000 Feet" a "B +" and "The Comedian" and "C-." (I have not yet watched the two other episodes provided to critics. For a preview of all the episodes that are floating around there, I point you to the enormous Danette Chavez's take.)
- The Comedian makes full use of CBS All Access's ability to go full-on TV-MA, but "Nightmare at 30,000 Feet" only has one non-network-friendly moment, when Justin's talking to his lady on the phone and says about his past, "I saw some fucked-up shit, and it fucked me up." I wonder if that the line was added to bump up the rating, so no one would think that the show would always be suitable for younger audiences. (Whether or not The Twilight Zone needs to be "mature" is another question that I may address in some future review.
- Jordan Peele is no stranger to "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet. "He's already starred in his own version (sort of)!