There’s no denying that the task of even approaching a television monolith like Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone is an almost unwinnable proposition. For all the praise heaped on Black Mirror over the years as an heir apparent to the Twilight Zone formula, the scrutiny would have been that much more intense if it actually bore the Twilight Zone name and iconic theme music. Jordan Peele’s reboot of the show carries the incalculable weight of millions of sci-fi fans’ expectations on its shoulders. Count us among those fans, and look no further than our recent ranking of all 156 original Twilight Zone episodes as proof.
Black Mirror is not The Twilight Zone, though, despite the constant comparisons. Episodes of Black Mirror ground themselves in the reality of established rulesets and settings. They conjure possible futures we’ve arrived at as a species thanks to some kind of technological development and explore the consequences of that development. Twilight Zone episodes, on the other hand, have a greater tendency to play out like morality playlets with elements of the supernatural and inexplicable. When Telly Savalas was stalked by his daughter’s “Talky Tina” doll in 1963’s “Living Doll,” it wasn’t because Serling was trying to make a commentary on consumer culture and the high-tech toys we surround ourselves with to distract from the real world. Rather, it was an exploration of Savalas character—a judgement upon an unloving man, meted out by the mysterious arbiters of the universe who reside in The Twilight Zone. Which is to say: Twilight Zone episodes aren’t always bound by reason and internal logic. It’s a convention that can be wondrous. It can also be frustrating.
So it is with “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet,” the first episode of CBS All Access’ new Twilight Zone reboot, executive produced and hosted by Peele. Like Serling, Peele is the marquee name attached to the project, although in this case it seems misguided to assign either credit or blame to him for any given episode. After all, unlike Serling, he didn’t direct any of the series first four episodes. Neither did he write them. In fact, it’s hard to say exactly what Peele’s primary contribution to this series really is, besides obviously enjoying his capacity as narrator. He does a fine job, in that duty. Regardless, it doesn’t seem like Peele will be entirely deserving of all the praise or the scapegoating this series will generate.
This premiere was in fact directed by prolific TV director Greg Yaitanes and written by Glen Morgan & Marco Ramirez, as an update to the very well-remembered TZ classic “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” which originally starred William Shatner as a man freaking out about a gremlin on the wing of his plane. The same story was faithfully updated for modern horror audiences in 1983’s Twilight Zone feature film, with John Lithgow stepping in for Shatner. This time around it’s Adam Scott’s turn to descend into panic, although gone is the literal gremlin ripping at the engines, aside from one clever cameo. Instead, Scott’s character is slowly driven toward apprehension and outright panic by a mysterious true crime podcast that purports to investigate exactly how the flight he’s currently on will disappear forever. The podcaster’s name? “Rodman Edwards,” the birth name and middle name of one Rod Serling. It’s a nice meta touch, in a premiere that otherwise can’t quite live up to its mythological pedigree.
It’s not for Scott’s lack of engagement, as the Parks and Rec veteran is well cast as a surprisingly pleasant, well-meaning, literate but anxious guy whose curse is that he keeps thinking he’ll be able to take a step back, breathe deep and straighten out the situation. Unlike so many Twilight Zone protagonists, Scott’s character isn’t explicitly a cad who is about to be served divine justice. Instead, he’s a guy with an overinflated sense of responsibility and capability, possibly as an overcompensation for some form of PTSD. Because really: Most human beings would react to a podcast like the one he listens to by just dismissing it outright, or having a panic attack in their chair. Scott, on the other hand, is the kind of guy who thinks there’s no reason he shouldn’t be able to save the day by virtue of being an intelligent, adult white male, which is of course his undoing.
It all plays out in a fashion that will be curiously familiar to those who watched Duncan Jones’ 2011 sci-fi thriller Source Code, as Scott attempts to use the podcast’s information to determine what will cause the plane’s destruction. There’s only one other character of consequence, played with suspicious aloofness by Chris Diamantopoulos, best known as a prolific voice actor. The rest range from blank faces to unironic stereotypes, like the pair of Russian guys both sporting full-body tracksuits and gold chains. If only John Wick were aboard the plane, right? As a result, Scott really doesn’t have anyone else to play off, although he gives it his best.
Ultimately, though, both Scott and “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet” are let down by the script’s careful spoon-feeding of a simple plot and twist to its audience, which are handled with all the finesse of a child playing with his father’s gun. Nothing new or tangible is explored, in terms of the question of fate vs. free will. Never does the episode even stop to consider the implications of a question so obvious as “What happens if he stops listening to the podcast?” And when the climactic moment of the episode features Adam Scott literally speaking the twist out loud after it happens, as if the audience didn’t just watch it occur, it’s hard not to feel like the writers didn’t have much faith in your ability to grasp even a very basic swerve. It’s either that, or they misjudged the potency of their own writing and thought the audience would want to bask in their brilliance for a moment.
Likewise, the episode’s interest in coincidences and numerical repetition—which oddly echoes similar, better-executed motifs in Peele’s own Us—doesn’t lead to any kind of substantive intellectual payoff, such as the realization that this is all in the mind of Scott’s character, which would have potentially explained a lot. Rather, the story’s eventual resolution seems to suggest rather bluntly that all was preordained, and nothing about these events could have been changed. Is that really the kind of moral they thought their audience would resonate with, or was it unintentional?
Considering some historical perspective, though, none of this should perhaps be surprising. Despite being one of the most iconic TV series of all time, few shows have ever been so defined by erratic, variable quality as The Twilight Zone. Of the 156 episodes we ranked above, it’s absolutely fair to say that perhaps 50 of them are classics. What of the other two-thirds? Well, they’re more like “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet”—interesting little thrillers that are usually flawed in some way, whether by being overstuffed, underwritten, preposterously plotted, poorly acted, overly maudlin or some combination of all the above. As for “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet,” it’s a case of a competent TV thriller, but not a particularly memorable or unique one, with little to say about the human condition that isn’t immediately obvious.
It should be noted, by the way, that the 36-minute runtime of “A Nightmare at 30,000 Feet” feels about right for this series, especially in comparison with the bloated bulk of episode 2, “The Comedian,” which also premieres April 1. That 54-minute episode feels more like it was taken from the original Twilight Zone’s foray into hour-long episodes in season 4, a move that Serling vehemently opposed. Just as the hour-long Twilight Zone episodes often crumbled without enough substance to prop up their high-concept premises, “The Comedian” likewise finds itself stuffed with repetition and filler. Of the two episodes that premiere today, on April 1, 2019, “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet” is superior—although that only means it’s merely fine.
Still, as we observed above, the quality of one Twilight Zone episode isn’t necessarily correlated with the quality of another. It’s a shame that the Jordan Peele era of the show couldn’t begin with an immediate series classic—an episode that would challenge us mentally, or thrill us viscerally in a way that didn’t seem overly familiar—but I’m holding onto hope that those episodes are still coming. It’s what any Twilight Zone fan should likely have expected from the start: Ample cheese, with moments of brilliance. Here’s hoping we get to the brilliance sooner rather than later.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident genre geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.