Jordan Peele has premiered his vision for The Twilight Zone on April 1—for free—on Youtube and elsewhere. The classic science fiction horror series will now be a few things it wasn’t before. Namely, it will have tons of characters that look like and breath just like us. But Peele wants more. He’s here to take stock of a subtler thing. He’s here to mine the depths of the absurdity of living in 2019.
I mean, let’s take a survey of buzzwords and phrases you’ve heard in just the last five years. We were “post-racial” for a while. Now we’re “post-truth” and “post nuance.” Now we’ve got “alternative facts.” And if VR takes off we’ll be “post-reality”. You’ve heard terms get tossed around like “white supremacy”, “white nationalism”, and “globalism” with increased velocity. Now that vision of a post-racial world feels like a mirage. It feels like a hope we should never have nurtured. That’s the Twilight Zone. The gag is we’re already here. The truth is our hope has turned into a monster.
The first episode is called “The Comedian”. Comedy is an outlier in the natural world. While other animals have conversations and laugh, as far as we know, we’re the only species where one leads to the other. We even expect it out of others, this malapropism, that they should make us laugh. Think about the process of grinning. Pulling your mouth to the corners of your face, your lips moving from pout to languish as though it were suddenly lying down on a couch. The laugh is equally sinister. It is a sound you cannot make otherwise. It’s a falsehood in a way. Deeply intimate, yet we share it freely.
In some ways, what makes us laugh is a barometer for where we are as a society. And what makes us laugh these days is horror. Both Get Out and Us poke this notion insistently. Somehow, you think, a Black guy expecting not to run into a cabal of bourgeois life-stealers in the suburbs is comical, that one of those demogorgon’s is his girlfriend ratchets it up a notch. As for Us, well.
And in classic form, Peele’s first episode starts off DFW style. It takes a while to excavate the wallpaper from the wall. And our character, our comedian, doesn’t realize he’s speaking to his Mephistopheles— another more famous comedian named J.C. Wheeler. He gives him some choice advice and a warning: to get laughs you have to give yourself up, but whatever you give up you will lose.
Our guy, played by Kumail Nanjiani, is ready to risk it all because he wants everything. But what is having it “all”? This makes Peele’s Twilight Zone far more depressing, already, than the original series. That world was in abstract. This one is for every striver out there trying to afford an apartment in any major city in America.
But this first episode also does best what made the original so beloved: it’s a cautionary tale. It’s about how some decisions you make are your whole life. They’ll change everything and you won’t know it at the time. How you’ll always think you can go back. Then, you’ll look, and everything will be gone. It got up and left while you were somewhere else. The episode takes its cues from Faust and Kafka’s Hunger Artist. And like Kafka’s artist, our protagonist, Samir Wassan, finds himself in the middle of his undoing.
When he realizes his power, he begins to think he can change the world. Who else could he undo with his magical comedy? Who else could he erase merely by mentioning their name on stage? First, he takes out an asshole fellow comedian. Someone clearly reeling from drunkenly murdering a child and his mother at a bus stop across the street. Suddenly, that person vanishes. After his set, the bus stop moves from a broken vigil with teddy bears, candles and yellow police tape to one shockingly clean for any city.
He won’t stop there, though. He turns to social media to point out all the folks he hated in high school. That perverted coach? Poof, gone. That mean old bully? Thanos-snap and he’s disappeared. He can’t see the inhumanity in it because fame makes most of us narcissistic. Which is to say, fame makes us unable to see the world as it is.
He erases his girlfriend’s nephew one night for laughs. At first, he freaks. Then the salve of his impending success soothes him. “He just never existed,” he says. “It’s not like I murdered him.” This he says when he comes home after his set looking for the kid. He ignores the fact that in this new reality his girlfriend mentions that her sister cannot have children.
For each unconscionable act of recreation, he grows bolder and pettier. Like any God, his power becomes more meaningful to him. It’s a lie, of course, but the lies we tell ourselves are always the most powerful kind of magic. So J.C. Wheeler comes back one last time to tempt him when his big break comes into view. “You’re so close,” he says. “Why stop now?” So he goes on stage and right before he’s going to give up his world, his girlfriend, he sets himself on fire. He gives himself up. The rub is that at some point all you have left to give is yourself.
Jordan Peele has seemingly done it again. He’s given us a modern take on television standards past. Of course, however, it’s missing something. It’s missing that big great reveal. That Houdini magic that made the original a nightmare. Of course, it is. In our world, everything is already upside down. Not the twist you were hoping for, maybe. But it’s the twist we deserve.
To see the rest, you’ll have to sign up for CBS’s streaming service. To that and to them, I say good luck