“Maybe you haven't been looking in the right place. You've been looking behind you, Martin. Try looking ahead.”—“Walking Distance”, Episode 5, 1959
“You're caricatures, all of you! Without your masks, you're caricatures!”—“The Masks”, Episode 145, 1964
1) “Meet in the Middle” (2 out of 5) — A self-centered, moody, deeply unhappy man thinks he’s found love via a spontaneous telepathic connection to an equally troubled woman. He very quickly pins his full existential hopes on her, not once stopping to observe numerous emotional red flags that become evident along the way. A poor script isn’t helped by Jimmi Simpson’s affected, twitchy central performance as Phil Hayes, and is further hampered by a conclusion that axes to pulp any possibility of subtlety. Phil’s early throwaway line about cheating at poker with Annie makes me wish we could have seen that episode instead of this turgid mess. Rewatch the movie Her instead.
2) “Downtime” (3 out of 5) — Fourteen minutes into this episode, the narrative’s intriguing premise (shortly after a hard-working woman is promoted to manager, a large floating sphere appears in the sky and seems to throw everyone around her into a trance) is thoroughly demystified by a lump of exposition in the form of a marketing video. We’re back in The Matrix, or the Sims, the Black Mirror episode “San Junipero”, or whatever avatar-centric fiction you prefer. Here it’s dubbed “identity tourism” and offered as recreational sport by a company named “Sleepaway”. This particular riff asks what you’d choose if your options were to either live on with the knowledge of virtuality or face extinction. While the setup is derivative, a lively performance by Morena Baccarin provides necessary emotional grounding, the various customer service/troubleshooting interactions are amusing, and the conclusion offers welcome ambivalence. Perhaps best of all is the short running time, which bulldozes over the cracks that would otherwise crop up in this virtual world’s rules. The themes of identity and conformity become more textured if we think of this as a re-imagining of Invasion of the Body Snatchers in which terms have been reversed and we’re the ones inhabiting other selves.
3) “The Who of You” (3 out of 5) — In the first five minutes of this episode, wannabe actor Harry acts like he’s never seen a heist movie in his life, quickly challenging our suspension of disbelief regarding his existence as a person rather than a character. Fortunately for us, he spends the next half hour dizzily body-hopping, which suitably masks his psychological implausibility by condensing his person into a set of transportable physical and verbal tics. Whenever he skips into someone else’s mind by holding his host’s gaze with that of his target, the new host’s consciousness boomerangs back into Harry’s body. As Harry and the cop pursuing him gradually figure out the rules of this game, the mechanics of the scenario are explored in fun, inventive ways. The direction by Peter Atencio matches the plot’s giddiness with style and energy. Though most hosts only get a few minutes of screen time, Ethan Embry does a nice job of channeling their essentials (performing, in essence, a small-scale version, say, of James McAvoy’s work in Split, or Brent Spiner’s in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Masks”, child impersonation included). The penultimate scene contains a reveal that smacks of contrivance—seriously, what are the odds?—but serves to underscore the ultimate ironic futility of trying to find yourself by becoming someone else. “That man is a fraud; he just wants your money,” warns a woman passerby before Harry enters the astrologer’s shop, and while it’s true that yes, Keith is a huckster, he’s also a complex character with plenty of genuine insights; that little moment is just one of several upended expectations in this narrative. The body-swapping sub-genre is rife with everything from comedy (Freaky Friday, Big, etc.) to crime thrillers (Fallen is one of my favorites), and this snaky, self-reflective tale is a respectable addition the roster.
4) “Ovation” (0 out of 5) — Mega pop sensation Fiji passes on the secret baton of her fame and fortune in the form of an enigmatic coin to street musician Jasmine before stepping in front of a moving bus. Marilyn Manson put it well in Antichrist Superstar’s “Man That You Fear” when he declared: “When all of your wishes are granted, many of your dreams will be destroyed.” Unfortunately, this trite episode doesn’t even rise to the level of that familiar notion, opting instead to play out as a pat morality tale of absurdly hypertrophied proportions. Jordan Peele lays out this episode’s thesis so explicitly in the intro that there’s really no need to watch the next forty minutes, which merely proceed to mechanically, screechingly paint in said thesis by numbers. The fact that they’re musical numbers—well, one song—doesn’t help. The Twilight Zone’s first season premiere “The Comedian” suffered from the same repetitive structure (in that case, one comedy bit was replayed ad nauseam) and engaged the same cost-of-success theme. While “The Comedian” would have been improved with a shorter running time and tighter editing, the only way to better “Ovation” would have been to relegate it to silence.
5) “Among the Untrodden” (1 out of 5) — The Craft meets Carrie meets every story of high school ostracizing v. latent psychic gifts and teen loneliness that you’ve ever seen. A good young cast is underserved by a rote screenplay that tries harder to capture adolescent voices than it does to generate real emotion from and empathy for the characters’ suffering. A disintegrating key midway through telegraphs the “surprise” ending too loudly; and like that key, the episode, once used, disintegrates into oblivion. If only it had served to unlock some interesting truth before fading away.
6) “8” (1 out of 5) — The Thing (pick your version), The X-Files’ “Ice”, The Outer Limits’ “Nest”, and the recent Underwater swim into a bar and order a scotch on the rocks—hold the scotch. A remote station putatively investigating the disappearing ice shelf (you immediately know there’s a more sinister agenda at work) leads to a dull “and then there were none,” octopus-slithering procedural. The line “We can’t go into the water until we know what happened to them” is followed by “How do we find out what happened to them without going into the water?”, dialogue that is supposed to pass, I guess, for a thoughtful discussion of the team’s options when they discover that two of their crew are missing (also, lots of blood). They are, after all, Scientists, so it figures that they would speak in oxymoronic quips, with the occasional “motherfucker!” thrown in for dramatic effect, right? Peele promises that this episode will take us beyond fear, which may explain why it sinks into deep tedium. Sadly, the Rod Serling-narrated Jacques Cousteau documentary playing in the background during the intro is the best thing about this soggy, gore-laden affair. For a mind-expanding trip with scientists on the edge, track down Werner Herzog’s Encounters at the End of the World.
7) “A Human Face” (3 out of 5) — A cosmic flare passing “through the Earth” sparks an intriguing tale of first contact. An alien life-form, a “biological pacification drone” intent on “sentient bio-terraforming” that can toggle between dimensions materializes in the basement of Robert and Barbara, a couple who some time back lost their daughter Maggie to suicide. (When the alien creature first appeared, for a second I thought it was the super-smart octopus from the previous episode, which would have been absurdly campy but maybe fun). Very quickly, the alien probe recognizes the couples’ latent grief, and takes it upon itself to scan all available “patterns” and information pertaining to Maggie, in essence recreating her mind while still remaining alien. What begins as a ploy to exploit human emotion transitions into a more open-ended investigation of personalities and connection. Credible performances, arresting musical work by Marco Beltrami and Brandon Roberts, and distinctive special effects, all under Christina Choe’s crafty direction, deliver a thought-provoking look at emotions-as-vulnerability-or-strength.
8) “A Small Town” (4 out of 5) — A year after the death of Littleton’s Mayor Grant in a car accident, her husband Jay is still struggling to move forward when a conversation with a young artist named Francisco re-energizes him. Rearranging items in the church attic where he works, he discovers an eerily accurate model replica of Littleton that responds in real time to his manipulations. (Who you gonna call? Ari Aster!). Jay’s attempts to improve Littleton are complicated by his antipathy towards the current self-serving Mayor Conway; the more Jay tries to scare and cast a bad light on Conway, the more that Francisco is in turn blamed for the town’s strange turns. The moral complexity of good, albeit realistically impure intentions is dramatically brought to life by an efficient script, Alonso Alvarez’s engaging direction, and a strong anchoring performance by Damon Wayans Jr., who speaks volumes without saying much. “For the record, prejudices can kill and suspicion can destroy. A thoughtless, frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout all its own for the children and the children yet unborn," lessons from “The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street,” are echoed and complicated in this modern companion piece. This is the kind of deceptively simple situation that plays to the Twilight Zone’s greatest storytelling strengths—an exploration of real-life difficulties, amplified by the art of metaphor. The closing narration’s preachiness doesn’t detract from a memorable outing. (The meta-curious part of me wondered if Jay’s model included a replica of the church where he himself worked, and what might have happened if, say, he’d lifted himself up into the sky…)
9) “Try, Try” (3 out of 5) — Claudia is writing a dissertation on questions of reincarnation represented by various indigenous masks. She’s speaking into her cell phone, distracted from her surroundings, when Mark shows up out of nowhere and saves her from being hit by a truck. They seem to hit it off, but a few hours later she becomes suspicious of his uncanny timing and his intimate knowledge of her and everything that happens around them. Mark, who goes by Marc for greater effect, confesses he’s been Groundhog/Happy-Death-Daying this same 24-hour period for years, and during that time he’s perfected his date with Claudia through hundreds of prior attempts. This line of attack basically makes this episode an expansion of the short film “One-Minute Time Machine”, one that strips away the charm and conceptual playfulness and replaces them with metaphysical dread and creepiness. Mark’s psychotic idea of a successful relationship with Claudia consists of perfectly triangulating into her expectations, which, aside from the gross temporal-loop stalking factor, suggests that he already understands, even if he hasn’t admitted it to himself, that they don’t naturally connect (if they did, he could just be himself). On the one hand, he claims that being together with her is his whole purpose in life, but on the other, he’s ready to casually affirm that she’s not real, at least not in the same ontological sense in which he thinks of himself. The episode’s smart dialogue and absorbing performances make it an incisive look into male narcissism and the ultimate desperation of the insecure solipsist.
10) “You Might Also Like” (2 out of 5) — In the season finale, housewife Jane Warren experiences intervals of “whooshing” in which, after hearing strange music (notes from Bernard Herrmann’s iconic score for the original Twilight Zone), she loses consciousness and wakes up on her bed some time later. She suspects that something “odorless and colorless” may be tampering with her reality, and performs various experiments to try and ascertain the nature of her blackouts. Over the course of the episode’s four sections, we further learn that before passing out she often recalls vivid commercials, and that in Jane’s near-future world, a new device called an “Egg” tempts folks with the promise to “make everything okay again, and this time it’ll make it okay forever.” Eventually deciding to cancel her “hour of fulfillment” and breaking through her Stepford Wives-ish environment, Jane discovers that the alien Kanamit (from the classic episode “To Serve Man”) are behind her lost time, as well as the Egg. Having spent years studying human commercials, the Kanamit, who operate with “a single, shared mind,” have concluded that the messiness of human individuality and whimsy are unacceptable risks. To that end, the Kanamit queen overlord is laying Eggs, a spawn explicitly designed to eradicate the human race. While the call-backs, both specific and thematic, to the original Damon Knight-inspired episode are well realized, I didn’t think this sequel really cohered, and I found the edges of the final scene’s satire blunted by a lack of verisimilitude.
Overall (2 out of 5) – Season Two of the new Twilight Zone offers little improvement over Season One, which, despite a couple of bright spots, already signaled a murky decline from both the original series and its 1985 reboot. The series is clearly affectionate towards the original, but it continues to meander when it should focus, to succumb to surface affect when it should probe pathos. Plenty of continuities link these episodes together. Some, like an explicit tie-in to “Ovation” in “Among the Untrodden”, are little more than Easter eggs, while others, like themes of economic struggle (a pressure to pay rent, for instance, pops up in episodes 1 and 3), or our fascination with donning disguises (episodes 3 and 4 both begin with scenes of someone acting), run deeper. Sometimes resonances are visual, like the stylized patterns of blood splashes on a lamp in episode 6 recalling those on the mirror in episode 1 and culminating in the spray of episode 10. There’s a sense that the creative team behind this series is striving for an overall look and feel to set this show apart. The first half of the second episode’s directing by J. D. Dillard, for example, contains a number of choices (like square framing, or multiple centered behind-the-back tracking shots) that mimic Mathias Herndl’s aesthetic in the preceding episode, while Oz Perkins’ direction in the finale end-caps the season by visually mirroring some of that same framing from “Meet in the Middle”. Alas, these formal elements aren’t enough to raise the emotional stakes and create the sort of indelible journeys we’d like to associate with the show’s rightly revered name.
And yet I’m sure that we’ll continue to watch new seasons as they are released, for the same reason that humans ultimately succumb to the Kanamit in “To Serve Man” and “You Might Also Like”: despite feeling disappointed by not receiving the signature package we think we desire, the truth, as the queen overlord says, is that in the end what we want is something other than what we already have.