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Media Reviews: September 2019

The Twilight Zone
Created by Rod Serling
Produced by CBS Television Studios, Monkeypaw Productions, and Genre Films
Season one released April 2019

Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone is seminal genre TV. Its legacy looms over modern SF and fantasy, a background radiation of ideas, style, theme, and invention which has influenced imaginative storytelling for well over half a century. The show’s initial run ended in 1964, but the evocative Serling monologues, memorable stories, and unsettling twists of The Twilight Zone have lived on in pop culture’s imagination ever since. It even came back to life in the 1980s, when a notorious feature film, a TV revival, and a pretty great speculative fiction magazine bore its name. But for a while, the anthology series was a tough sell, and The Twilight Zone struggled to find new traction.

The TV landscape has changed, however, and with it so may the plight of The Twilight Zone, recently resurrected by CBS All Access. Developed by Simon Kinberg, Jordan Peele, and Marco Ramirez, this new revival may be built to last. A new media landscape once again favorable to the anthology series certainly helps its case, and if the first season is any guide, the right people seem to be in charge. Peele, in particular, seems like perfect casting; not only have his films Get Out and Us brought new polish and political insight to cinematic spec-fic, but his narration reveals him to be a convincing stand-in for the iconic Serling.

The original Twilight Zone was often at its best when serving as a troubled reflection of its era. The new series, understanding this point, similarly tailors itself to the unnerving sociopolitical reality of 2019. While the results are uneven, they’re also uniformly well produced and absorbing. The opening episode, “The Comedian,” is fairly representative, the tale of a struggling comic (Kumail Nanjiani) whose chance encounter with a stand-up legend (Tracy Morgan) gives him the key to turning his career around. That key? Putting more of himself into the act—which comes at a cost. Although it feels padded and the comedy isn’t terribly convincing, “The Comedian” has the feel of classic TZ, a decent deal-with-the-devil story that doubles as scathing commentary about unmitigated vitriol in the internet attention economy.

If “The Comedian” is a modest opening success, the next pair of episodes really help the show find its legs. “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet” is not a remake of the famous William Shatner episode later rebooted for Twilight Zone: The Movie, but it is an inspired homage, featuring Adam Scott as a reporter with a troubled past. On a flight from Washington to Tel Aviv, he discovers a podcast—from the future?—that predicts the flight’s doom. This episode doesn’t stick the landing, adding an extraneous stinger, but the execution is otherwise exceptional, and there’s cutting political subtext about the disturbing indignities of modern, post-9/11 air travel: the security theater, the fear of the other, the death of civility. “Replay” has an even stronger political message. Nina Harrison (Sanaa Lathan), while driving her son Dorian (Damson Idris) to his first day of school at a historically black college, discovers her old camcorder can rewind time. This becomes a crucial tool in her arsenal when a racist cop stalks them, forcing numerous “resets” to navigate a safe path to their destination. Even with occasionally obvious moments, “Replay” is a timely and unsettling hour about the undying cycles of American racism.

It’s impossible to reflect on the national zeitgeist without addressing the elephant in the room: Donald Trump. Sorry to bring him up, but the next two episodes do precisely that, with decidedly different results. The more subtle episodes is “A Traveler,” which takes us to rural Alaska, where a blowhard sheriff (Greg Kinnear) holds court during his annual Christmas party. The party goes sideways when his deputy (Marika Sila) finds a mysterious stranger (Steven Yeun) locked in one of the cells. The stranger is inexplicably omniscient, and turns the town on its ear by manipulating the citizens with his knowledge. “A Traveler” is an engaging cautionary tale, cleverly translating current events into fiction—in this case, the Russian disinformation campaign to disrupt American politics. By comparison, “The Wunderkind” is a shrill, on-the-nose metaphor that wastes John Cho and Allison Tolman in the tale of an opportunistic campaign manager (Cho) who undertakes to get an eleven-year-old boy elected president. The results, as one might expect, are a “huge disaster.” It’s a one-note joke that might have been funny if it hadn’t already happened.

“Six Degrees of Freedom” stands out primarily for being less politically pungent than the rest of the season. It’s an effective bottle show about the close-knit crew of a Mars expedition whose mission takes on new levels of psychological weight when catastrophe strikes the Earth during takeoff. If this one’s themes are a smidge weaker, it offers interesting reflections on reality and belief, and features fine ensemble work from DeWanda Wise, Jessica Williams, Jefferson White, Lucinda Dryzek, and Jonathan Whitesell.

The season returns to characteristically blunt cultural metaphor with “Not All Men,” perhaps the season’s most effective blend of old-school Twilight Zone concept with ripped-from-the-headlines commentary. A relationship between a young woman (Taissa Farmiga) and her co-worker (Luke Kirby) veers into nightmare territory when a meteor shower unlocks a plague of violent misogyny across the town. The messaging here is so on-the-nose it’s practically a nostril, but it’s still a gut-punch of relevant horror that benefits from its stellar cast, which also includes Rhea Seehorn and Ike Barinholtz. “Point of Origin” works a nifty genre spin onto another grim modern circumstance, American xenophobia. Ginnifer Goodwin stars as a coddled one-percenter who is shocked when her maid is hauled off by immigration officials—but even more so when she’s taken off for deportation herself. Goodwin is terrific here, and if this one’s also on the more obvious side, it’s no less compelling for it. Alas, though “The Blue Scorpion” is more politically subtle than these other episodes, it doesn’t manage to pack the same punch. A professor (Chris O’Dowd) is shocked when his pacifist, bohemian father commits suicide with a handgun—until the pistol comes into his possession, spiraling him into madness. Gun control is a worthy target for the new TZ’s brand of chilling commentary, but this one falls flat.

The inaugural season concludes with “Blurryman,” and it’s a peculiar send-off—a clumsy but strangely apt metafiction about a writer for The Twilight Zone (Zazie Beetz) who starts to notice a strange, blurry figure invading the scenes of her episode. Despite some amusing flourishes, the metafictional aspects don’t entirely connect, and the resolution is predictable, but “Blurryman” works simply by feeling true to The Twilight Zone—a simple, loving homage.

The new Twilight Zone has its ups and downs. Its commitment to tackling important political issues occasionally leads it to use a hammer when tweezers would do. But overall, I think it’s a worthy revival: well produced, intelligent, diversely cast, and most of all confident in its voice, which successfully blends the classic charms of its source material with the strident political tensions of the modern era.

Black Mirror
Created by Charlie Brooker
Produced by House of Tomorrow, Netflix
Black Mirror: Bandersnatch released December 2018
Season five released June 2019

Speaking of genre anthologies, one of the shows that paved the way for The Twilight Zone’s recent resurgence is still going strong: Black Mirror, Charlie Brooker’s scathing grab bag of cautionary futurism. When I last wrote up this show for Lightspeed (bit.ly/2M7vfsO), I had it pegged as one of science fiction’s best-ever shows. What’s come out since hasn’t disabused me of that position, although the show has transitioned into a new phase. To many viewers, one of its major drawbacks was built right into its thematic premise: the dark side of technology. But season three’s “San Junipero,” which redirected the show’s bleak mission to a more hopeful place, was so well received that subsequent years have infused the show with more tonal variety. Season four (reviewed at bit.ly/2K9KdMn), for example, provides the wildly entertaining “USS Callister,” in which a creepy VR-gaming CTO (Jesse Plemons) kidnaps digital copies of his co-workers and traps them in his own idealized Star Trek scenario. There’s a deeply icky concept at its core—pure Black Mirror—but it also has a quirky sense of humor and a hopeful turn. Meanwhile, “Hang the DJ” rekindles some of the romantic hope of “San Junipero” in a story about a society where dating is rigidly controlled—but with a benevolent, greater purpose. These episodes don’t match their predecessors for raw impact, but they do introduce needed lightness and unpredictability to an otherwise grim bag of tricks.

This transition to a “softer” Black Mirror continues in its recent fifth season, which still feels true to the concept but is much less bleak. “Striking Vipers” opens the year, and it might be viewed as the third act of a thematic trilogy with “San Junipero” and “Hang the DJ.” It stars Anthony Mackie and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as estranged buddies who reconnect years later, rekindling their lapsed bond through an immersive video game . . . which takes their friendship in unexpected new directions. While it comments on dark issues such as online addiction and toxic masculinity, it also stirs in hopeful themes about the need for communication in relationships. The video game sequences are also nicely playful, with sparring avatars Pom Klementieff and Ludi Lin adding zippy, light-hearted flavor to their scenes. Overall, it’s a thoughtful, interesting hour with appealing layers.

By comparison, “Smithereens” is dark, dark stuff in the true Black Mirror tradition. This one, about a troubled Uber driver (Andrew Scott) with a hidden agenda, reminded me of season three’s fast-paced “Shut Up and Dance,” a similarly gripping, well-executed escalation that leads to a mundane destination. But I still quite liked this one for the intensely human performances from Scott and Damson Idris, the subtle depiction of the poorly regulated power of big tech, and its commentary about the insidious underside of social media.

The season wraps with “Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too,” an oddball mash-up of loopy comic tone and nasty criticism of unhealthy media conditioning. Angourie Rice plays Rachel, an impressionable teen with an epic girl crush on pop sensation Ashley O (Miley Cyrus), plus a fraught relationship with her disaffected, bass-playing sister Jack (Madison Davenport). When Ashley O releases a miniature robotic companion called “Ashley Too,” modeled on her personality scan, Rachel’s determined to get one. But Ashley Too’s sanitized, phoney message of empowerment leads Rachel astray, before ultimately helping her to connect with her sister and learn there’s more to her idol than meets the eye. I’m not sure this episode entirely works, but it’s appealingly weird and disruptive, continuing the trend of taking Black Mirror to refreshing new territory.

If you’re wondering why I left Black Mirror’s standalone film Bandersnatch off the list—well, I didn’t, I was just saving it for last. Bandersnatch, which came out between seasons four and five, is a streaming experiment, an interactive film that allows the viewer to steer the story down multiple branches of a decision tree. The premise sounds gimmicky, and the episode has generated controversy: the Choose Your Own Adventure books initiated a lawsuit against it, and the episode somehow won a Nebula Award for Best Game Writing. (I think it’s a stretch to call Bandersnatch a game, a designation that unlevels the playing field of the category. Then again, I was watching it with a PS4 controller in my hand, having vague thoughts of Mass Effect . . . so maybe I’m wrong?)

A period piece set in 1984 London, Bandersnatch follows troubled whiz-kid game designer Stefan (Fionn Whitehead). Stefan has psychological issues which are about to become complicated when he heads off on a job interview to design games at the same company where his hero Colin Ritman (Will Poulter) works. His idea: to turn a legendary choose-your-own-adventure novel into a video game. But his new career is about to get extremely weird indeed.

Bandersnatch is delightful, an ingenious metafiction that indeed inserts the viewer into the narrative. It starts innocuously enough: helping Stefan decide which breakfast cereal to eat. But as the movie progresses, the decision points become more and more fraught. The result is a gripping, trippy Philip K. Dick reality-warp which layers playful, alternate timeline trickery over both the media it depicts (novels, games) and its own media (streaming television). For the most part, the decision-making process is seamlessly integrated, and while the decision trees “cheat” with a fair number of “reset” dead ends, there’s an undeniable cleverness to its strategy for handling this drawback. After an initial, “canon” watch-through, I went back again to experiment. This second run convinced me that one could probably watch Bandersnatch twenty times and still walk away with the same general impression of the episode. Is that a disappointing use of the interactive element? To some, perhaps, but there’s also a touch of genius to Brooker’s approach to leveraging the concept. Ultimately I think it’s a groundbreaking experiment, a slippery, fascinating work of art. It also continues Black Mirror’s sense of evolving reinvention, which only sustains my enthusiasm for the series. In my favored timeline, anyway, the show will continue for a good long while.

Christopher East

Christopher East

Christopher East is a writer, editor, reviewer, and avid consumer of science fiction, fantasy, and spy fiction. His stories have been published in Asimov’s Science Fiction, Cosmos, Interzone, Talebones, The Third Alternative, and a number of other speculative fiction publications. He’s attended the Clarion and Taos Toolbox writing workshops, and served for several years as the fiction editor for the futurism, science, and technology blog Futurismic. He blogs extensively about writing, fiction, film, television, music, comics, and more at www.christopher-east.com. Currently he lives in Portland, Oregon, where he works for an occupational and environmental health and safety consultancy.