“The Twilight Zone” revival just kicked off on April 1, as the Jordan Peele hosted iteration of the classic joined CBS All Access’ lineup. The series premiered with two episodes on their streaming platform, but they were kind of enough to offer the debut for free on Youtube (which you can watch below). We checked out the first episode and have some thoughts about. Beware, there will be spoilers, so we suggest you watch the first episode and then read out review.
“The Comedian” stars Kumail Nanjiani as a down on his luck comedian, Samir Wassan. Maybe down on his luck isn’t accurate, since he is really just a terrible jokester, with his routine based around the second amendment. After a particularly awful set, he runs into famed comedian JC Wheeler (Tracy Morgan), who tells him if he wants to make it big, he has to “give a little of himself” into his comedy. One night, Samir drops the political jokes and talks about his dog named “Cat”, and the audience loves it. After the set, he goes home to tell his girlfriend about how well he did talking about their pet, but it turns out they never owned a pet. I think you can see where this episode is going.
If you were able to figure that out, you can understand how quickly this 55-minute episode turns into a repetitive mess. The entire episode examines how far Samir will go, and how much he is willing to lose, to get fame and fortune. Most of the time, however, he is eliminating people we only just met moments earlier. I feel like he could have made a few less people disappear and the episode would have remained effective, and could have also been tighter. Instead, it drags towards the middle and loses some of its power. By the last act of the episode, I was all in as I was curious to see how it ended, but the journey to reach that point felt like a chore.
The biggest pluses of the episode were all of the actor’s performances. Nanjiani portrayed a tough role, struggling with making the best decisions for his career and life, remaining sympathetic even while he was making folks vanish. By the end of the episode, there’s a very tense scene that made me anxious for the fate of Samir, and that’s a testament to Kumail’s acting.
The obvious analogy here is that fame comes with a price, and that often means losing your closest friends to make space for the faceless fans and latcher-on’s who dominate your social media feeds, but can’t help you out in real life. It’s one of the aspects I like about the new Twilight Zone, offering actors who mainly do comedy a chance to show their dramatic chops. Most have great abilities to act these parts because great comedy is often about truth, and the truth usually means suffering. In that way, “The Comedian” offers an interesting perspective on what it means to play that part in life. It’s about being vulnerable to connect on stage while trying to feel invulnerable through fame, and by the end, Samir makes the most vulnerable choice of all.
On the up side, and almost unrelated to this episode, I did enjoy when Samir used his powers of comedy to make his “Deathnote” and started killing off scumbags and other things. This is another analogy for the power of humor to defeat evil things in the world, but this may have been a little too far-fetched to make that metaphor work. Still, it made me want to re-watch “Deathnote” and that is a good thing in my book.
The show is as creepy as ever, with a few Easter Eggs from the original series scattered throughout the show in subtle ways (speaking of, we have a huge list of every Easter Egg and reference in this episode over here). Many fans are very pleased with the “cinematic” look of the new series, but I think people are confusing a cinematic look with depth of field and bokeh. I won’t disagree that it looks very good, but I think in 2019, this is what is expected from most high-end TV shows. Relying on shallow depth of field and some jarring camera angles may ultimately be the aesthetic for the show, just like how another CBS All Access show, “Star Trek Discovery”, frequently employs upside down shots that rotate to normal orientation. I can’t say I like either much, but it’s something I will have to get used to.
Tracy Morgan was born to play the part of JC Wheeler, and I tip my hat to the set designers and lighting crew. These were my very favorite artistic elements of the episode, and set the tone and mood for each scene perfectly. There is never an overt reveal for who, or what, Tracy Morgan’s character is, but we definitely get some big ideas thanks to the art direction. The very last shot of him is chilling – I never knew I would like evil Tracy Morgan this much, but it seems so natural for him, which makes it all the more frightening.
That’s also where my qualms continue, though, as the show looked sort of bland and plain most of the time. It was very sparse and clean, and I wished there was more room for creativity across this premiere. A muddy yellow palette is not too interesting to watch, but this dominates most of the show. I am optimistic future episodes will have a different look, so while it bugged me here it won’t affect my outlook much for the next episode.
The story was interesting, albeit a slog to get through as we mentioned earlier, but it also felt dated to me. That may be because it was based on a Rod Serling teleplay that never got made, or it may be simply that this story just felt too much like the original series but with updated visuals.
“The Comedian” was complicated for me to review. It was a mixed bag of good things, some bad things, and some things that made me go “ugh”, namely how long it felt. It may not have been the best episode to start the series off with, but I enjoyed the performances and the twist ending (a twist you can see coming but start to anxiously question as it comes into that final act). It won’t be a well-remembered episode other than for being the return of the show to CBS, but if it’s a sign of things to come, I have high hopes for the remainder of the season and am excited to see what else they have in store for us.