The Twilight Zone has twice been a successful show, once from 1959-1964 and again from 1985-1989. Existential crises — usually resulting in the death of, or the emotional destruction of the main character — are explored in an alternate dimension. Originally hosted by Rod Serling, the show garnered attention for its ability to tackle current cultural morality dilemmas like nuclear war (“A Little Peace and Quiet”) and racism (“The Shelter”). Peele’s first two forays into horror have been met with accolades and thousands of critical think pieces on the political angles of Get Out and Us. He’s changed nothing in his approach to The Twilight Zone.
The pilot episode, “The Comedian,” directed by Owen Harris, centers its gaze on the comedy world. Not taking the obvious #MeToo angle, it instead leans into the ways celebrity and success disrupt the lives of entertainers. Kumail Nanjiani stars as Samir, a struggling comic who hopes to make a difference with his art. The camera is frequently blinded by the bright lights of the stage as Samir bombs. Typically these scenes leave a lingering sense of second-hand embarrassment, but Harris’ adept directing gave the screening audience a lot of laughs while Samir’s audience turned to their phones, bored with his political observations.
Then a magical negro, J.C. Wheeler (Tracy Morgan), appears at the end of the bar. Wheeler, a famed comedian who recently disappeared from the comedy scene, sits with his hat low, ominously obstructing his face. He drinks brown liquor and chews on a toothpick. Samir is star struck. He asks the same question any aspirational talent asks a legendary hero. “Do you have any notes?” Morgan is sensational in the role that perfectly personifies Peele’s ability to switch from comedy to horror with a fluid swiftness. Simultaneously charming, eerie, and of course hilarious, Morgan takes the best of his Tracy Jordan character from 30 Rock and imbues him with a powerful but subdued warlock. The words Wheeler speaks to Samir change his entire approach to performing on stage. With only two scenes, this could be a career marker for the next phase of Morgan’s career.
Of course, this is The Twilight Zone. Nothing here can be taken at face value. Revealing anything further would ruin the set-up Peele has crafted. Suffice it to say, Samir’s journey causes him to question the value of his career, his relationships, and eventually his own life. There’s a moment of absolute hysteria where Nanjiani repeats the same line over and over again that tears at the soul. Nanjiani gives a performance on par with his work in The Big Sick.
Diarra Kilpatrick steals the show as the star comedian at the comedy club where Samir practices his craft. A fashion icon, sexually forward, and a plain talker who tells it like it is, Kilpatrick is hysterical in the role. Her range is impeccable and Peele uses her to every ounce of her talent in what feels like a Tiffany Haddish inspired performance.
My favorite part of the new series is Peele’s take on The Narrator. There’s something magical about Peele’s performance. There’s a twinkle in his eye, a gentleness to his telling of these warning-stories, and an otherworldly knowledge perfect for the series. Peele never tries to duplicate what Serling perfected years ago. Inspired by the originator, but doing his own thing, Peele is a perfect guide through the terrifying wormholes of Twilight Zone.
CBS All Access will begin streaming new episodes of The Twilight Zone on April 1.
Header Image Source: CBS All Access