Welcome to Previously On, a column that fills you in on our favorite returning TV shows. This week Valerie Ettenhofer takes a look at the new season of The Twilight Zone on CBS All Access.
To understand the strange case of Jordan Peele’s The Twilight Zone, we must travel to a time far removed from our current reality: 2019.
The reboot of Rod Serling’s series debuted just over a year ago to sky-high expectations, thanks in part to a thrilling Super Bowl ad but largely due to the towering legacy of the original. And then it landed a depressing 39-percent user score on Rotten Tomatoes.
The first season is, at times, plagued by over-long episodes and disorganized narratives. Still, it is much better than it’s given credit for when viewed with only one year’s retrospect. “Replay” is an episode about police brutality and the cycles of anxiety that mothers of Black men feel has only grown more urgent since its debut. The finale, “Blurryman,” is an ambitious if confusing ode to the spirit of the original series. It demonstrates that this new generation of storytellers understands the gravity of an undertaking like The Twilight Zone.
The Twilight Zone’s second season finds its audience in a completely different state of mind. In the past six months, our world has gone through the types of drastic changes that Serling’s original series could only dream about. So how does this new batch of episodes, written and filmed before the COVID-19 crisis and George Floyd protests, live up to our expectations?
As with most anthology series, the results are decidedly mixed. For one thing, the show does away with its social justice bent entirely at a time in which those stories would be most welcome. Serling’s original series frequently engaged with issues of the time, from PTSD to consumerism to the Red Scare. The reboot’s first season carries this through-line of social responsibility in nearly every episode, addressing immigration, racism, misogyny, and more to varying results.
The second season seems to purposely tell more stories that can’t be mistaken for having a moral takeaway. Even Peele’s usually thrilling intros and outros, accompanied by a wonderful score, are vaguer than before. This shrinking away from meaningful moral storytelling, more than any mediocre ideas (of which, let’s be honest, the original series also had plenty), feels like a betrayal of Serling’s ideals.
Yet these creators’ love for Serling’s original series is still obvious. Easter eggs reference classic episodes, a documentary series narrated by Serling plays in the background of an episode, and the chaotic Osgood Perkins-helmed finale devolves into a half-baked, tonally dissonant sequel to a classic episode from 1962. The series generally does best when it gets away from its source material, delivering standalone stories that seem as if they could be a part of a wholly new anthology.
Despite its shortcomings, The Twilight Zone’s second season still delivers several ambitious, creative, and watch-worthy episodes with talented creators at the helm. The Jen McGowan-helmed “Try, Try” takes us through an unusual, riveting first date in a gorgeous museum. Written by Community and Key and Peele writer Alex Rubens, the episode makes great use of an unusual casting choice (Topher Grace as the mysterious love interest). It is the only episode of season two to communicate a culturally relevant message, albeit one that’s cleverly unwrapped over its runtime.
Meanwhile, indie horror directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead and The X-Files alum Glen Morgan deliver the season’s scariest hour with “8,” a story of deep-sea exploration gone wrong that isn’t afraid to go gruesome. Ana Lily Amirpour also helms a standout: the Jurnee Smollett-led enchanted fame story “Ovation.” It’s a classic wheel-of-fortune saga that feels like the most obvious direct descendent of Serling’s series — in a good way!
In contrast, the most surprising and well-crafted episode of the season proves the new iteration of The Twilight Zone can be great while looking nothing like the original series at all. “Among the Untrodden” is a girls’ boarding school story that hits all the familiar beats and then subverts them in a way that’ll make you gasp. Directed by Tayarisha Poe and written by Heather Anne Campbell, it’s a rich and freaky story that, unlike weaker episodes, is more than the sum of its twists.
Unfortunately, The Twilight Zone’s second season has even more issues to unpack; it provides fewer spine-tingling moments than the first, and despite some longer runtimes, episodes struggle with unusual pacing issues. Both grief-laden alien story “A Human Face” and Peele’s own entry, the Morena Baccarin-led “Downtime,” seem to rush through the explanations of their own mythology. Both only begin to pick up steam late in their runtimes, and they end just as they’re finally getting started.
All in all, The Twilight Zone reboot’s second attempt isn’t a total loss, but it isn’t Can’t-miss TV either. By the time you wrap up these ten episodes, you may feel transported for a moment, like a visitor to those other dimensions Serling always liked to talk about. From this season, you’ll get a few great moments of magic, of intrigue, of mind-expanding fantasy. Then you’ll come back to earth, turn the channel, and watch something else.