4 Reasons Jordan Peele's Twilight Zone Failed
It's crazy how the idea of Jordan Peele hosting a Twilight Zone revival went from "bad Mad TV sketch premise" to "cinephile wet dream" ... and from that to, "What do you mean, it got canceled after season two? There was a season two?" How did a show that sounded so perfect and exciting on paper just come and go without the millions of Get Out and Us (and eventually, Nope) fans giving much of a crap? It's a mystery worthy of, you know, The X-Files or something, but here are some ideas:
The Only Successful Twilight Zone Revivals Are The Unofficial Ones
Peele's Twilight Zone is only the latest attempt to revive this beloved property that turned out to be less than loved. But, to be fair to Peele and all the others: this is a dang hard franchise to bring back. Even creator Rod Serling himself couldn't do it when he tried to in the '70s, and over the decades neither could others like Francis Ford Coppola, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Bryan Singer. In the early '80s, it took the combined power of four directors with recent hits to get a Twilight Zone movie project off the ground ... only for it to crash and burn anyway, in more than one sense.
Sadly, the most influential aspect of the movie by far were the new safety regulations enacted in Hollywood after two kids and one adult died while shooting a helicopter stunt. That, and the steep decline in people willing to pick up hitchhikers that probably resulted from Dan Aykroyd's opening scene.
Despite the fact that the movie got mixed reviews and made way less money than expected (especially for something with the name "Spielberg" in it), CBS still used the momentum to kick off a revival series a couple of years later. It was canceled at CBS early on season two because of low ratings and then got a third season that went straight to syndication, where it bombed anew. It got zero acknowledgment from the Emmys -- unlike Spielberg's Amazing Stories anthology series that aired around the same time, which was basically a more optimistic take on the same concept. Spielberg and the other directors involved were clearly all fans of the original Twilight Zone, but because they weren't using the actual Twilight Zone name, they were free to try ideas and formats you'd never see in that franchise. It's pretty hard to imagine Rod Serling providing an ominous introduction to, say, an animated episode starring a cartoon dog.
In the '90s, CBS aired a Twilight Zone TV movie using unmade Rod Serling scripts in the hopes that it would lead to another revival, but nothing came of it. This happened while HBO was killing it with Tales from the Crypt, which was based on the shockingly disturbing old comics of the same name but also had a marked Twilight Zone influence -- again, with its own spin. The Cryptkeeper was basically a meaner, funnier, undead-er Rod Serling who proved to be much more effective than the one CBS was trying to necromance via his leftover scraps.
Another Twilight Zone revival aired on UPN in 2002, only to be canceled in only one season and be instantly forgotten. It did show us something straight out of the real-life Twilight Zone: a peek into a frightening alternate reality where drowning the show's opening narration under music by one of the guys from Korn is a good idea.
So it's not surprising that Peele's Twilight Zone didn't last too long or that, in terms of critical reception and cultural impact, it paled in comparison to this era's ruling Twilight Zone heir, Black Mirror. Creator Charlie Brooker is also a massive fan of Rod Serling and conceived his show as "a kind of Twilight Zone for the age" -- not literally, thankfully, because it'd be much harder to take his stories seriously if they ended with him walking into frame and going, "By the way, this was a metaphor for using Facebook too much." Which is basically what Peele had to do. The irony is that they kept that part of the formula but dropped a far more important one, in our opinion ...
Twilight Zone Episodes Should Be 25 Minutes, Tops
Although Rod Serling originally pitched The Twilight Zone as an hour-long show, he came to appreciate the "half hour with ads" format. He once said: "Ours is the perfect half-hour show. If we went to an hour, we'd have to fleshen our stories, soap opera style. Viewers could watch fifteen minutes without knowing whether they were in a Twilight Zone or Desilu Playhouse." This makes sense for a show like this one: you can only state the theme of the episode for so long before the audience is like, "Okay, we get it," and you can only tease your clever twist ending so many times before it becomes boring and predictable. (See: M. Night Shyamalan's career.)
CBS forced Serling to move to a one-hour format anyway for the fourth season, then promptly went back to half hours on the next one upon seeing the ratings. But at least when CBS did this, it was to fill a specific time slot. With the new show, there's a sense that the running time has to be longer for the same reason why they have to drop at least one F-word per episode: otherwise, it wouldn't feel like "prestige" TV. It's like showrunners think people won't respect them if every scene isn't as drawn out as possible. If your show doesn't include at least a minute of static shots of vegetation or empty highways per episode, you can kiss your Emmy noms goodbye.
The result of the extended runtime is that they end up hitting you over the head with the episode's moral over and over, which also misses the larger point that ...
The Social Commentary Wasn't Supposed To Be A Selling Point
While it's undoubtedly good for society at large that you can now openly say "I'm gonna make a TV show episode about racist police violence," this is not necessarily a good thing if you're running a show known for its allegories. Rod Serling, an avowed anti-racist and anti-fascist, would have taken the same idea and said, "I'm gonna make a TV show episode about a woman who can turn back time" -- then hit you in the gut with the social commentary while you weren't looking. How are you supposed to hit anyone in the gut when you already told them exactly where you'll punch them? That's good advice for life in general, not just allegorical TV series.
Serling turned to sci-fi in the '50s because you couldn't directly talk about certain issues back then, but he figured out that doing it indirectly was pretty damn effective -- so effective that it never even occurred to a huge sector of the audience that this would ever be seen as a show about social issues. To them, this was that crazy show with the man-eating aliens and airplane gremlins and such. Serling lured you in with the promise of sweet escapism and then sprung something like "you're probably racist" or "America is worthless if it doesn't treat its most vulnerable with dignity" on you.
On the other hand, it's easy to forget that not every classic episode had something transcendental to say. Simon "Dark Phoenix" Kinberg, who co-developed the new series with Peele, said that they went out of their way to make sure every episode had "a message and a point of view about what is wrong with our world right now" -- but that wasn't the case with the original show. Some episodes were just scary, just tense, or just silly as hell. The complete lack of the latter type of episode in the revival is especially baffling when you remember who's the face of the show, which leads us to our final point ...
There Wasn't Enough Jordan Peele
Peele was in front of the camera on every single episode, but behind the camera it was a pretty different story. Despite co-developing the series with Kinberg and Marco Ramirez and coming up with general ideas, Peele only wrote the script for one episode and co-wrote the story for another -- the one that remade the classic airplane story but with a cursed podcast instead of a gremlin. (See, that sounds exactly like a Mad TV sketch.)
The number of episodes he directed was zero. So if the show felt very ... un-Jordan Peele for a Jordan Peele joint, there you go. While the idea of an anthology series made out of stories of the level of quality set by Get Out and Us sounds pretty enticing, let's face it: he's probably saving those ideas for the $250 million box office movies, not the, uh, whatever they pay you to be on Paramount+ shows. Still, it would have been nice if he'd at least given us some silly episodes like the ones the original series had but with a more Peele vibe. Please picture the final punchline of the Twilight Zone movie, but it's Peele and Keegan-Michael Key instead of these two actors:
In fact, forget about Twilight Zone, and just us give us another Key & Peele season.
Thumbnail: CBS Television Distribution