More so than series opener “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet,” the second episode of Jordan Peele’s Twilight Zone reboot feels like a premise that could easily have existed in the show’s original run.
Unfortunately, this is not a good thing.
“The Comedian,” directed by Owen Harris—who, oddly enough, is responsible for the best episode of Black Mirror, “San Junipero”—is an unexpected reminder of what The Twilight Zone is like, and what it has always been like, when it’s not firing on all cylinders. It’s an overlong 54 minutes of streaming TV, grasping for gravitas while not possessing enough substance to fill half of its running time.
What it feels like, then, is all too many episodes from the original run of The Twilight Zone—the episodes that somehow never get replayed during SyFy’s annual New Year’s Eve marathons. In particular, “The Comedian” feels like an entry from TZ’s fourth season, when network executives pressured series creator Rod Serling into stretching the show into a 60-minute timeslot against his wishes. The experiment was a failure, largely owing to the fact that The Twilight Zone’s high-concept premises tended to work best when they built up quickly and fluidly to their payoffs, without time for the audience to anticipate the twist. At 60 minutes, they tended to bog down into repetition of the same material throughout the middle, and the exact same issue affects “The Comedian.” It suffers from, among other things, a far too gradual sense of escalation when the audience can already clearly see what will eventually happen.
The star of “The Comedian” is Kumail Nanjiani, a very talented, easy to like presence who anchored the likes of The Big Sick. Here as Samir, though, he’s a hopeless case who is clearly not cut out for the comedy world. His standup sets are embarrassingly guileless attempts at leftist political humor—Hasan Minhaj segments, if you stripped out 75 percent of the jokes and 100 percent of the delivery. In Samir’s mind, comedy is a pure art form, wherein laughter should somehow be derived from intent and desire to change the world, rather than material or skill in delivering it. In Samir’s world, the best comedy would therefore somehow be Washington Post editorials, read out loud. It’s no wonder that he needs a Mephisto-esque figure to show up and offer him a more successful future.
This is of course precisely what happens, in the form of Tracy Morgan, playing a legendary comedian who is meant to be projecting some sense of devilish menace, but instead seems simply out of place. This fellow gives Samir some advice, tempting him with the prospect of success and earthly pleasures if he makes his act more personal and relatable. The only catch: The things he talks about will be “gone forever,” co-opted by his audience.
This being The Twilight Zone, it’s immediately clear what kind of literal interpretation of those words is about to follow. Samir does jokes about his dog; the dog disappears from Earth and only Samir ever remembers that it existed. Samir jokes about a comedian he doesn’t like, and the same thing happens. And again, and again, and again. “The Comedian” establishes a pattern that would take two repetitions to confirm and then carries it far further than is necessary. We know these choices are going to begin springing back on him in prototypical monkey paw fashion, and they soon do. The only one oblivious to it is Samir, who never truly feels like a real human being. Unlike Adam Scott in “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet,” it’s difficult to feel anything for him, because he never gives us a surface to grasp onto. Ironically, in an episode about sharing yourself on stage, his character is an utterly blank space.
And then there’s the matter of the comedy itself. After Samir makes his Faust-style bargain and returns to stage, you’d expect him to arrive with a diabolical set of infernal A material, would you not? But that’s not what happens. If anything, Samir’s “killer” material is even lamer than his political musings, but the audience reacts with gales of laughter. It quickly becomes clear that they’re not laughing because his material is actually funny, but because the magic of this particular deal with the devil compels laughter. It didn’t transform Samir into a “good” comedian, it transformed him into a successful one … whose audience members presumably can’t remember his sets afterward, if each person he speaks about disappears from the memories of the world immediately afterward. Does this mean he’d never be able to record an album?
Questions like that would have been unanswerable, so “The Comedian” obviously doesn’t bother to ask them. The “compelled” laughter, meanwhile, is no doubt meant to add a creepy, agency-stealing layer to this story, but in truth it feels more like a cop-out, in the sense that it excuses the writers from actually creating funny material. In fact, in an episode that is crawling with comedians, there’s exactly one genuinely funny person: The competitor of Samir played by actress Diarra Kilpatrick. She’s like an island of “actual person” in a sea of two-dimensional comedian caricatures, and it makes you wish that she were the focus of the episode.
In the end, “The Comedian” feels like some kind of evidence, if not outright proof, that hoping for the new Twilight Zone to be “just like the old Twilight Zone” is a decidedly misguided wish—ironic, in the sense that it’s the exact sort of monkey’s paw wish that might be exploited in cheesy fashion on one of those vintage TZ episodes we all chose to forget. What the new Twilight Zone will truly need, if it’s going to make a relevant cultural impact in 2019, is fresh perspectives. We don’t need the same old ironic twists, modernized rehashings of “The Gift of the Magi.” We need stories that speak to the modern condition in a way that is timely, without being so on the nose that they come off as exploitative or desperate to please.
Is that a tall order? Yes—it absolutely is. Two episodes in, I’m not sure if the third reboot of The Twilight Zone will get there, but I’m still holding out some hope. One thing is for certain: In a series that has Jordan Peele’s name emblazoned all over it, we could certainly have used his presence as a writer, or as a director.
Two more episodes of The Twilight Zone will hit streaming on Thursday, April 11.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident genre geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.