Those of moderately advanced years may remember what a thrill it was, back in 1993, to encounter The X-Files for the first time. To see a primetime TV show rooted in semi-disreputable genres—sci-fi and horror—that took them seriously enough to bring real money and craft to bear on their revival. Everything about The X-Files, from its woodsy noir atmosphere and baroque conspiracy plot to its eerie earworm synth theme, announced that something new—or at least a cool new take on something old—was suddenly at hand. That feeling didn't last for all nine years of the show's original run—good writing is famously hard to sustain—but the early seasons stuck in your head.
The opening episodes of what I suppose we might as well call Jordan Peele's reboot of The Twilight Zone deliver a similar kick. In exhuming the classic Rod Serling series—which first ran on CBS from 1959 to 1964 and was one of the inspirations for The X-Files—Peele has found an agreeable outlet for his formidable nerd powers. Not that it's his show—he's one of the series' half-dozen executive producers, not a writer or director. But he's a serious admirer of Rod Serling and he shares Serling's determination to deal with social issues in his work (the late writer was an assertive scourge of racial injustice and the great American war machine).
Most entertainingly, Peele—the Oscar-winning writer-director of Get Out and Us—slips easily into Serling's old role as the show's somber pop-up host and narrator. In a scene set in a roadside diner, the camera will casually come upon him sitting in a booth, having a coffee or whatever; on a remote, rocky beach where something horrible has just happened, he'll suddenly be standing there in his sober black suit, ready to present us with some wonderfully grave pronouncement (telling us, for example, that we're "on a fateful drive through the perilous highways…of the Twilight Zone").
The series itself promises to be a lot of spooky fun. The first four episodes dispensed to reviewers are meticulously lit and beautifully filmed and at several points delightfully scary. The best of them, I think, is the one directed by Ana Lily Amirpour, noted for her enigmatic 2014 vampire film, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. It's called "The Traveler" and concerns a mysterious character (Steven Yeun) who shows up unannounced at a small-town Alaskan police station one Christmas Eve. The police chief (Greg Kinnear), in boozy good spirits, accepts the puzzling presence of this stranger, with his vintage fedora and inscrutable bonhomie, but one of the chief's officers, Yuka (played by Inuit actress Marika Sila), is immediately suspicious, for, as it turns out, very good reasons. This episode delivers some classic chills and touches down, in passing, on the unending exploitation of indigenous people.
Another episode, called "Nightmare at 30,000 Feet," is modeled on one of the most famous of the original Twilight Zone installments, in which airline passenger William Shatner strives frantically to raise some alarm about a creature perched menacingly on the plane's port wing. As reworked here, with Adam Scott in the Shatner role, the otherworldly menace comes in the form of a true-crime podcast called Enigmatique—which turns out to be the very last show that anyone should ever listen to on a long-haul flight. If you have to expand an old half-hour episode into the hour-long format of the new series, this is the way to do it.
The remaining two episodes are clever ideas that may be stretched a little too thin. "The Comedian" stars Kumail Nanjiani as a standup comic who's bombing onstage until he receives some useful advice from a legendary older comedian (Tracy Morgan), who tells him to kill the political jokes with which he's larded his act and switch to routines drawn from his own life. However, the older man warns darkly, once the audience connects with this more personal material, "it's theirs." What this means is that…well, it's both very creepy and kind of fun.
The fourth episode, called "Rewind," stars Sanaa Lathan as a middle-class mother who's trying to drive her son (Damson Idris) to college, but keeps getting pulled over by a relentless highway patrol officer (Glenn Fleshler). This grim cop is forthrightly racist and, as we soon see, capable of just about any unpleasant thing. Fortunately, mom has an old camcorder that can dispel all problems at the push of a rewind button.
Jordan Peele recently remarked that he saw no need to cast white actors in lead roles in his films. This triggered a tsunami of white-guy bleating on Twitter, but here we see what he was talking about. This is a series that's simply well-cast, with talented actors, many of them somehow not white. It'd be nice if this were to become the new normal.
All of these new Twilight Zone episodes have attractive features – an especially sharp performance here, a beautifully framed shot there. The two best of them venture beyond the arena of simple scares to become haunting in a way that Rod Serling himself would likely have applauded.
(The Twilight Zone will debut next Monday, April 1, on CBS All Access.)