One of the things I’ve always loved about “The Twilight Zone” is how the characters in many an episode come to realize they’re trapped in some sort of Twilight Zone — but their efforts to break free of the Twilight Zone only complicate matters.
Because they’re in the Twilight Zone!
Three of the first four episodes of the new “Twilight Zone” anthology (streaming on the subscription-only CBS All Access service, with the first two eps available Monday) are in keeping with that time-honored theme established by the great Rod Serling in the original series from 1959-1964.
The fourth episode is more ambitious and complex, but it, too, echoes themes explored in the original series.
So yes, at times (at least in those first four episodes), the new “Twilight Zone” comes across as a really good cover-band update, not exactly bursting with originality — but if you’re going to try to do a reboot and then sprinkle in some 2019-fresh elements, why not build on the foundation of a classic?
The scorching-hot, enormously talented, Chicago-trained, do-everything Jordan Peele (“Get Out,” “Us”) is one of the executive producers of the show and is also the perfect on-camera narrator — appearing in classically incongruous Serling fashion (on-set, just off to the side, visible only to us) near the beginning of each episode and setting the table for the journey to come.
In the series premiere, the brilliant Kumail Nanjiani (“The Big Sick,” “Silicon Valley”) is Samir, a self-righteous, self-loathing comedian who is bombing night after night with his political commentary, which might be spot-on but isn’t FUNNY.
When Samir meets a legendary comic played by the legendary comic Tracy Morgan and asks for advice, he’s told:
“F— politics! The audience doesn’t care about what you think. The audience wants to know about YOU.”
But the more “real” Samir gets on stage, whether he’s talking about his girlfriend or his family or his past, the more power he gains over the very lives of those people, and we’ll leave it at that, other than to say that like Peele’s “Us,” this particular episode has a neat little shoutout to “The Shining.”
Episode Two, titled “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet,” is a salute to one of the most famous “Twilight Zone” episodes of all time: “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” which originally aired in November of 1963 and starred a pre-“Star Trek” William Shatner as a seemingly paranoid airline passenger who causes havoc on a flight with his claims there’s an alien creature lurking outside.
This time around, the always terrific Adam Scott plays Justin Sanderson, a journalist on Northern Goldstar Airlines Flight 1015, listening to a podcast about the last moments of …
Northern Goldstar Airlines Flight 1015.
Yeah, that’s gonna lead to some tense moments on the flight — and a fun thrill ride for the audience, as we try to figure out if Justin is crazy, or if he’s already dead, or if this is whole thing is playing out in real time and he’s been given the chance to be a fate-stopping hero.
Episode three, titled “Replay,” carries an electric, stand-alone, socially relevant charge. Sanaa Lathan delivers Emmy-worthy work as Nina Harrison, an accomplished professional woman driving her aspiring filmmaker son Dorian (Damson Idris) to his first day of college at an historic black university in the Deep South.
We’re in present day (as evidenced by a reference to “Black Panther” director Ryan Coogler). But why does Mom have a camcorder straight out of the early 2000s, and what’s with the state trooper (played by the great character actor Glenn Fleshler) who’s obsessed with profiling and harassing Nina and her son, no matter how many times Nina hits the rewind button and tries to choose a different path on this particular day? The final note of this episode is absolutely chilling.
Steven Yeun (“The Walking Dead”) is the title character in Episode Four, “A Traveler,” the weirdest and initially most intriguing but ultimately least successful entry in the bunch.
Most of the story takes place during the annual holiday party at the police headquarters of a small Alaskan village, where the boorish Capt. Pendleton (Greg Kinnear), his uniformed officers and various prominent townsfolk get sloshed while making veiled references to a nearby and semi-secret military base.
Oh, and the Russians. There’s something going on with the Russians. What about the Russians?
Yeun plays a mysterious stranger who materializes out of nowhere, sporting a Sinatra-esque getup and armed with all sorts of information and all kinds of claims about the locals.
Unfortunately, Yeun (a fine actor) is underwhelming in a pivotal role, and the overloaded story feels like a feature-length film squeezed into an hourlong drama.
Overall, though, this Trip Advisor doesn’t hesitate to recommend another journey to …
THE TWILIGHT ZONE.
‘The Twilight Zone’
Debuting Monday on CBS All Access