Today the first two episodes of the new CBS All Access series The Twilight Zone were released. TrekMovie has adopted this show as we are big fans of the franchise and as it is a genre show on CBS All Access, home of Star Trek on TV. We also reviewed “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet,” released today as well.
The Twilight Zone Season 1, Episode 1 – Released Monday, April 1, 2019
Written by Alex Rubens
Directed by Owen Harris
I’ve been a fan of the original The Twilight Zone since I was a kid, but I confess, there were always some episodes that dragged for me. The first time I watched “The Comedian,” it fell into that category, but when I did a second viewing—which I did for this review—it didn’t feel draggy anymore. I’d be curious to know if it works the same way for other viewers.
“The Comedian,” at its heart, is about the perils of fame. The story centers around Samir (Kumail Nanjiani), a regular performer at a comedy club where his stand-up act seems based on unfunny but well-intentioned jokes about the Second Amendment. His colleagues—particularly Didi Scott (Diarra Kilpatrick)— are all more popular than he is, but he persists in his joke, obviously feeling that what he has to say is important and if he only says it right, he’ll get the laughs he’s craving.
Then one night, he meets comedy legend JC Wheeler (Tracy Morgan), whom he reveres. He asks for notes on his act. Wheeler tells Samir that the audience doesn’t care about what he thinks, they care about him as a person. Samir resists. “Isn’t the whole point to provide insight into the human condition?” he asks. But Wheeler has a better question: “Don’t you want it all?” “Yes,” Samir asks. “More than anything.” Wheeler tells him is only export is himself, and if he puts himself out there, he’ll get laughs and be successful—if he’s sure that’s what he wants. Then he gets appropriately Twilight Zone-y and spells out the ominous part: “You have to be sure to be sure. Because once you put it out there, the audience will take it in. And once they connect to it it’s theirs. That shit is gone forever.”
Samir agrees, and they clink glasses.
Reading the room
Samir gets on stage for his set, bombs yet again with his Second Amendment joke, and remembers his idol’s advice. He starts making jokes about his dog (whose name, to the joy of the crowd, is Cat).
He kills. The audience is laughing. He’s on top of the world, finally getting the applause he’s been craving, but when he heads home, not only is his dog gone, his live-in girlfriend Rena (Amara Karan) doesn’t remember them having one in the first place.
We all know what’s coming next. In a familiar Twilight Zone-type arrangement, he’s made a deal with the devil. Each time he tries his Second Amendment joke, he loses the audience, so he switches to talking about people he knows. The crowd roars…and whomever he was talking about disappears. The next one to go is his cute ten-year-old nephew.
His dog and his 10-year-old nephew are serious personal losses for him, but when he realizes no one else even remembers them, he’s able to move on, emotionally. He finds different targets, seeking some moral grounding as he trades in their existence for his success: the misogynistic, boorish comedian whose drunk driving killed a mother and her baby; rich investor guy hecklers in the audience; jerks he remembers from high school who stayed jerks; pervert coaches, etc.
But this is The Twilight Zone, so eventually he gets pissed at his lawyer-girlfriend Rena’s former professor (and current mentor) for flirting with her and makes him his next target. Uh-oh: Turns out this mentor-professor is the one who helped get Rena into law school. Now she’s a waitress, and she and Samir are broke—and, before long, broken up. Unfettered by the one real relationship left that anchored him, his conscience is on its last legs.
And then right before Samir takes the stage for a major talent agent who’s looking to fill a slot on a TV show, JC Wheeler comes back. Samir’s onstage comedy may be lackluster, but offstage he’s funny, telling Wheeler he “wanted to be the next Chris Rock, not evil David Copperfield.”
“You can’t murder people who never existed,” Wheeler calmly tells him, and those people were never born. Samir asks where they went, but we—the audience—have the answer to that one: the Twilight Zone. Wheeler tells him there’s no reason to stop when he’s so close to getting everything he wants.
Samir’s next, obvious move is to talk about Didi Scott, who’s up against him for the TV job—and just gave him a pep talk even though she’s unhappy they’re competing for the same gig. To his credit, he hesitates. But then he starts with “Give it up for Didi Scott!” and off she goes, forever.
Don’t forget to tip your waitress
Next time he’s on stage, we see a more deranged Samir. His hair is longer and unkempt, he’s sweating, and he’s now shouting names, almost ranting. In walks Rena, who has found his notebook of jokes only to discover that it’s just a massive list of names. Furious, she tells him to make jokes about her, and there’s a long moment when it seems like he’s about to do it.
Instead, he talks about himself. “I’m a garbage can,” he says, “who needs lots of money and validation emptied right into me.” The crowd roars. He echoes Wheeler’s comments about being a country with one export, then does the final, necessary deed: he says his own name.
With no one to hold it, the mic falls to the floor.
By erasing his own existence, everyone who’d disappeared has returned. We see Reena with her nephew Devin at the club, and she takes a minute to tell Didi how much she enjoyed her act. Didi watches her go, then turns to the bar where—yes!–she finds JC Wheeler, ready to give her some career-changing advice.
“In the end,” sums up narrator Jordan Peele, “Samir’s final encore is a show you can only buy a ticket to in The Twilight Zone.”
The burden of carrying this episode rests on the shoulders of Kumail Nanjiani, and he does a great job. All the actors do, with the other standout being Diarra Kilpatrick as Didi Stone, his rival comedian. Kudos also to Tracy Morgan—I tend to find him most effective in small doses, and he’s absolutely perfect here.
But the episode does lag, a little, perhaps because a seasoned sci-fi/Twilight Zone/general TV viewer is likely to see the path of this story the minute Samir asks Rena where their dog is. As I said, I found this more the first time; the second time, when I was done with proving to myself that I knew where the story was going, I was more able to appreciate the nuance of each successive disappearance. Each one is an escalation, chipping away at a different part of Samir’s soul, and while he initially tries to find some sort of moral justification for what he’s doing until, he finally recognizes what he has become: an empty shell, waiting for applause, social media followers, and selfie-seekers to fill him up. So while there’s a bit of a cycle to this as each new person disappears, which is what bogs down the pace, it’s clear that each one is taking Samir to another place he’s never been before, from wish fulfillment we can relate to (like wanting to take down high school bullies who never got any nicer) to choices we would hopefully never make (removing a worthy rival).
An intriguing choice here is that writer Alex Rubens chose not to write comedy that’s not actually funny for Samir to deliver. Nanjiani has done stand-up and co-wrote the movie The Big Sick, and he’s very funny himself, so this has to be part of the point: Samir is a big hit on stage but he’s not any funnier than he was before. The dog jokes were good, but once he takes on people, all he’s really doing is just ranting about how terrible they are. And the audience laughs.
But to this viewer, there is little that’s harder to watch than unfunny stand-up. Bad comedy is worse than bad drama, because you can laugh at bad drama and it BECOMES comedy. It doesn’t work the other way. It’s hard to sit through over and over, even though the purpose of it is clear: Samir eats up the applause for these non-jokes, an indication of just how much he craves fame.
In the end, he’s redeemed, but it costs him his very existence. Twilight Zone characters don’t always get a chance to use the lessons they’ve learned, but Samir does. The same guy who walked around with his 10-year-old nephew putting up lost dog signs is the guy who looked at his ex-girlfriend taking him down in public, and sacrificed himself instead of destroying her, miserable at what he had become.
“Isn’t the whole point to provide insight into the human condition?” he had asked Wheeler, who scoffed at him. But in the Twilight Zone, it absolutely is.
So all in all, it’s a solid episode but not a standout. Classic Twilight Zone theme, dragged a little in the middle due mostly to predictability and some (deliberately) bad stand-up, with a nice twist at the end, thanks to the last-minute redemption of the main character.
- Executive Producer Jordan Peele does a nice job hosting, bringing gravity as well as a nudgy wink.
- The episode is written by Alex Rubens, who’s worked with Peele before on Key & Peele and The Last O.G. (starring Tracy Morgan), and worked on Rick and Morty as well as Community.
- Director Owen Harris also directed the Black Mirror episodes “San Junipero” and “Be Right Back.”
- There’s a painting on the back wall of the club of a seated, packed full-house audience, seen mostly in shots when the audience is roaring at Samir’s least funny jokes. In the final moment, reminiscent of the final shot of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, we see Samir is now in the painting, front and center.
- The comedians’ excitement at seeing JC Wheeler, and Samir asking where he’d been since he disappeared, is a nice tribute to Tracy Morgan, who was in a life-threatening accident in 2014 and had to take a few years off from performing while he recovered.
- As revealed by The Wrap, that joke about David Copperfield mentioned in the recap came about because Copperfield owns the actual dummy used in the original Twilight Zone episode “The Dummy,” and loaned it to the production for free on the condition that they make a reference to him in the episode. It makes a brief appearance in the scene where Samir makes the joke. Nicely done!
CBS has made the first episode of The Twilight Zone available for free for one week on YouTube.
Keep up with The Twilight Zone news and reviews here at TrekMovie.com.