Jordan Peele's Twilight Zone is unforgivably long
Jordan Peele's Twilight Zone is nearly a faithful pastiche of the original series. Peele routinely steps into the episodes, as the original Twilight Zone creator and narrator Rod Serling did, delivering straight-faced monologues and Aesopian warnings. The reboot, which premiered on CBS All Access on Monday, isn't trying to do anything fancy or newfangled — staying true to the ethos of The Twilight Zone, the episodes are free-standing and timeless.
They are, nevertheless, unforgivably long.
"The Comedian," the first episode, about a struggling stand-up comic who makes his subjects disappear by putting them into his routine, is a twist on the be careful what you wish for genre. It could almost have been a 1960's Twilight Zone episode, if not for the fact that it takes an hour for the story to unfold. The length is unwarranted; as a viewer, it is quickly apparent where the story is going and what it's trying to say.
"Nightmare at 30,000 Feet" is the shortest of the episodes available at this point for critics, at 36 minutes long. Yes, it's a suggestive wink at the most famous classic Twilight Zone episode, "Nightmare at 20,000 feet," but the set-up is updated: A journalist stumbles upon a podcast that describes the tragic fate of Flight 1015 — the very flight he is on. Again, this premise doesn't necessitate the extra 10 minutes it bloats from the original series' 25-minute runtime; it is clear, long before the characters catch up with you, what is going to happen. Likewise "Replay" exhausts its camcorder time-travel premise within 20 minutes. Only "A Traveler" stood out among the episodes I watched as being tightly-wound enough to justify its 50 minutes; it also, consequently, feels the least like a traditional Twilight Zone episode, with its more complicated and cinematic story and direction.
Contrast this excess with the concision of the classic Twilight Zone. Last weekend, just for the heck of it, I put on a random episode, 1959's "Walking Distance." It is a delightful morsel of television, a moral tale about how you can't go home again. It is also just 25 minutes long, the length of time it took me to finish a cup of tea and then shuffle off to bed. "Walking Distance" would have collapsed under its own weight had it been any longer. It is punchy, cuts to the chase, and doesn't try to pretend like it has more to tell you than it does.
Many of the best classic Twilight Zone episodes have similarly simple premises, from the Sartrean "Five Characters in Search of an Exit" to my personal favorite, "Twenty-two." What makes the original Twilight Zone work so brilliantly, then, is that it rarely overextends an idea. At less than half an hour, the episodes are short enough that by the time you've caught on to where they're going, they've gotten there. Only infrequently do you have to wait for the episode to catch up with you.
CBS should have learned its lesson about The Twilight Zone's runtime decades ago. In 1963, after initially canceling The Twilight Zone, the network pushed to expand the 25-minute format to hour-long episodes, a change Serling opposed. Season 4 has become somewhat legendary for the alternation, although not in a good way: Vulture calls it "the toughest stretch of The Twilight Zone" because "almost every episode of Season 4 ... would have been better at half the running time." In the intervening years, Season 4 has basically been buried; it is rarely on TV and is missing from Netflix's collection. The Twilight Zone promptly switched back to its 25-minute length for Season 5.
Peele's Twilight Zone appears to suffer from the same missteps as Season 4. His stable of writers and directors are left to either abandon The Twilight Zone format altogether, as with "A Traveler," or try to do too much with too little. What's even more frustrating is that the little that is there often happens to be pretty fun; the material is only tedious when stretched to fit an hour-long slot of television.
The 2019 Twilight Zone takes every other cue from the original, from narrative conceit on down to Peele's cadence in delivering Serling-esque narrations. Still, CBS missed the very thing that made the classic Twilight Zone the greatest: its brevity.