After ‘Us,’ Jordan Peele Crosses Over to ‘The Twilight Zone’
Jordan Peele, who grew up revering “The Twilight Zone,” has helped to create a new version of it for CBS All Access.CreditRamona Rosales for The New York Times
By Dave Itzkoff • March 26, 2019 •
LOS ANGELES — The woman in the black-and-white program on the flat-screen TV was teetering on the brink of madness, delivering a disjointed monologue about parallel worlds and the possibility that our own physical duplicates might walk among us. As the camera hovered above her troubled face and the decades-old audio crackled with the sound of a persistent rainstorm, Jordan Peele sat captivated on a nearby couch. “Beautiful shot,” he said with quiet awe.
Here in his personal office, Peele, the celebrated comedian turned Academy Award-winning horror filmmaker, was watching an old episode of “The Twilight Zone,” the classic science-fiction anthology series that he is helping to revive.
On a recent March morning, Peele had, with some calculation, chosen a 1960 installment called “Mirror Image,” from the show’s debut season. It stars Vera Miles (“Psycho”) as a woman convinced she is being followed by her exact double, and Martin Milner (“Route 66”) as the man who doesn’t believe her until it is too late.
Peele has pointed to “Mirror Image” as an inspiration for his new film, “Us,” in which Lupita Nyong’o and her family are besieged by murderous doppelgängers. He also admires the episode, written by the “Twilight Zone” creator Rod Serling, for its ability to elicit jump-scares without relying on supernatural beasts or extraterrestrial beings. In his favorite tales of terror, Peele told me, “I love human beings as the monster, as the horror.”
This is a suspenseful juncture for Peele, who grew up revering “The Twilight Zone,” and Serling in particular, for imbuing the show with a social consciousness and using its genre tropes to address the ills and anxieties of Cold War-era America.
Four years after the end of “Key & Peele” and two years after his directorial debut, “Get Out,” his hit thriller about seemingly well-intentioned white people who insert themselves into black people’s bodies, Peele is now an executive producer of a new “Twilight Zone” series. (The first episodes will be released April 1 on CBS All Access.) He is also playing the part of its dapper, deadpan narrator, book-ending each episode as Serling did on the show.
Peele accepted this on-camera role warily, and was uneasy about bringing back “The Twilight Zone” at all. He doesn’t easily embrace comparisons to Serling, a singularly influential figure in television who wrote many of the show’s most beloved segments and helped audiences see contemporary consequences in his stories of enchanted artifacts, interstellar travel and nuclear Armageddon. But in this tale of unlikely parallels, Peele has been shadowing Serling’s trajectory all along, whether or not he wants to admit it. He, too, has used genre entertainment to convey otherwise unpalatable truths to his viewers, deploying sketch comedy to comment on police brutality or horror movies to skewer self-satisfied liberals.
In his efforts to resuscitate “The Twilight Zone,” he has been reminded of a valuable lesson that might explain why he is, after all, a worthy successor to Serling’s mantle — an instructive philosophy that Peele said is as applicable to horror as it is to comedy: Always be thinking ahead of your viewers.
“If you can predict where an audience thinks it’s going to go, you can use it against them,” he said. “And they’ll love you for it.” In “Mirror Image,” a “Twilight Zone” installment from the show’s debut season in 1960, Vera Miles plays a woman tormented by her doppelgänger. The episode was an inspiration for Peele’s new film, “Us.”CreditCBS
These days there are many twists and turns in Peele’s life, including the vertiginous path up the Hollywood Hills to an outpost of his company, Monkeypaw Productions. The building is a sparsely furnished colonial home where “Us” was edited, and his personal office is decorated with vinyl dolls of the creepy twin girls from “The Shining”; a lunch box depicting Daniel Kaluuya’s tear-streaked face in “Get Out”; and — oh, yes — the Oscar that Peele won for writing its screenplay.
The smash success of “Get Out” (which took in more than $255 million worldwide) has enabled Peele to produce countless other projects, including Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman” and the Amazon documentary series “Lorena,” as well as coming horror offerings like the HBO series “Lovecraft Country” and a remake of the movie “Candyman.”
Peele, 40, doesn’t carry himself like a budding media mogul. He was dressed today like a stylish cult member, in black sweat clothes and white Nikes, and he spoke softly and haltingly about his accomplishments. “Obviously, I have an ego,” he said, “but I’m in constant attempts to remind myself where I come from and to humble myself. It’s how I work best.”
Before he broke through as a professional portrayer of President Obama and college football players with names like L’Carpetron Dookmarriot, Peele was — and still is — an unapologetic pop-culture geek who grew up on “Gremlins,” “Jaws” and Tim Burton movies. Another crucial touchstone was “The Twilight Zone”: It originally aired on CBS from 1959 to 1964, and his mother introduced him to the reruns.
Peele is pretty sure the first episode he saw was “To Serve Man,” from 1962, in which humans discover that the titular text of a seemingly benevolent alien race is actually a cookbook. Though time and familiarity have reduced this twist ending to a dad joke, Peele argued that “To Serve Man” was still bone-chilling. “You tell somebody that and it sounds pretty silly — watch the episode and you’re ready to believe it,” he said.
His pop perspective was shaped by other vintage installments, also written by Serling: “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” and “I Am the Night — Color Me Black,” which dealt directly with societal bias and racism, and cruelly ironic episodes like “Time Enough at Last,” in which Burgess Meredith plays the bookish survivor of an atomic apocalypse, stranded with a lifetime supply of reading material and a pair of broken glasses.
“I love the ones that, essentially, take someone’s tragic flaw and exploit it,” Peele said. “You set up a character and you show their tailor-made worst nightmare.”
Serling, who died in 1975, envisioned “The Twilight Zone” as a delivery system for parables with deliberate messages of social justice and allegories of human weakness and folly, coated in a digestible layer of fantasy.
As his widow, Carol Serling, told me, its sci-fi trappings allowed her husband to avoid creative interference and “get his points across — his social feelings that he wanted to talk about.”
In that era of television, she said, “You couldn’t do this, you couldn’t do that, you couldn’t put the Chrysler Building onscreen if another car company was sponsoring the show, which was crazy. He felt that by escaping into outer space, so to speak, he could get these stories across — and he did.”
“The Twilight Zone” has already spawned a 1983 movie and two other TV revivals, from 1985-9 and 2002-3, none regarded anywhere near as fondly as the original series. For the past few years, Simon Kinberg (a writer, producer and director of the “X-Men” film franchise) had been contemplating a new TV incarnation but couldn’t crack it. Should it tell a serialized story? Feature a repertory cast? Take place in an actual location called the Twilight Zone? These changes felt gimmicky and wrong. More crucially, Kinberg said, “There wasn’t a feeling of historical relevancy to the show, because we were living in a moment of, at least, perceived stability.”
Then two things happened: first, the 2016 presidential election. Next, Kinberg and his colleagues saw “Get Out,” which they regarded as a modern-day “Twilight Zone” in its own right. Soon, Peele and Kinberg were meeting to hash out ideas and realizing that perhaps the show’s classic formula didn’t need updating after all.
“In many ways it feels like somehow the wires got crossed and we’re in the wrong dimension — this was not supposed to be like this,” Peele said. “It felt like, if Serling were here, he’d have a lot to say and a lot of new episodes he couldn’t have written back in his time.”
Their new installments include “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet” (which has a teleplay by Marco Ramirez, and a story by Peele, Kinberg and Ramirez), a homage, of sorts, to the “Twilight Zone” original “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” and starring Adam Scott as an airline passenger convinced his flight is in terrible danger. Another episode, “Replay” (written by Selwyn Seyfu Hinds) follows a mother and son, played by Sanaa Lathan and Damson Idris, on a road trip, pursued by a tenacious state trooper (Glenn Fleshler).
What this “Twilight Zone” shares with Serling’s series, Peele said, is “a sense of simplicity” — a narrative arc of heightening revelations, “and then, at the end, the pattern is subverted or committed to even further.”
Each episode also requires what he called “that Serling wink”: “We take ourselves seriously but never too seriously,” Peele said. “It can’t go so dark that it makes us want to curl up in a ball.” (This is one way that he believes “The Twilight Zone” will distinguish itself from “Black Mirror,” Netflix’s acclaimed anthology series about technological dystopias. Peele said he was a fan of that show, but “it goes darrrrrrk. Dark dark. As dark as anything I’ve ever seen — and I love that.”)
There was also the matter of getting Peele to be narrator of the new show, to recite an eerie prologue over an adaptation of Marius Constant’s nerve-ruffling “Twilight Zone” theme, dress in a Serlingesque suit and appear unexpectedly on, say, a TV monitor or in a diner booth to deliver crucial context and moral accounting.
Despite the urging of his fellow producers, Peele said he worried that his comedy résumé would disqualify him for the role. “My initial feeling was, won’t people be picturing, like, Puppy Dog Ice-T?” he said, referring to one of his “Key & Peele” characters. “Doesn’t that take the gravity out?”
But eventually, Peele explained, this was a situation where he felt he had to set aside his ego and embrace the suggestions of his collaborators.
In “Us,” Lupita Nyong’o, far right, and her family are besieged by murderous doppelgängers.CreditClaudette Barius/Universal Pictures “I didn’t want to overthink it,” Peele said. “I didn’t want to do an impression of Serling, but I did want to conjure his tone. You can’t just do it the exact way he did. I’ve got to be real. I’ve got to be myself.”
Themes of double identity recur throughout Peele’s work and he’s been thinking about them since at least high school, when he decided he wanted to be a director and declared he would someday make his own version of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” (Looking at his own films now, Peele said that “Get Out” was his “Frankenstein” and “Us” was his “Jekyll and Hyde.”)
“All my work is pointed at this idea of humanity’s dark side,” Peele added. “We have demons sewn into our DNA. Evolution has brought us to a place where we want to be good, for the most part. But we’ll never be all good. We’ll always have this other side.”
When he turned his attention to the TV screen playing “Mirror Image,” Peele was fascinated by the strange but economical decision to set its action in a small bus station in upstate New York. He empathized with its protagonist, whose truthful complaints go largely unheeded, and relished a climactic scene in which she sees her double already sitting on the bus she is about to board, smiling back at her through the window.
“That little knowing smirk is so terrifying,” he said, sounding half horrified and half delighted. “It’s one thing to see another you in existence — it’s another thing to see another you that is already aware that you exist.”
At least two Jordan Peeles would seem to be required in the world to account for the volume and variety of work that he has generated recently. Or maybe his productivity is an act of defying his double, of making something before his counterpart can do it first — or before he shows up with more sinister intentions.
“O.K., we can deal with this,” Peele said, now chuckling outright. “There’s innately something about a doppelgänger that suggests one of you must die. There’s only space for one.”
Entertainment Weekly James Hibberd,Entertainment Weekly 17 hours ago
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Before producers Jordan Peele and Simon Kinberg created their new version of The Twilight Zone, they had to figure out what they were going to do about Black Mirror.
Netflix’s Emmy-winning series was inspired by the classic Twilight Zone, and is arguably the only anthology sci-fi show since the 1960s-era classic to compare favorably to it (as previous efforts to reboot The Twilight Zone itself were seen as disappointments and other shows with the format were similarly viewed as less-than).
Peele and Kinberg note they’re big fans of Black Mirror and had to get it clear in their minds what made their show distinct and created at least one rule for themselves when choosing scripts.
“One of the questions that comes early on when you’re thinking of doing The Twilight Zone is: In a Black Mirror world, what is the show?” Peele says. “Black Mirror is an absolute masterpiece, and we wouldn’t have moved forward with our show if we didn’t identify what is unique to Black Mirror and what is unique to Twilight Zone. One of the easy rules that we made for ourselves is that we don’t have to explore technology — Twilight Zone covers everything else the imagination can think of. Black Mirror is f—ing nailing the dystopic state of technology and how mankind fails when submitting to it. I appreciate the darkness of Black Mirror. I think Twilight Zone has a darkness, but it has a spectrum of tone in terms of how it’s meant to make you feel at the end.”
Added Kinberg: “We’re all huge fans of Black Mirror, so there’s that going in. We don’t feel nervous about competing with Black Mirror — we feel daunted enough about being compared to the original Twilight Zone. But we are aware that there could be a comparison. Black Mirror stakes out different territory because it really is so focused on modern technology. We’re really much more focused on moral, social justice, political issues that don’t necessarily rely on new technology.”
Actor Kumail Nanjiani, who stars in the new Twilight Zone episode “The Comedian,” had some thoughts as well. “At its core, Black Mirror is cynical about humanity — that’s not a dig, I love the show,” he says. “To me, Twilight Zone, no matter how dark the episode, is ultimately optimistic about humanity.”
4. "First episode was mediocre..." In response to Reply # 0 Tue Apr-02-19 09:00 AM by The Analyst
A simple parable about the dangers of lusting for "success" and selling your soul to obtain it, only to realize too late that it wasn't worth the collateral damage it inflicted upon others. A theme that, frankly, felt pretty basic and well worn. It certainly wasn't the abject failure some reviews have made it out to be, but it still felt rather hackneyed and cliched.
After realizing that Peele may not have played as a major a role in the development of the series as the publicity has attempted to make it (i.e. he didn't write or direct any episodes and only shares a "story by" credit on one episode), I'm a lot less excited about this. Probably won't even invest the time to keep watching...
7. "well shot, well acted, just not enough there for an hour" In response to Reply # 4
Black Mirror's high concept and sci-fi leanings allow it to pad those episodes out with world building and expository scenes that can either call attention to or divert attention away from the parable they're telling, but Twilight Zone's moral center means the half hour format would probably work better. It doesn't carry any weight if the character spends half the episode confused about what's going on while we basically get it right away.
They had me up until the nephew disappeared, though. I thought it was going to go in a different direction, where he would tell fake but relatable stories on stage to build his audience, but he would increasingly think he was living his lies while the world kept going the same around him. As his act gets more and more successful his personal life completely falls apart as everyone around him thinks he's losing his mind.
Same basic idea I suppose but it felt a little more original before he pulled the classic "accidentally ruined my girlfriend's life" move.
8. "forgot the reason I was itching to get back here was to shit on this" In response to Reply # 0
believe me, I take no pride in saying this sucked. Huge fan of the original series and a big fan of peele's too. Even when I saw the tepid response and heard through the grapevine about some behind-the-scenes disagreements I tried to give it a fair shot. I really WANTED to enjoy this... but man, this was bad. Head-scratchingly bad.
One thing the original series knew was that the show fit the half hour format perfectly. They expanded to an hour for the 4th season and realized that was a mistake before the 5th. For some odd reason two of the reboots of this show have had to relearn that lesson. Some of the eps had good concepts but meandered too much. Tighten these stories and they would've been better, but that wasn't the only issue.
Most episodes felt like they were >THIS< close to pulling it all together, and then the ending/narrator's summary just left me more confused. The "Not All Men" ep in particular felt like it really missed the mark on it's message, and the racist cop ep wasn't much better.
On a positive note: I liked the plane crash ep, but the ending was kinda weak. The last episode I thought was really clever until the big reveal of the Blurryman. I started laughing. CGI Rod Serling is one of the most bizarre things I've ever watched. Holy fuck!
9. "I'd been feeling guilty for not catching it yet" In response to Reply # 8
Watched the original series again the couple years. After the Rolling Stone article in February went and checked out Peele's films and was blown away. Super Bowl ad was great.
I've been feeling guilty for not supporting him on these and hopped on here to see what y'all have been saying. From The Analyst alluding to above he may not have been that involved to your review from someone coming in with similar expectations I no longer feel like I'd been missing out. A few new Black Mirror's helped with that. Can't wait to see what Peele does next though.