I was not a fan of the new Twilight Zone’s first season. The fast version is that the new Twilight Zone suffers from a few key problems: the length of the episodes put them in an uncomfortable limbo, the characters are never allowed to breathe and be real people, and the themes are trite and preachy.
But now the second season is out, how does it compare? Better and worse. The second season is riddled with the same problems as the first season, but at times also manages to do something new, and a few of the episodes are actually good. The best way to explore how the second season is different is to go through it episode by episode.
This review will spread over a few blog posts, but the only way out is through so let’s get started.
01. Meet in The Middle
Meet In the Middle, in which a man starts telepathically communicating with a distant woman, is the episode that kick off the second season. Unfortunately it’s not very good, with all the same problems the first season had. The main character is hard to care about, it does a lot of telling and not showing, and the structure of it is really unsatisfying.
In my blog on the first season, I said that the original twilight zone was built on a really simple structure: setup, twist, and falling action. They were fast and punchy and got in and out before the audience got bored. The new twilight zone has a more complex structure, but not necessarily a better one. It’s actually very formulaic, and Meet in the Middle is a perfect example of it and it’s problems. The structure goes like this:
- Intro where the character, their world, and the status quo is set up. In this case, the main character is on a date.
- The supernatural element that will define the episode is introduced. After this is where the narrator makes his appearance. In this episode the main character starts hearing a woman’s voice
- The first half of the middle where the character settles into the supernatural element. Here the main character gets to know the girl and becomes closer to her.
- The second half of the middle where the situation escalates. In this episode the two characters decide to meet and she’s seemingly abducted
- The twist itself. The quality of this varies, but here the woman reveals she was manipulating him to get away from her husband
- The falling action where the twist is explained and the character’s fate become clear. To cap this episode the main character is taken to prison
There’s three inherent problem areas with this structure. The two middles, and the falling action.
- The first half of the middle tends to sag because we don’t really care about the character that much, and often we’re simply told about them instead of shown. We also are bored here because it feels like a bit of a waiting room for the real episode to start; this status quo we know won’t last and will be upended later, so it’s hard to care about it.
- The second half of the middle where the situation escalates is a little more interesting because things are speeding up, but but also makes us sort of impatient because we know the twist is coming and we can’t really become invested in because we know the stakes here aren’t real and will be betrayed in a minute when the twist upends everything.
- After the twist comes the falling action, which is our third problem area. Said problem is that often the fallout from the twist sets up a new status quo that’s a lot more interesting than what’s come so far, and has meatier themes and character to explore.
The twist in Meet in the Middle actually isn’t that bad, it’s just that the fallout from it sets up a more interesting story. How does the main character deal with having his life shattered and now being imprisoned? In prison does he reach out for her again out of desperation and isolation in a desperate twisted bid for some kind of connection, even if it’s with his abuser? The stakes are immediately heightened and his bitterness, misery, and need would be easy emotions for an audience to latch onto. And it would make her more complex too. Would she reach out for him out of need? Some kinship because he’s the only one who knows her secrets, the real her?
Putting the plot of the episode later in this timeline would also help give it momentum and shape: can the main character outsmart the woman somehow? Exonerate himself? Avenge himself? It would be a game of cat and mouse, and those are inherently tension filled in a way the episode right now isn’t.
Downtime, in which a woman comes to realize she’s living in a virtual world, is actually a great contrast to Meet in the Middle because it does take place in what another episode might be that falling action, and is a better episode for it. Instead of saving the reveal that she’s a self aware avatar of a human player for the end of the episode, the reveal is instead made around halfway through.
This gives the episode a chance to really show the emotional fallout on the main character of her new situation.
Showing the character in that fallout makes her a lot easier to empathize and identify with than almost any other in the series. Such a traumatic event pushes you into her, and once you’re on the same emotional page as her it’s easier to care. It’s also a case I think of the supernatural element being a traumatic thing; for so many of the characters, like Meet in the Middle’s, it’s a good thing, but for Downtime’s it’s a bad thing.
This isn’t to say the episode is great. It’s messy and not quite coherent, and the last fourth or so lacks real weight and feels rushed. Her choice between remaining herself or letting her player live isn’t really explored emotionally. She’s gonna do it, then she isn’t, then she’s gonna again, but by then it’s not an option any more. There’s also no real exploration of where she and her original player overlap which is a fascinating question of identity and self.
Weirdly, the episode also thinks it’s about something it isn’t. According to the narrator at the end of the episode:
“How would you feel if you spent your life making your dreams a reality, only to find out that reality itself is a dream all along? You could never know what makes something real. But today, Michelle Weaver, has found meaning in an otherwise synthetic world.”
Except, uh, no she hasn’t. Five second ago she was ready to give up her life for her player’s. And this wasn’t really an episode about external reality, it was an episode about self and conscience. Fail Jordan Peele, fail.
A Note on Price: The second season dropped all at once on CBS full access, but unfortunately that takes a cable description. If you’re having trouble financially, a title loan may be the answer you’re looking for.