We watch... so you don't have to.

Fall '02: No-Fly Zone

When CBS decided to launch a revival of The Twilight Zone in the '80s, the show's producers realized they had a tough, even impossible act to follow. So they made some canny decisions. First, don't compete with the ghost of Rod Serling by replacing him with a new on-camera host. Instead, a top-notch narrator would make brief off-camera comments to set the stage at the beginning and end of each story. Second, don't try to match or outdo the legendary O. Henry plot twist endings that are in large part what people think of as the Zone's stock-in-trade. People will be looking for twists -- and that will ruin your first attempts. Just tell good, creepy stories, and tell them well.

You may not remember that Twilight Zone well, but during its CBS run it managed to turn out some brilliant work, much of it based on award-winning short stories by science fiction authors such as Harlan Ellison and Arthur C. Clarke.

If only UPN's new Twilight Zone had learned anything from CBS' short-lived edition. While that version died with dignity (sort of -- it was reanimated in syndication a couple years later), the new Zone has already lost its shot at such a fate. Instead, it will die only after pissing on Rod Serling's grave and knocking over the flowers at the Night Gallery next door.

Mistake number one: The hiring of Forrest Whitaker, a talented actor, as the show's on-screen narrator. Looking like someone who's either in desperate need of cash to pay off a loan or a kidnap victim who is carefully blinking out a morse code distress call asking for us to rescue him from his tormentors, Whitaker meanders into camera view at the beginning and end of every episode, only to read a vaguely threatening statement that lapses into self-parody, especially when he breathlessly tells us that this family... has just bought a new house... whose floorplan resides... in... The Twilight Zone!

Mistake number two: The attempt to create plot-twist endings leaves viewers with a cheesy taste in their mouths. The show's first half-hour story featured a "twist" ending so ridiculous and yet so telegraphed, it made "Soylent Green" look like Charles Dickens in comparison. The bad kids are being taken to a wood chipper! Evergreen trees are people! The second story's twist -- the doctor with the bad headache who we've been following as he tries to convince Mr. Death to get back to work is actually the next victim on Death's agenda! -- was just as obvious, if slightly more affecting.

Mistake number three: The show's stories are a bad rehash of spooky sci-fi plot lines so tired that they read like something out of Showtime's anemic Outer Limits revival of a few years ago. Which makes sense, because this Vancouver-shot sci-fi anthology series is produced by one of the producers of that Vancouver-shot sci-fi anthology series. Given that some well-acted shows are shot in Vancouver, it's a little surprising how lousy the acting is in The Twilight Zone, celebrity guest-stars somewhat excepted.

So can UPN's Twilight Zone be saved? Sure, by good stories that don't rely on ridiculous twist endings. By mining the wealth of brilliant science fiction, fantasy, and horror short stories that are floating out there, waiting to be turned into great half-hours of television. And most of all, by realizing that creepy hosts and plot twist endings weren't the reasons that Rod Serling's Twilight Zone succeeded -- they were the trappings that made its brilliant writing, acting, and direction more memorable.

Will UPN's Twilight Zone succeed? Barring a twist worthy of Serling himself, I think we can all see how this one's going to end.


TeeVee - About Us - Archive - Where We Are Now

Got a comment? Mail us at teevee@teevee.org.

* * *