There will always be stories to tell in a dimension “as vast as space and as timeless as infinity,” so the third revival of Rod Serling’s iconic sci-fi anthology series The Twilight Zone is a welcome sight to fans of the outre. That this iteration takes inspiration from executive producer Jordan Peele, whose horror movies have leaned more toward the eerie side of reality, offers hope that once again humankind’s deepest, darkest fears and tendencies will be placed under the microscope to reveal universal truths. Unfortunately, the premiere episode — titled “The Comedian” — bombs the opening act, diminishing much of that initial goodwill.
It’s not difficult to see where things went wrong; the worst episodes of the original Twilight Zone (and among the plethora of classics there were certainly some stinkers) are more in love with concepts than characters, and that is exactly what we get here. Kumail Nanjiani plays a stand-up comedian named Samir who takes the stage at a swanky comedy club every night only to hear crickets as he delivers punchlines to his political jokes. How he still has a spot in the lineup is anyone’s guess, especially when those around him seem to be killing it, but there you go. One night, after another bad set in what we can only assume has been a string of disappointments, Samir meets a mysteriously reclusive, legendary comic (Tracey Morgan, struggling to find a delivery) who imparts some advice. It seems that the secret to comedic success isn’t crafting a clever, well-paced routine filled with sharp humor, but simply talking about one’s private life. That’s all audiences want to hear anyway, right? Sure, let’s roll with that.
So, if he “wants it all” (which is apparently the reason people go into comedy) then Samir will have to ditch intellectual potshots for personal ones. After yet another failed attempt at garnering interest in 2nd Amendment quips, he decides to give it a try. The only catch? Every living thing (including pets) that Samir jokes about will soon disappear entirely, erased as if he or she had never existed in the first place. No one will remember them, and whatever effect their actions had on the world will also cease to be. His new approach starts to gain him fame and fortune, but at what cost?
There are multiple interesting avenues to explore with a performer willing to do anything to get a laugh, but “The Comedian” fails to establish Samir as just such a person — or as any sort of person at all. It’s true that he isn’t funny and is somewhat frustrated by his lack of success, but also clearly has steady work at a nice place, and goes home every night to a luxurious apartment that he shares with an emotionally and financially supportive girlfriend (Amara Karan). Worse, early scenes never even demonstrate the passion for notoriety he supposedly has, depicting him instead espousing the virtues of staying true to one’s art. How is this a person who would ‘do anything’ to get ahead? We never see that, and the lack of setup for a character teetering on the edge makes later choices ring hollow, convenient — a character obedient to a writer rather than the other way around.
Without a solid starting point, writer Alex Rubens seems to have no idea where to go. The script flails about in search of any morality to glom onto, painting Samir early on as principled so that there’s conflict over giving up his act, then well-intentioned so that he has an excuse to keep erasing people, then petty to inject some drama, then bat-shit crazy because…why? The character never earns any of these personality changes, and so the script has to explain them via sloppily on-the-nose dialogue that just isn’t supported by what has preceded it.
It’s a shame, because “The Comedian” is nicely photographed in murky shadows, and a creepy backdrop at the club suggests a certain otherworldliness. It also has cast a perfect lead for its premise; Nanjiani has the ability to convincingly play both meek and arrogant, if only he were allowed to make the transition. An actual comedian, he also is extremely funny — though you’d never guess that here, given the incredibly lame ‘jokes’ he and all the other performers are burdened with. Is that on purpose, a commentary on shallow comedy itself? Or maybe a shot at stupid audiences? Regardless, nothing in this first story works. The good news for The Twilight Zone? there’s nowhere to go but up.