The latest iteration of The Twilight Zone has had little trouble coming up with clever supernatural premises, but has shown itself thus far less adept at creating characters that fully exploit them. Still, each new episode is a chance to try again, to correct the mistakes of the past and lay out a better foundation for the future, and so we come to the third entry in the series, “Replay,” which deals with the interesting concept of do-overs. While the writers admirably try to take a different route in this tale of a mother and son on their way to his first day of college, they ultimately run over the same potholes that plagued the previous two episodes, and eventually hit the same wall. This time, however, the wreck is spectacular.
The opening scene does a nice job at establishing an eerie optimism that we know can’t last for long. Set in an old-fashioned diner that wouldn’t have looked out of place in the original series (it evokes “Nick of Time” especially), the upbeat atmosphere is distorted by skewed camera angles and some spilled sugar. Nina and her son, Dorian, sit in a booth off to the side of all the usual eatery hubbub, eating burgers and fries while basking in a proud moment for them both. He is off to school to pursue his dream of becoming an influential filmmaker, while she soaks in these last moments as a family while she still can, even resorting to pulling out an ancient camcorder in order to capture some last-minute video of her precious progeny. Of course, this is no ordinary electronic device, and via a disorienting accident involving ketchup, Nina discovers that rewinding the tape rewinds the entire world.
It’s a neat trick, and like its predecessors, opens up numerous possibilities for exploring a variety of aspects of human nature. What would a person do with the unlimited ability to rewind their life and correct mistakes? Would they use it for personal gain? Acquire power or wealth? Would they pull a Groundhog Day and manipulate those around them for entertainment? Would they try to do good in the world? There are a lot of classic Twilight Zone directions to go in here, but “Replay” isn’t interested (a bit with a lottery drawing briefly taunts with potential, then shows itself to be nothing more than a condescending tease). Instead of peering into the human soul, the script by Selwyn Seyfu Hinds constructs hollow puppets that can be maneuvered into whatever position necessary to get the overarching theme across. This message comes in the form of a racist police officer who progressively torments Nina and Dorian on their road trip, no matter how many of the encounters Nina rewinds.
While The Twilight Zone was never a stranger to social commentary, it more often than not approached such topics sideways, from a vaguer perspective. Usually, its characters had fundamental flaws that would either be overcome on the road to redemption, or indulged until a tragic fate. Nina and Dorian, however, are cardboard innocent; they have that saccharine rapport that fake/happy TV and movie families have been displaying for decades, the noble pursuit of higher education, and honorable aspirations. Any one of these could have been portrayed more interestingly as a veneer to be stripped away, but that probing depth is not to be. “Replay” hits its audience over the head right off the bat with clunky dialogue and cartoonish characterizations that leave no room for anyone to move; everyone here is stuck in their role, cogs in the script’s machine.
However, separated from the awkwardness that this blunt approach initially produces, the first half of the episode actually still works surprisingly well as a thriller. The psychopathic cop strides into a room with all the confidence and menace of a Terminator, and as he tracks the pair down he creates the same kind of increasing highway dread as the mysterious semi truck in Duel. It’s a lot easier to forgive the eye-rolling when one’s heart is pounding. Nina and Dorian are sympathetic, but more because they are trapped than because of the manufactured niceness slathered on. Unfortunately (how many times have I had to type that?), “Replay” loses its focus in the last act, abandoning the tense cat-and-mouse games for a ridiculous lapse in backstory and logic. A convenient trek through some tunnels is mind-boggling in its inept justification, and the final triumphant confrontation winds up feeling silly, no matter how well-intentioned its attempts at portraying human beings may be.
And the twist! A sort-of epilogue produces one of the laziest attempts at last-minute tragedy the Twilight Zone has ever seen. Besides the reason-defying casual nature with which the careful Nina suddenly treats one of the most extraordinary devices on the planet, that the writers felt the need for a ‘down’ ending is just another in a long line of miscalculations. Serling’s series was never all doom and gloom; plenty of tales ended sweetly, and the final moments of “Replay” play out like a hack horror film where the killer unsurprisingly rises from the grave — one last cheap scare that is tonally off, and never earned.
Hit rewind, and let’s try this again.