The Twilight Zone is back, under the leadership of Get Out and Us writer–director Jordan Peele. The series’ premiere episode actually takes us back to the showrunner’s comedy roots — which isn’t to say “The Comedian” is a very funny episode. If anything, it’s downright hard to watch.
Real-world comic Kumail Nanjiani plays stand-up flop, Samir, in a series of sets that bomb at Eddies — a brick wall comedy spot. Samir’s act is too “political.” He cracks jokes about Second Amendment enthusiasts and hopes to change the world with his routines. He’s off to a poor start, however, as he dies on stage and gets lightly heckled even by his girlfriend’s 10-year-old nephew.
Things take a turn for the Twilight Zone-y when Samir is approached by a famous comedian (Tracy Morgan) who disappeared at the height of his powers. The smug legend informs Samir that his routine is missing the personal touch. Specifically, Samir must use his private life as ammunition — to “weaponize that shit” — in his jokes. Though Samir is warned that, once he does this, those parts of his life will be “gone forever.”
Samir refuses to abandon his principles… at first. But, as these things tend to go, he caves. And a lowbrow gag about his dog eventually leads to big laughs. The problem is that it also scrubs his pet out of the universe. Nobody but Samir even remembers it ever existed.
After that, things go fairly well for the would-be jokester as he tests the boundaries of his new ability. He can make anyone laugh at anything — not even really needing to tell jokes — so long as he doesn’t reuse old material, is okay with wiping them out of existence, and knows the subject personally. That last bit only becomes clear when he fails to delete Donald Trump from the timeline.
Samir’s social and political leanings are, as you can probably tell, fairly obvious. And he finds a way to kill two birds with one superpower: get big laughs by wiping out terrible people. A rival comedian that ran over a mother and child while drunk driving? Gone. High school bullies that grew into murderers? Poof! It’s very easy, at first, and Samir begins to feed on the attention as much as his audience feeds on his sacrifices.
And just like Samir, “The Comedian” wears its beliefs on its sleeves. The episode lingers, with stabbing patience, on how easy it is to comodify our existence. Our interests, hobbies, and relationships are all just gruel for the yawning void of useless attention. We see it in how Samir frequently (but subtly — this isn’t “what if phones, but too much“) clocks his rising fame through his rising Twitter following.
“The Comedian” succeeds where something like Black Mirror stumbles on this topic — on how our need to seem larger than life can devour life itself. It doesn’t fetishize its own, cleverly twisted technology while also condemning it. It doesn’t lean on nightmarish set design and caricatures to show just how, like, grotesque people are, man. It takes place in a comedy club on Friday nights. Samir eats pizza with his girlfriend. The closest thing he has to a friend is a woman with her own ambitions, who plainly leaves his orbit whenever he becomes too self-obsessed. There’s a real world around this pseudo-protagonist.
“The Comedian” fails, and in fact falls into some very similar rhetorical pits as a Black Mirror, when it comes to the why. Why does an ostensibly good person turn everything they love into a commodity? Why sell those things to hundreds, thousands, millions of strangers? The same reason anyone sells anything: for the money.
People (particularly marginalized groups) are often forced to monetize their life stories, hobbies, and relationships. They make self-deprecating tweets and art about their struggles — which might lead to viral attention, that might lead to dedicated followings, and will definitely allow companies like Patreon to shave pennies off of pennies for zero effort — in order to survive. It’s a matter of paying for rent and health insurance, not just vanity.
The Twilight Zone premiere pays some lip service to this. Someone comments to Samir that bad stand-up doesn’t exactly pay the bills. Yet he lives with his well-off lawyer girlfriend in an apartment that’s like three of mine stacked into a Big Mac. Later, we see this same apartment in a scene that’s supposed to show just how badly Samir has messed with his personal timeline. Because it’s… not as well-furnished? There’s little emotional weight to the scene, since he’s still living somewhere that must cost a dozen times what a barely-employed comedian actually makes.
So Samir’s professional failure is framed as emasculation, rather than life-or-death struggle. The theme only deepens when we discover his fear that a wealthy friend might be moving in on his girlfriend.
And, for the love of god, I am so done with “prestige” television about men destroying people to prove they deserve respect in these modern, emasculatingly civilized times… You can tell it’s prestige because they say “fuck.”
The episode finally culminates in a fairly hurried ending. Samir sees the error of his ways and erases himself — restoring everyone else he removed to existence. It’s an ending that only really works if we see the central character learn his lesson. But we don’t. The same strength that grounds the episode — the narrow focus on a small group of people in a handful of locations — becomes a weakness at this point.
We never see the wider ramifications of how erasing dozens of people affects the world. And we time jump right past his personal climax (getting onto a Saturday Night Live-like comedy show), so we never even see that this supposedly hollow dream was… so hollow. Instead, Samir’s girlfriend (whose name I still can’t remember) just sort of shows up to tell him he’s a dick. Except this time he listens.
The Twilight Zone gets a lot right in its first episode. Its supernatural premise bubbles with horrible possibility. It captures the slow-motion self-destruction of morals and composure under the weight of strange, familiar pressure, which the original series did so well. It just doesn’t quite know what to do with that lightning once it bottles it — how to sell it to a modern world, under Peele’s pull-no-sociopolitical-punches brand.
There’s nothing harder to watch than crummy comedy. This isn’t nearly that bad. But it is slightly disappointing to see so much potential energy dissipate. It does, however, give me hope that The Twilight Zone will find better ways to channel its raw atmosphere into more appealing stories later this season.
The Twilight Zone (S1E1): The Comedian
The new Twilight Zone has more heart and tension than previous reboots, but struggles to leverage its power during its premiere episode.
- Subdued, hard-to-watch tension
- Captures the "feel" of The Twilight Zone well
- Hurried ending
- Doesn't wrestle with its real-world subject matter enough
- Falls into one too many modern TV tropes