The Twilight Zone (2002 - 2003)

The latest Twilight Zone revival aired on the UPN network from 2002 to 2003. It was overseen primarily by Jim Rosenthal and Ira Steven Behr (along with John Watson, Mark Stern, and Pen Densham) and hosted by Forest Whitaker. 

Part of what made Rod Serling's presence such an integral part of the original show was that he wasn't just the host who stepped into frame; he was the head writer and showrunner. The viewer knew that lose or fail the guy on screen waving his cigarette around and breaking the fourth wall approved the script, if he hadn't written it himself. The 80s revival retained the narration (by Charles Aidman) but as voiceover only. This revival brought back the on-screen host, but Forest Whitaker is digitally transposed on the image and he reads lines someone else wrote for him. I have zero problem with the way Forest Whitaker went about his job, but by consciously channeling Serling in this way, it forces the viewer to take notice of the different relationship between host-and-material in this version.

The theme is reimagined in a very Korn-by-numbers fashion by Jonathan Davis (of Korn). I rolled my eyes when I first heard it, but it grew on me after multiple viewings. It's harmless enough, if not particularly groundbreaking. 

Perhaps something of a statement about the series altogether.

Which is not to say this is a bad show. Not at all, really - sometimes the episodes seem rather perfunctorily directed, but the amount of talent in front and behind the camera is considerable. Behr brought in a lot of writers and directors from his Star Trek: Deep Space Nine days.

I don't know who brought in all the BSG alumni. Probably just agency representation overlap or something. Any excuse to bring up Battlestar. So say we all.

Actually, the amount of big name folks they managed to get for this is pretty impressive. Not necessarily the ones the network hyped at the time. Or so I'm told; I didn't have cable or rabbit ears in either '02 or '03, so I missed this completely until years after the fact.

Hello, 2002.
Another casting coup, Katherine Heigl, stars in the somewhat-old-hat-even-by-2002 "Cradle of Darkness", i.e. the "What if someone went back and time and killed Hitler" episode.

I was genuinely shocked when Heigl's character, baby clasped to her breast, actually does kill both the baby and herself by jumping from a bridge. (There's a twist, naturally, to this.) But Heigl adopts a German "accent" throughout which is horribly distracting. I can't stand when actors do this. If it's an English-language production where the characters are all meant to be speaking a different language, why do we need to hear the actors saying "I see nuzink!" etc.? Are they speaking English with a German accent? Is it just to remind the audience that these are supposed to be Germans? Do people really need this? Meh.

"Cradle of Darkness" points to another problem with this revival: there are an awful lot of stories that have been done many times and from many different angles elsewhere. I imagine this was a decision not to re-invent the wheel by the powers that be, but it results in going over a lot of well-trodden ground. The commitment to "twist" endings, too, gets a little formulaic. But hey, it's the Twilight Zone - twist endings come with the territory, even when they're easy enough to guess.

For my money, the show found its groove somewhere around its 10th episode. The ratings never caught on, though. In an attempt to raise them, they did something Whitaker said they wouldn't do and remade a couple of classic episodes ("The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street," "Eye of the Beholder" - both updated quite faithfully if not especially compellingly) and a sequel to one of the original show's most iconic stories, "It's a Good Life," for which both Bill Mumy and Cloris Leachman returned.

Definitely worth seeing, very true to the spirit of the original while going to new - and equally unsettling - places.

I decided not to look at any remakes or sequels to other episodes, though, and just to concentrate on original stories. Some of the below are updates/ re-imaginings of other eps, it's true, and are indicated as such where appropriate.

The DVDs present the episodes in production order rather than how they originally aired, which explained "The Executions of Grady Finch" to me once I found that out. It's the last episode on Disc Six, and it's cruising along interestingly enough and then it's like they literally got the lights cut off during filming. Too bad - it probably would have made the cut below had that not been the case.

Let's dive in.  

44 segments were produced for this 
version of The Twilight Zone. 
Here are my 12 favorites. 

Directed by Jonathan Frakes. Written by Pen Densham.

Plot: While working to repair a downed power line, Tyler Andrew Ward (Jeremy Piven) is struck by lightning and gains the ability to hear other people's thoughts. Using his newfound powers for his own personal and financial gain, his life soon spirals out of control. 

Casting/production: Riker! Nice. Highlights include two good performances from Piven and Olivia d'Abo (not to mention Danvers from Homicide) and some nice moments of freakiness and discomfort throughout.

This scene in the cemetery is especially effective.

Some of the scenes with Tyler "shooting up" with electricity were a little much, but it was easy to believe the toll all of this was taking on Tyler thanks to Piven's commitment to the part. I always liked Jeremy Piven. This came out pre-Entourage. I think his energetic total-commitment approach might forever be associated with his portrayal of Ari Gold, but he's been attacking roles like that/ this for a long time. Go back and watch One Crazy Summer (1986) if you don't believe me.

Directed by Alan Kroeker. Written by Dusty Kay.

Plot: Gabe (Christopher Titus) suffers from the worst luck imaginable. When numerous encounters with a mysterious man in a jumpsuit lead him to a building that stretches forever upwards into the clouds, he meets "The Writer," the lady assigned to script his life, along with (too many, she laments) others. Upset with the deadline-driven hack-plots and petty-dramas she's written for him, he convinces her to help him petition Upper Management to allow him to script his own life.

Casting/production: Alan Kroeker has the dubious distinction of directing three Trek finales; I reckon only one of them (Deep Space Nine) is fondly remembered. Jed (Galaxy Quest) Rees plays Gabe's buddy. 

Sarah Strange as The Writer (Roxanne).

This one combines a page from the 80s revival ("A Matter of Minutes") with a common enough trope in sci-fi/fantasy to create an entertaining slice of television. Christopher Titus excels in these kinds of roles. It's described at the Pushing the Envelope forums by someone as having a "New Age-y interpretation of what the Zone is." I can see that, but I enjoyed it nonetheless.

"Shakespeare observed that all the world's a stage, its men and women merely players. But Gabe O'Brien proved that sometimes you can grab the pen from the poet and write your own story. A lesson learned... in the Twilight Zone"   

Directed by Patrick Norris. Written by James Crocker.

Plot: A traffic jam leads sports agent Scott (Rob Estes) and realtor Marisa (Elizabeth Berkley) to a beautiful, seemingly abandoned house on the other side of the highway. Realizing that the place couldn't possibly exist in their own reality and that the house provides everything they need except for the internet and cellphone service, they lose themselves in a simpler way of life and fall in love. The disruptive appearance of a young woman (Nicki Aycox), whose cellphone works just fine, spells disaster. 

A thoughtful and update to classics like "A Stop at Willoughby" or other TZs exploring this theme. Do our busy lives satisfy us? Has technology made us happier? What is sanctuary? It doesn't answer these questions in a wholly original way, but I enjoyed the ride. Some of the camerawork is a little mundane, but the scenery and atmosphere are top notch. 

Another comment from the PTE forums: "Not bad, but the guy's a dick." Touché

It amused me to consider that at the time this came out, I still had a landline with a micro-cassette answering machine. I was skeptical of these "cellphone people" that kept popping up everywhere, interrupting conversations, projecting their banality across public spaces, polluting my ears at restaurants, etc. If only I knew how much worse it was going to get.

To that end, the young lady on her cellphone as the devil / avenging angel was a nice touch.

"Most of us dream of paradise at one time or another. Scott Turner actually found his. Unfortunately, he was unable to hold onto it and found himself back in the game of modern life."

Written and directed (and starring) Eriq La Salle.

Plot: When legal clerk Ray Ellison receives a terminal diagnosis, he wanders out of the hospital in a daze and is struck by a car. He awakes to find himself in the past: Memphis, 1968, surrounded by African-Americans in antiquated clothing. Adelaide Tyler, a nurse in the crowd (Vivica Fox) checks his condition and given that the only treatment he could receive would be at the underfunded and understaffed colored hospital (sic) nearby, decides to take him home with her so he can recover. He forms a bond with her young son, Lucas. 

As he convalesces, Ray begins to believe he's been sent into the past to prevent the MLK assassination. Rushing to the Lorraine Motel to do this after a number of other trials, he has to choose between saving the life of Lucas - who is chasing him on his bike through traffic - or warning Dr. King. Choosing to save Lucas, he wakes to find himself again in the future, his life saved by a specialist who wasn't available at the story's beginning: Dr. Lucas Tyler.

It's compared at its wiki to the original TZ episode "Back There." I'm not sure why, though - there are key differences all around. Both share a time travel/ trying-to-prevent-assassination story, but there the parallels end.

Not much to say about this one except it's an enjoyably-crafted (if somewhat predictable) little tale.

"Sometimes the key to our future lies in the past." 

Directed by Jerry Levine. Written by James Crocker.

Plot: After a fortune teller (Method Man)'s upbeat fortune-telling pays off big for her, Ali Warner (Linda Cardellini) invites inevitable Twilight Zone doom by placing her fate entirely in his hands.

Production/casting: Did anyone suspect Method Man's imdb would someday look like this?  

Chapeau, Mr. Man.
Linda Cardellini and Colin Cunningham, too. These guys show up in everything.

Jerry Levine also has an impressive cv, going all the way back to Charles in Charge and Teen Wolf. ("What are you looking at, dicknose?") And Crocker, of course, was one of DS9's busiest writers.

"The Path" is an update to the classic TZ episode "Nick of Time," albeit with a different ending/ focus and with Cardellini getting the Shatner role and Method Man the fortune-telling bobblehead at the table. I liked how Cunningham's character was the astrology writer at the tabloid mag; nice parallel with the vagaries of fortune telling and over-dependence on them. 

"By seeking a path to her future, Ali Warner put her destiny into the hands of another. And now that path has become a dead end filled with helplessness, despair, and boundless dread. Miss Ali Warner, facing the bleakest of futures... in the Twilight Zone."

Directed by Winrich Kolbe. Written by Ira Steven Behr.

Plot: Amidst a backdrop of international tension, communications satellite failure, and mysterious worldwide disappearances, Vince (Jake Busey) is approached by two mysterious strangers who seem to know everything about him. They tell him he is chosen and give him a DVD that seems to have been custom-made for him. He rebuffs them repeatedly, until it is too late. The episode ends with mushroom clouds reflected in Vince's eyes.

"I'm sorry, Vince. It's clear now. You were never meant to be chosen."

Production/casting: A Trek reunion of director/ writer is always nice to see. Jake Busey does a good job as not-quite-lovable loser Vince, and his ex-girlfriend is played by Claudette Mink:

aka Celeste Daldry from Kingdom Hospital.

A nice cross between traditional Twilight Zone themes and something like the movie The Rapture.

"In a world about to end, Vince Hansen was given a chance for salvation, but leave it to Vince, one of life's perpetual losers, to make the wrong choice, and wind up just another cinder on an ash heap somewhere... in the Twilight Zone. "

Directed by Perry Lang. Written by Ira Steven Behr.

Plot: Matt McGreevey (Vincent Vetresca), a white man, refuses to unlock his car door for John Woodrell (Hill Harper), a bloodied black man who pleads for his help at a traffic stop. The next morning, he reads in the newspaper that the man (apparently a professor) died from the result of injuries sustained after being chased by racist thugs. Immediately thereafter, McGreevey begins to inexplicably transform into the dead professor. When he eventually finds himself in Woodrell's position, running for his life, at episode's end, McGreevey unlocks the door, and the cycle is broken.

Production/ casting: There's a rather awful Soul Man moment where McGreevey is in blackface before Hill Harper (who has quite the impressive pedigree) takes over the role. But it's brief, understandable, and both actors do a fine job. The episode depends entirely on their not overplaying their roles, and they don't.

I normally hate stuff like this because the deck is always so stacked in these sort of morality plays. (i.e. it turns out the guy's a professor. But what do you do if someone you don't know, black or white, comes up to your car and starts yanking on the door handle?) But the performances (and a good script) carry the day. In our current climate of neomarxist hashtag-twattery, I suspect its subtleties would be viewed as deficiencies. Too bad. 

"A simple lesson in compassion, courtesy... of the Twilight Zone."

Directed by Allison Liddi-Brown. Written by Michael Angelli.

Plot: "Donna Saicheck (Bonnie Somerville) is contemplating divorce from her husband when she discovers her son has been kidnapped as part of a twisted reality game show called "How Much Do You Love Your Kid," hosted by Nick Dark (Wayne Knight). She prevails in rescuing her son, who suffers facial injuries and a fractured rib, and confronts her husband, who reveals he set it all up so they could claim the reality show's prize money. When she shoots him, Nick tells her she's won a million dollars, which, he assures her, will give her the best defense money can buy."

Production/ casting: Part of me thinks the worst thing that could have happened to Wayne Knight was Seinfeld. Certainly not from a royalties standpoint for the actor himself, but he just doesn't seem to get the same variety of roles he once enjoyed. This episode is post-Seinfeld, of course, but it's the exception and not the rule.

Apparently, he's quite the Risk (the boardgame) player, as well. He and my dead buddy Klum's deadbeat Dad were struggling actors in New York City together, and Klum, Sr. regaled us with tales of their all-night Risk games. Has nothing to do with anything, I know, but I figure any chance I have to get a Klum memory out there in the world I'll take.

The thing to remember with this story (and all stories like it) is that our society's exploitation of grief, fear, child endangerment, and anguish is not a metaphor. The gameshow may be fictional (at the moment), but the trauma is real. Viewed through this lens, the story becomes something much bigger than itself. Well done, Mr. Angeli.

"There's a life you lead and the fantasies you're led to by a small but powerful group of people known as television executives, who recently discovered the entertainment value of real life. And in the future, if you think there's a risk they won't take, a line they won't cross, then we have an offer to make and some time for you to spend... in the Twilight Zone." 

Directed by Alan Kroeker. Written by Jill Blotevogel.

Plot: The Winslows move to a gated community when their rebellious daughter Jenna (Amber Tamblyn) burns down the school in their old town. The new community has a lot of bizarre rules and restrictions. And penalties, as Jenna learns when first her only friend Logan and then she herself are carted away by Arcadia Fertilizer Company.

Production/casting: Amber Tamblyn is apparently a big deal? According to the interwebs? I had no idea. Further proof, if any was necessary, of my continuing slide into pop culture irrelevance. 

She also recently married David Cross.
Also starring David Mamet. (The episode, not Amber's and David's marriage. Also: not David Mamet, I just can never resist the joke.)

This isn't the greatest take I've ever seen on this kind of story, but it's definitely cool. It's like Disturbing Behavior without the good guys winning, and from the point of view of the family who can finally see their rebellious daughter stop running around and put down some roots. (Ahem) 

"A gated community whose address can only be found... in The Twilight Zone." 

Directed by Eli Richbourg. Written by Ashley Edward Miller and Zack Stentz.

Plot: Dr. Paul Thorson (Sean Patrick Flannery) is sent to an Arctic military research base to discover why all contact has been lost with the staff there. They were working on Project Gemini, trying to finalize a new and infinitely renewable energy source. Thorson discovers the few remaining personnel have all gone insane, and "Chandler" (Ian McShane), someone not on Thorson's list, has locked himself in the lab with all the pertinent equipment and research. When Thorson accidentally shoots one of the staff, he is puzzled by the man disappearing into thin air. Chandler explains that it was Thorson who created Project Gemini and went insane, manifesting various aspects of himself as these other phantoms. There is no one else at the base. At episode's end, SEAL Team Six storms the base and retrieves the shattered remains of the project, as well as Thorson's corpse. There are no other bodies to be found.

Production/ Casting: Look - any story set at an Arctic military research base is going to work for me, let's just get that out of the way once and for all. Throw in Young Indiana Jones and Al Swearengen, and you got yourself a stew.

This episode should have been more of a template for the show. It doesn't spend any time acclimating the audience to tropes or cliches, just one-two-three, wham bam. Sure we've seen this sort of thing before, but who cares? It's entertaining, and there are a couple of twists that still manage to land.

"The border between sanity and insanity is sometimes marked not by our reason but by fear. Fear of ourselves and our own capacity for destruction. An empirical observation recorded and filed by Dr. Paul Thorsen... in the Twilight Zone."  

Directed by John T. Kretchner. Written by Daniel Wolowicz and Seth Weisburst.

Plot: Scott Crane (Jason Bateman) is an agoraphobic real estate mogul who hires an arsonist to torch a residence so he can redevelop the land upon which it stands. Two children die in the blaze, and first the arsonist and the the cop (Angela Featherstone) who assisted him demand extra money from Crane. He refuses. A series of strange occurrences lead Crane to believe the two ghost children are seeking revenge from beyond the grave. When his home mysteriously burns to the ground, the cop arrives to retrieve the money from the strongbox. At her home later, she falls asleep with a lit cigarette falling on the cash, as the two ghost children look on.

Production/ Casting: Jason Bateman is one of those actors who can sell just about any role, something I don't think anyone who grew up watching him on various 80s shows like Hogan's Family or Silver Spoons would ever have guessed. Even so, you'd be forgiven for thinking a character like Scott Crane might be a bridge too far, but he sells it completely.

Another entry in the "Creepy kids who smile and stare and never say anything" canon.
The cop is played by Linda from The Wedding Singer. ("Get out of my Van Halen t-shirt...")

This episode flirts with greatness. It might even go all the way with greatness, actually. The double entendre of the title, the performances, the script, and the pace all hit their mark and more. There's also a bit of a Poltergeist vibe, which is always welcome in my book.

"Scott Crane thought he could bargain his way out of any problem, but as he and his associates learned, the price of justice can never be negotiated, especially... in the Twilight Zone."

Directed by Jerry Levine. Written by Brent V. Friedman and Rebecca Swanson.

Plot: Dr. Leslie Coburn (Sydney Tamiia Poitier) is called upon to examine Harry Raditch (Jeffrey Combs), a hypochondriac whom she has treated many times before. He claims that this time he has a real condition, one that he contracted from reading a science-fiction novel and that has no cure. She thinks he's crazy, but when other patients - and then herself - start exhibiting symptoms of the disease, the CDC quarantines the building. Figuring that Harry's imagination might be powerful enough to actually be creating this disease, she injects him with liquid from a "meteor" she tells him fell nearby. The vaccine works, but when she steps outside to tell the CDC the coast is clear, she discovers Harry's mind, now obsessed with the meteor shower Coburn invented for his benefit, has created an entirely new problem.

Production/ casting: Poitier has a long list of credits, but she is perhaps best known for Death Proof

She's got great screen presence and has proven quite adept at a variety of roles.
Jeffrey Combs has an equally long and varied list of credits and can do no wrong in my eyes.

Some might cynically call the ending "Zone by numbers," but it works very well with the rest of the episode's themes. I'd say it's an intelligent example of using a template the right way. Very economical storytelling as well - not a second wasted. An entire world is created (as it is in most of these favorite episodes) in twenty-two minutes. It starts off somewhat similar to the 80s TZ story "Many, Many Monkeys" but goes its own way.

I kept expecting this to be a King in Yellow sort of situation, but there's nothing special about the book, just the power of Harry's - or perhaps Dr. Coburn's - imagination.

"Dr. Leslie Coburn had a brilliant idea using an imaginary cure for an imaginary illness. But like the virus itself, Harry took her cure to heart and he made it real. A testament to the amazing powers of the mind... in the Twilight Zone." 

All in all, it's the lesser of the two TZ revivals and might even have benefited from being called something else altogether, but there are definitely some quality stories. Better than its reputation might suggest.

I guess now that I've done these overviews for the revivals, I really ought to go back and do a Favorites of the original show, shouldn't I? No idea when I'll be able to get to such a thing, but the seed has now been planted. Like I don't have enough to do already!

Thanks a lot, Forest Whitaker.


  1. I watched the premiere of this when it aired, and maybe an episode or two after that, but I gave up on it pretty quickly. I don't recall feeling especially negative toward it; just didn't capture me.

    A lot of these sound really good, though. And the guest stars are generally quite good, which is a great quality in an anthology series.

    The Korn thing mystifies me. That theme music is among the best-known tv themes ever written. Why stray so far from it? And if you are, why enlist Korn to get you where you want to go? That seems like an incredibly misguided and underinformed ratings ploy by some clueless executive.

    As does hiring Forest Whitaker. Good actor. Definitively does NOT scream "replacement Rod Serling." I'm not sure who does, but he certainly doesn't. This seems like it had to have been a case of that hypothetical executive I just mentioned demanding a star as the host, and then somebody else making a list, and Whitaker being the first person on it who was available at the right time, in the right price range, and willing.

    Speaking of Wayne Knight: I just watched "Hail, Caesar!" a couple of hours ago, and he pops up in a small but pivotal role. He's billed as "Lurking Extra #1." Took me a few moments to figure out who he was.

    I continue to look forward to really digging into "The Twilight Zone" for myself someday!

    1. Fair points both on Korn and Forest. I would not be surprised if the key to understanding both elements is indeed an executive far removed from both the writers' room and Twilight Zone fandom.

      Glad I made these sound interesting, though - I consider it a personal challenge to rewrite the plot summaries in a better way than I've found them out there, to emphasize the most enjoyable bits or what makes it tick.

      Really, I'm auditioning for the job of plot summaries in the paper I read growing up, which I always thought was the best job ever. Who cares that the paper has long gone the way of the dodo...

      Glad to hear it, too, re: Wayne Knight and "Hail, Caesar!" That one looks like fun. A new Coen Bros. film is always something to look forward to seeing.

    2. I wasn't overly impressed by it, but it was fun, and it's sitting well in my mind.

      God, to have the job of plot-summarizer in a newspaper! That'd be worth inventing a time machine for.