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Sanaa Lathan and Steve Harris in "Replay."

"The Twilight Zone" (2019): Episode Three Review

Sanaa Lathan and Steve Harris in “Replay.”

I was at dinner with a friend when my girlfriend, Kennedy, started blowing up my phone with irate text messages. What the heck. / That’s not Twilight Zone. / That doesn’t have a freaking lesson. / That’s just throwing in something pretty weird and being like, “Huh, weird, right? / I am mad. This is not correct. Why did this happen to me. No good.

She was referring specifically to “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet,”  the second episode of the new Twilight Zone series. While I bemoaned the failings of “30,000 Feet” for some length last week, Kennedy put its primary issue far more succinctly than I managed to: “It is not surreal,” she said. “It is a murder mystery. Rather than a ‘who-dun-it,’ the episode is ‘who-gonna-do-it?’ That isn’t Twilight Zone-y.”

She has a point. The glaring flaw of the first two episodes is that the premise is not in any way metaphorical. While “The Comedian” is supernatural, the idea doesn’t really hold an inherent message. “Nightmare at 30,000” is hardly supernatural and meanders endlessly to a lame climax. Serling’s aim with the original Twilight Zone was to bring sociopolitical discussion to a television world through allegory, as outright mentioning politics would never be allowed. That the first two episodes of CBS All Access’s new swing at the property are so apolitical is a peculiar failure.

The Twilight Zone’s third episode, “Replay,” is a massive course-correction toward political messaging. While Serling’s original show could only hint at current events, “Replay” outright addresses social struggles while still maintaining the otherworldliness of the original series.

The episode revolves around Nina Harrison (Sanaa Lathan) and her son Dorian (Damson Idris) as they travel to Dorian’s college freshman orientation. Nina is filming the event on a massive camcorder from years past, which Dorian takes ample time to mock. Nina discovers that when she hits the Rewind button on the camcorder time itself literally reverses. Nina uses the ability to reverse time repeatedly in attempt to avoid confrontation with Officer Lasky (Glenn Fleshler); despite the repeated do-over’s, the different routes she takes to the school, and the varying degrees with which she tries to relate to Lasky, every trip to the college results in Lasky pulling Nina and Dorian over, putting them into great danger.

Sanaa Lathan and Damson Idris in “Replay.”

“Replay,” by Kennedy’s metrics, is incredibly Twilight Zone-y. It is remarkably tense; Lasky pulls the family over multiple times throughout the episode, but each encounter between the three grows more fearful. Lasky is stern and relentless, and his racism seethes through his pores any time he speaks with Nina or Dorian. The fear Nina and Dorian have of Lasky is, unfortunately, the fear that many African American families must live with. The sight of red and blue sirens always bring the prospect of fatality at the hands police, and the epidemic of police brutality is at the center of the episode’s plot.

“Replay,” as well as being politically cognizant, is very cheesy and sentimental – as many Twilight Zone episodes are. Nina as more or less shunned her family and childhood life, not having talked to her brother Neil (Steve Harris) in years, nor going to her father’s funeral once he passed. Dorian does not resent Nina for depriving him of an extended family, but he desperately begs her to reconnect with Neil and develop a familial connection that he has not been blessed with. The “solution” to overcoming Lasky’s threatening presence is tied to Nina’s family (I will not spoil how, exactly), and it brings a sappiness to the episode that the first two notably lacked.

The show emphasizes the power of solidarity. Nina needs to learn to embrace her past to ensure a safer future for her son. Her solidarity with her family – and the African American community at large – are key to the episode’s thematic and emotional success. “Replay” is hopeful for the future while recognizing the difficulties that come with progress, and the balance of optimism and realism is a key tone that unites the episode with Serling’s original series.

Damson Idris and Glenn Fleshler in “Replay.”

The stance that “Replay” takes against police brutality is very likely to alienate some viewers from the show. The original series was no stranger to episodes critiquing racism, but none were quite as overt as “Replay” is. And police brutality, especially in conservative states like Kentucky, is always sure to spark rage condemning the “war on police.” CBS’s release an episode so aligned with the Black Lives Matter movement (various allusions to Black Lives Matter are interspersed throughout the episode’s locations) speaks to a mission of inclusion present from the series’s  start (thinking of Jordan Peele hosting, Kumail Nanjiani being the lead of the first episode, and the team of African American writers who worked on “Replay”) and a willingness to give stories to populations that – even in the ’60s Twilight Zone – have been excluded from Hollywood en masse.

“Replay” pushes the political legacy of Rod Serling much farther than I am sure he ever would have imagined. Even if it alienates more conservative viewers (although hopefully they will learn from the episode rather than immediately protesting it), the push works exceedingly well and is exactly what the show needed to improve on the banality of its first two episodes.

The Twilight Zone’s first episode, “The Comedian,” is free on YouTube for those without a CBS All Access subscription. All other episodes will only be available on CBS All Access.


The Funkhouser Situation E55: One Hit Wonder Bracket Challenge, Part 2

For the first time in the the history of The Funkhouser Situation, Chris Tomlin and Lee Cruse are double dipping.  The second podcast in one week, KSR’s dynamic duo could not wait any longer to finish the One Hit Wonder Bracket.  Highlights:

— Why was Lee shaving beards?

— The song you listen to at a roller skating rink.

— The song you’ll find Lee jamming to around Lexington.

— A HUGE upset.

— A Netflix recommendation.

— Which songs got snubbed from the list?

— And the champion is…

You can easily listen on the KSR App, available on iTunes and Google Play. Streaming online is simple through Pod Paradise. You can also get it directly to your phone by subscribing to The Funkhouser Situation podcast feed on iTunes or via Android’s Podcast Addict app.

Today’s episode is brought to you by Jake’s Cigar Bar. 


The Funkhouser Situation E54: One Hit Wonder Bracket Challenge, Part 1

The Funkhouser Situation E54: One Hit Wonder Bracket Challenge, Part 1

After a brief hiatus, and a colonoscopy, Lee Cruse and Chris Tomlin are back for another episode of The Funkhouser Situation.  Just like the rest of the Big Blue Nation, the Funkhouser crew has caught bracket fever.  Today they take on a tournament of “one hit wonders” that will have you tapping your feet.  Highlights:

— Is Captain Marvel good, or should you save your money and stay home?

— Which one hit wonders could be major upsets.

— Lee shares his pool song (but is he swimming with other men?)

— A Tootsie Roll dance off.

— Surprise, surprise, they disagree on a few picks.

You can easily listen on the KSR App, available on iTunes and Google Play. Streaming online is simple through Pod Paradise. You can also get it directly to your phone by subscribing to The Funkhouser Situation podcast feed on iTunes or via Android’s Podcast Addict app.

Today’s episode is brought to you by Jake’s Cigar Bar. 


Review: Jordan Peele’s "Us"

Review: Jordan Peele’s "Us"

“Us” poster. Universal Pictures.

In 1986, Ken Kragen devised Hands Across America, a charity event that would bring Americans together – quite literally – to battle homelessness and hunger by creating a chain of handholding citizens across the entire continental United States. It was would be an audacious and spectacular symbol of American unity, highlighting the country’s determination to better our world. Each participant would donate ten dollars to reserve a spot in the chain. Those individual contributions, combined with the hefty sponsorship of entities such as Coca-Cola, Prince, and American Express, would net Hands Across America fifty-million dollars to be spread across numerous local charities.

A group of Hands Across America participants in Bremen, Indiana. Image from http://historicbremen.com/?attachment_id=4826.

The ambitious goal of the gesture was not quite met. Despite roughly seven-million participants ­– including the likes of Pete Rose, Kenny Rogers, Lilly Tomlin, and then-President of the United States/Hater of the Poor Ronald Reagan – the chain contained large gaps across Middle-America farms and southwestern deserts. Hands Across America also failed to meet its monetary goal, only netting fifteen-million dollars due to its organization costing seventeen-million. Critics refer to the event as a “giant feel good party” whose symbolism proved trite. After making a newsworthy sign of solidarity in aiding the nation’s underprivileged and overlooked, most Americans returned to their homes with no more mind to the plights of the poor than they had before the event.

Oddly enough, Hands Across America serves as a symbolic center of the plot to Jordan Peele’s Us. The film opens with a prologue set in 1986, showing a young girl named Adelaide (Madison Curry) watching a commercial for the event on her television. Later that night, her family goes to an amusement park on the beach of Santa Cruz. This prologue establishes Peele’s skill as a horror filmmaker. An amusement park is rife territory for cheap jump scares galore, but Peele embellishes the scene with none of those lazy shocks. Rather, through emphasizing the radiant lights of the park and constructing low-angle shots from the Adelaide’s point-of-view, Peele turns the expansive environment of cheerful rides and attractions into a claustrophobic hellscape. As the young girl wonders away from her parents and into a mirror-maze far on the edges of the park, unease has been established in the viewer simply through camera work alone. Once Adelaide gets lost in the mirror-maze, she encounters a being whose presence haunts the young girl for the rest of her life.

The rest of the movie follows adult Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) and her family on their summer vacation. Gabe Wilson (Winston Duke), the father of the family, is a kooky buffoon obsessed with his mildly functional boat  and embarrassing his sassy teenage daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph). While Gabe and Zora share a certain charisma, Adelaide and her young son Jason (Evan Alex) are much more reserved and quiet. Peele falls back on his years of comedy experience to detail the relationship between the family. Gabe goofily dabs in celebration as the family arrives at the family’s lake-house, while Jason jumps out of bathroom drawers to spook his older sister.

The Wilson family (excluding Zora) looking at the strangers outside their door.

The family takes a trip to the same Santa Cruz beach where Adelaide had her horrific childhood encounter. Adelaide senses something is awry, but no evidence is born until later that night a mysterious family appears at the doorstep of the Wilsons’ home. The family are doppelgangers of the Wilsons – they call themselves “the Tethered” –, intent on stealing the Wilsons’ lives from them. The film becomes a  home invasion story as the Wilsons’ fend off their respective doubles.

More is learned about the Tethereds’ origin as the film progresses. In the first scene the Wilsons and the Tethered share, Adelaide asks her double Red who they are. “We’re Americans,” Red replies through her viciously croaky gate. Peele continues this thread to create a sort of allegory for America’s mistreatment of the poor. The Tethered resemble the population Hands of America claimed to help but ultimately left neglected. In this way Us functions as a sort of revenge tale for the nation’s abused.

Peele’s social commentary, though, is inconsistent throughout the film’s runtime. There are moments as heavy handed as the Red claiming their American heritage, and other instances far more opaque. A large emphasis of the film in its early stages is a materialistic war between Gabe and his lake-house neighbor Josh (Tim Heidecker), who always gets nicer boats or newer cars than Gabe. It is a classic suburban sitcom struggle. While a connection can be made between the men’s materialism and the trials of the Tethered, Peele loses sight of the dichotomy of the two groups so that the movie doesn’t ever truly allow itself to be about the classism that it presents. Challenging cinema need not be wholly transparent. However, as the movie gets bogged down in its own plot mechanics – namely who the Tethered are and what havoc they plan to wreak – it loses sight of its ultimate goal.

The Tethered family.

With that said, it is refreshing in today’s franchise laden climate to see a blockbuster as heady as Us is; an aspiring but sloppy film is much preferable to a competent but soulless entry in, say, the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And while Us struggles with thematic clarity, it thrives in its scares. Environments generally considered to be safe, such as gorgeous lake-house complexes inhabited by upper-middle class folks, are permeated with dread. While all of the cast members are successful as their respective doubles, Nyong’o especially sinks her teeth into the dual role of Adelaide and Red. Red is a controlling matriarch while Adelaide is a cool presence among the family, giving the Wilsons a calm stability. The scenes in which Nyonog’o’s characters face off against one another are gut wrenching in their suspense. Peele’s visual skill only heightens the war between the two families as we watch the two-hour brawl.

It can be hard to determine whether a work of art as layered as Us is truly a well-crafted puzzle or an ambitious but hasty mess. The distinction between the two in many cases is whether all of the pieces are present for viewers to decipher the artist’s intent. In Us, Peele seems to have lost some of his pieces while developing the rules of the film’s universe. But that’s okay. Us is still an incredibly well-staged horror film that will leave audiences shuddering. I can forgive the film’s thematic faults on the basis of its strength as a home invasion film that feels original in climate where cheap horror movies come out once a day.