Hello Great Minds, this might be inconsequential.
Genre: TV Drama 1-hour/Supernatural Thriller
Premise: A struggling actor whose girlfriend threatens to leave him if he doesn’t find a job, robs a bank, but in the process inadvertently switches bodies with the bank teller, allowing for a unique type of getaway.
About: Jordan Peele’s Twilight Zone series on CBS’s streaming service had a rough first season, with, arguably, no breakout episodes. Maybe that’s why the second season, which dropped this weekend, came in with so little advertising. But I still like the idea of a Twilight Zone series and wondered if Peele could learn from last season’s mistakes. I went to IMDB and found the highest rated episode (Episode 3, at a 7.4) and checked it out.
Writer: Win Rosenfield (created by Jordan Peele) (originally created by Rod Serling)
Details: 44 minutes
As you’ve heard me say before, I’m looking for a Twilight Zone type script (or two) to produce. Why? Well, a Twilight Zone idea exists in a genre that can have a big juicy concept and can be shot cheaply. It also allows you to remain marketable outside the horror genre, which is music to the ears of writers who detest horror.
However, I’m realizing after watching this Jordan Peele Twilight Zone how easy it is to get The Twilight Zone wrong. Today, I felt, was a good day to identify what they’re doing wrong on this show and how one might course-correct Peele’s errors.
Something I noticed right off-the-bat was that the ideas felt dated, at least with today’s episode and many of the episodes I saw from first season. Usually, it’s a good idea to respect the source material. But Black Mirror changed the game. It’s like they said, “What if we did Twilight Zone, but with technology and a more current approach to storytelling?” This made Black Mirror feel like The Twilight Zone 2.0. Heck, with Bandersnatch, they went 3.0. Peele’s new Twilight Zone feels like Twilight Zone 1.2. It’s very much stuck in the past.
Take today’s episode, “The Who of You.” Harry Pine is a Tootsie-like actor. He can’t catch a break and is starting to detest auditions. To make matters worse, his girlfriend can’t stand being around him. The rent is due and, once again, Harry doesn’t have the money to pay for it.
So Harry takes a rather drastic approach at solving the problem. He grabs a bag, walks into a bank, and attempts a good old fashioned stick-em-up robbery (did I tell you that this concept was dated?). However, in the process of the robbery, both Harry and Female Teller lock eyes and, boom, all of a sudden Harry is inside the Teller. Neither Harry or the woman (who’s now in Harry’s body) know what happened, but it doesn’t take Harry long to figure it out. He takes the bag of money (as the woman) and runs.
When a cop comes in the back door and spots the Teller running, he stops her and, once again, Harry locks eyes with the cop and transfers into *his* body. Harry, as the cop, takes the money bag with him and runs off. Meanwhile, ultra-macho Detective Reece comes to the bank and arrests “Harry,” who’s actually the bank teller woman in Harry’s body.
The cops sense that something is up and they start hunting Harry (in his cop body) down. But Harry has now perfected his body-jumping technique. He jumps into a barista then a jogger’s body before heading to a psychic to figure out how all this is happening.
The psychic is onto him, gets angry, then boots him out of his place. During their fight, Harry forgot to grab the bag of money! Now he’s locked out of the store. With his new power, however, Harry figures out who lives in the apartment above the psychic store and jumps into the bodies of people in the building until he gets into a little boy’s body who lives in the above apartment.
He then slips down into the psychic store to get the money back but is met by Detective Reece and whoever’s currently in Harry’s body. Detective Reece has seen enough to realize something supernatural is going on here so he knows the real Harry is in the kid’s body. Harry then does a Jedi-Level triple body swap move so he’s now in Detective Reece’s body and Reece is in Harry’s body. This makes for an interesting showdown when a squad of cops bust into the store at the last second, guns drawn.
The Who of You is a harmless fun episode. I liked the acting exercise component of it. This is a dream scenario for actors as they all get to play the lead character and they don’t usually get to play characters this varied.
I also enjoyed figuring out the rules. Obviously, I knew who was in who’s body after the first switch. But with each additional switch it became harder and harder to figure out who was who. But not in a frustrating way. It was exciting realizing how the chain of switches evolved and who was getting stuck back in who’s bodies.
Despite this, The Who of You (is it just me or does that sound like the title of a Dr. Seuss book?) still feels like a dated premise. This episode could’ve been shot in 1910, right after that famous horse film was made. That’s how back of the closet the concept is. And it’s the series’ achilles heel.
Peele seems to respect the source material so much that he’s reluctant to change it. Not only does this affect the concepts he chooses. But it affects the tone. Those original Twilight Zone episodes were from a much simpler time where TV was new and the world wasn’t nearly as complex as it is today.
The other day I was listening to some music (Jack Garrat – Circles) and it occurred to me that was the fifth song I’d heard *that week* about anxiety. I don’t think anxiety was even a thing in the 50s. But it makes sense. You don’t get any time off in 2020. There’s always a new e-mail, a new text, a new Youtube video, a new social media feed to check, a new news story. You’re always being called on by something, so of course you’re anxious. Back in the 50s and early 60s you didn’t have anything close to that level of overload.
That made an episode about people with pig-faces intense heady stuff at the time. But we’re way past that level of intensity. We require concepts with more weight, like Black Mirror Season 3’s San Junipero, another episode that plays with body-jumping but in a profoundly more interesting way. Here in Peele’s universe, the body jumping is a gag, a goof, a bouncing ball to follow along with. It’s harmless fun but I’m not sure this genre works as harmless fun anymore. There have been too many supernatural stories inspired by The Twilight Zone over the years that have elevated the genre. Peele needs to keep up.
Despite all this, the episode *does* work. As much as I’m dogging the complexity, they do try and explore Harry’s character some. There’s this question of, “Who am I really?” And experiencing how people see you differently depending on what body you’re in. And there’s this fun little subplot where all of this is helping him become a better actor. It’s not Black Mirror level introspection but it’s enough to keep things entertaining.
To answer my original question. How do you write a Twilight Zone film that resonates in 2020? I think it’s all about depth. You can’t use a concept that’s too gimmicky, like this one. Or, if you do, you have to explore the character elements more and not get hung up on the theatrics. The Sixth Sense is a good example of that. A psychiatrist who’s lost his way after a patient’s death tries to find his way back by helping convince a young child that he doesn’t see ghosts. Without that element, you just have a kid who sees dead people and that’s not going to resonate with audiences as much.
I know Peele finally wrote an episode (Ep 2) this season (he didn’t write or direct any of last season). So I may check that out. But if that doesn’t work, it might mean sayonara to CBS’s new Twilight Zone series for me.
[ ] What the hell did I just watch?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the stream
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Today’s What I Learned is not about today’s review, but rather a question for all of you. I’m curious what the most helpful screenwriting tip is that you’ve learned from the site. While I know what *I* think are the most important screenwriting tips, I realize that everybody prioritizes things differently and it might be fun to put a post together with all the best reader-inspired tips/lessons. So, it’s time I learned from you. What is the most important screenwriting tip you learned from Scriptshadow???
Was I wrong?
Thank me later.