Friday, April 5, 2019

TWIST: "Nightmare at 30,000 Feet" Leaves Questions in the Twilight Zone

Submitted for your approval: the episode everyone knows best. Period.

There are outings of the original Twilight Zone that are better written than 1963's "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet," like "Eye of the Beholder" and "Living Doll," but there aren't many. In terms of pop culture saturation, everyone knows about the plane episode, if only because it's William Shatner and something horrible on the wing. Not everyone knows it's also a Richard Matheson script, nor that the episode was directed by Richard Donner... but their expertise echoes down the decades in the final product.

It was thus bold that the Twilight Zone revival would return to fly such familiar skies, its producers having gone so far as to say at the 2019 PaleyFest that the revival series would include no remakes.

"Nightmare at 30,000 Feet," has its story by Simon Kinberg (who brought Jordan Peele onto the series), Jordan Peele (the face of the series), and Marco Ramirez (who has several marvelous writing credits to his name), with the teleplay by Ramirez. It is credited as based upon the 1963 episode by Richard Matheson. 

But, don't forget, the producers promised no remakes.

Adam Scott is wonderful as the uncomfortable everyman who is nervous to fly, who sees patterns in repeated 1015s all around him. He's aided by both an effective ensemble cast as well as the episode's direction by Greg Yaitanes (who knows a few things about plane crash TV shows). The episode has some able curiosities, such as Scott's Justin Sanderson stopping in the airport stop to buy a magazine. We see other magazine covers, some with the face of Kumail Nanjiani (or is it Samir Wassan from "The Comedian?"). Other magazines seem to be covering an unlikely and boyish president (the presumed subject of an upcoming episode). (Indeed, are we in the midst of a TZCU--Twilight Zone Connected Universe? "Twist: this anthology is actually an episodic series!" Let's hope not.) Another curiosity: the inclusion of Peele's Narrator on screen as... on screen, literally. He appears only via the plane's television displays. Such an appearance is a curious decision; after all, Rod Serling seemed to pop out with glee from behind that rock, from around that corner, from some maddening place that was both in the story and out of it. If Peele is a bit shy about that dichotomy, don't worry: Rod Serling wasn't on screen for an episode until episode 1x36, "A World of His Own," the season one finale.

Where the episode fades, though, is in its not-a-remake(!) storyline. The episode's tension is mostly good, if not great, and Justin is thrust into the sisyphean existence of most Twilight Zone episodes with a relatable descent. Much like the parable of the frog in ever-hotter water, we are with Justin most of the way: flights can be delayed; numbers can oddly recur; electronics do get left on planes; some podcasts are addictively fantastic. Each step is an easy one from the last, and indeed it's not always easy to look back and see the direction where things are headed.

Yet for the episode to be knit so close to the original (but not a remake!) is to invite comparison. Like many episodes of the original series, "20,000 Feet" succeeds with not one twist, but two: first, "there's a man out on the wing," or a gremlin... or what is, in our reality, a horrible costume with a great mask wonderfully executed. But second, and sometimes glanced over while refilling the pretzel bowl during a marathon of episodes, is the actual ending of the episode. Shatner's Robert Wilson, having blown out the emergency window, succeeds in getting the plane to land. He's taken away in a straightjacket... but the camera pulls back to reveal the engine heavily damaged in just the same way the pesky gremlin was fiddling. The conclusion is that this nightmare was no dream--it was real.

For the not-remake, "30,000 Feet" has not as its backbone of tension the periodic views of a real-or-imagined creature out there; instead, the episode uses the very hip, very modern device of the predictive podcast found by Justin on an abandoned audio player. One might, for a moment, wonder about the notion of the podcast speaking in past tense about the present events on the plane, or that the podcast episode causes Justin to make decisions which lead to the events that the podcast describes. It is a vaguely confusing and circular concept... but this is the Twilight Zone, and such rigid propositions come with the territory. (Let's not forget, there's an entire, wonderful episode of the classic series where Dick York can read minds at a bank because a quarter landed on its side, and he stops reading minds at the end of the work day because... the quarter falls down.) Ultimately, we can accept an instance of "this is the way it is because the episode says so."

Where "30,000 Feet" starts to descend in believability is in its attempt to stick the landing. Fine, we can accept that, rogue pilot Joe Beaumont wants to take over the plane, because... disgruntled reasons. Fine, he's the pilot who bids New York goodnight, hammering home the circular conceit of the podcast. Fine, Justin survives the plane crash, if only to suffer in the tragedy of his own doing. 

But each of these steps show the episode is greedy. In taking away the gremlin, the episode asks for more and more to be believed by we the audience because, because... "because the episode says so."

Justin's survival, solo, could have made a wonderful sort of hell, but we're left (and rather quickly) with the podcast narration that everyone survived--and was rescued! Except for Justin, who didn't survive, says the podcast... while the survivors circle him, taking their mortal revenge.

So what ending is the episode using? Justin's clutching of a rock, then his death at the hands of a mob, seem to borrow liberally and remix from "The Lottery" by Shirley Jackson. Or perhaps the episode would prefer the Lisa Simpson-esque conclusion: "there were monsters on that plane, and surely it was us."

How do either of these conclusions benefit us? How do they speak to our times? Perhaps they don't--perhaps this episode, as the remake that it is suffers from its writers, its revival series creators, fundamentally misunderstanding the original. 

Hopefully, with eight more episodes to go, such a misunderstanding is not a nightmare in the making.

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