The statement itself is a bold one for The Twilight Zone, considering the original series had some of its best episodes with you-can’t-say-that-on-television masked by way of the tropes of science fiction, horror, and westerns.
Yet “Replay” succeeds without metaphor, and eminently so. Indeed, in so far as commercials can spoil a story (hint: they can, exceedingly so), the shape of “Replay” was tipped loud and clear: racial profiling, and more, received by African-American mother Nina (Sanaa Lathan) and son Dorian (Damson Idris) at the hands of the droll and decidedly white Officer Lasky (Glenn Fleshler). As for what was shown in previews, the episode is just that: a ponderance on American racism, casual and powerful and sometimes both.
However, the episode, directed by Gerard McMurray, is also very much more. As someone who likely will never be pulled over by a profiling police officer, the episode was for me a vivid, immediate, jarring, resounding transportation into world that I can hardly imagine. The gut-wrenching result of watching the first half, with its repeated cycles of sighing, sneering, easy racism perpetuated by Lasky, came with the realization that, for millions of Americans and others, this was not “something out of the Twilight Zone.” Instead, this was a story about very real life, yet a tale nonetheless augmented by the gimmick of a magical camcorder that can rewind time.
Indeed, concerning the camcorder, it is the first half of the episode that takes true homage from the original outing’s “Nick of Time,” oftentimes remembered as the other William Shatner episode, the one without the monster and the plane. The inability for Nina and Dorian to leave town, and indeed the roadside eatery the Busy Bee Cafe, come from the launching off points reminiscent of Richard Matheson’s original series episode. (Twist: two Matheson script remake/homages from two Shatner episodes in two weeks? Such Zone coincidences! Speaking of numerology, “Replay” gives Lasky license plate 01015, a cute nod to the prior 2019 episode, one that comes off as more rimshot than mystery.)
It is in the final twenty minutes of “Replay” in which writer Selwyn Seyfu Hinds luxuriates--a portion of episode that rarely found success for the mighty Rod Serling in his hour-long offerings. Mother and son make their way to Uncle Neil’s house; he easily believes in the magic of the camcorder. Such a reveal is presented plainly and without narrative trickery; indeed, Neil wonders if such a thing harkens back to the motherland of Africa. On the topic of language, we hear Neil refer to Nina’s “boy” twice, subtlely offsetting Lasky’s understated yet altogether different use of the word as used earlier in the episode.
The goal to get Dorian to his destination is properly clear and yet obfuscated; that Dorian needs to get to college is the inciting event upon which the story is built, however the twists and turns of the episode see it not thunderously restating the goal. As Neil talks about using back alleys and routes not formally mapped--yet handed down by oral tradition from people of color--the story doesn’t overplay its hand nor its message about young people advancing themselves in the world.
When the trio arrive at the college gates, Lasky arrives to prevent, quite simply, Dorian from getting to college. Here, the episode makes its purpose quite clear. Nina says to Lasky, with authority, “My son will go to college… so back the f___ up!” It is a moment of supreme triumph, of supreme clarity, when the episode’s lack of science fiction fluff or horror cheeze is done credit by a raw and real moment. The camcorder, previously a mystical tool, is then used to document Lasky’s racism, to document the brief yet considerable backup he receives from fellow law enforcement officers, to inspire others to document it as well.
The episode gives an epilogue 10 years later, with Nina a grandmother to Dorian’s daughter Trinity. Nina has continued to use the camcorder the whole time (intermittently, one can imagine), as a stopgap against the return of trouble, a trouble that seems not to have returned. Trinity absentmindedly breaks the camcorder, taking away the magic. Jordan Peele’s narrator (once again a fleeting, perhaps too-tentative presence in the episode) reminds us that “for some evils, there are no magical solutions.”
It seems so often lately that we look back a decade to the feeling of halcyon days of past. It is with the same eyes that this episode must be viewed with the highest regard. The conclusion of “Replay” serves to remind us to keep love in our hearts, but a vigilant eye for those who do not… and to be ready to tell them to “back the f___ up.”