The Twilight Zone and all the images you see in this recap are owned by Warner Bros Television and based on the series created by Rod Serling
Episode directed by Jerry Levine
This series claims to have two remakes of classic Twilight Zone episodes which we’ll get to soon enough, but I’m calling bull pucky on that because this episode we’re discussing today is ABSOLUTELY based on one of the classics from that original series. Now that’s not necessarily a BAD thing as the whole reason this show exists is because of how good the original series was, and using some of those ideas in a modern context can certainly produce some interesting results! Heck, the Jordan Peele version of Nightmare at 20,000 Feet was a BRILLIANT reworking of the fear and paranoia that was the true essence of that original episode even WITHOUT the creepy (and yet somehow adorable) gremlin dude! Is this a similarly great remix of a classic episode, or is this a worse cover than Limp Bizkit’s version of Faith? Let’s find out!!
The episode follows Ali (Linda Cardellini); a writer for a lousy knock off Enquirer rag where she writes stories about dying celebrities or hobbits living in Jersey, and while it’s certainly fun to write about that kind of nonsense it’s not the most noble or fulfilling career you could have as a writer. While getting her caffeine fix at a local coffee shop, she overhears a man giving a woman advice regarding “her path” and some vague platitudes on how she should follow it. Her interest piqued, Ali goes over to meet the man named Kanayo (played here by Method Man) and finds out that an opportunity awaits her, but she must seek it out first. Sounds like your standard Cold Reading nonsense, but she goes back to the office and decides to call about a resume she submitted and as it turns out they were having trouble reaching her! Her coworker and best friend Seth (Colin Cunningham of Falling Skies fame) thinks it’s all a big coincidence, but Ali is not so sure and she goes back to Kanayo several times hoping to get more advice and perhaps find the clearest way to follower her “path”. Now if you’re ever seen more than a handful of episodes of the original Twilight Zone, this should all sound very familiar as it’s more or less a remake of the Nick of Time; a story where William Shatner and Patricia Breslin have to contend with a fortune telling napkin holder that seems to accurately predict the future. Now the thing is, the more I think about this episode the closer I think it gets to working… without ever actually getting there. It’s SO close and it has a few ideas that work for an update to this story, but where Nick of Time was tight and well thought out, this one fumbles with its weighty topics and never finds the right balance.
We’ll start with Nick of Time since that’s the episode this is directly inspired from and is therefore inviting comparisons to. Now perhaps I’m just too big of a mark for the original series and the way that show was made, but there’s just so much compelling about the production of this. Making a story as ambiguous as this is no easy feat and requires a lot of strict attention to detail; building up Shatner’s superstitious beliefs, the way Patricia Breslin imbues her dialogue with the sense of history they have together and the way his hang ups have put a strain on them in the past, it’s a lot of solid character work even before we get to the magic napkin holder! It’s no wonder that this devil headed magic seer machine became such an iconic fixture of the franchise since it’s such a simplistic yet brilliantly realized prop in this story; certainly more so than the talking slot machine which admittedly is fun and goofy but doesn’t quite have the same elegance as The Mystic Seer. Where this updated version fails to live up to the original is in three primary issues; replacing the machine with an actual person, Ali going on this journey for the most part on her own, and the complete lack of ambiguity or subtlety in the way it approaches its premise.
Method Man is fine for what he’s being asked to do here, but there’s a lot of… culturally blunt trappings around him. He comes off less like a character than a Mystical Magical Black Person as he seems to have no life outside of his ability to tell the future; fine enough for a napkin holder but less so for a person. That’s not even getting into the ridiculous ominous woodwind instrumental that plays every time we see him which might have been laughable if it wasn’t so awkward. Sadly, Linda Cardalini doesn’t fare much better as she at least manages to hold her own in a role that feels like an ACTUAL person, but the best prat of Nick of Time is the interplay between Shatner and Breslin as they contemplate the implications of the machine and the strain that it’s putting on their relationship. To the episode’s credit, the KIND of do this with her best friend at work who pops in and out of the episode to give similar speeches that Breslin gave in Nick of Time, but the key difference is that he’s not INVESTED in this and it’s not his life that’s going to be ruined if Ali continues down this path, so the tension that should be in their dialogue (as it was between Breslin and Shatner) isn’t there and he comes off just a tiny bit annoying because of that.
Worst yet though is the way they sucked out all the subtlety in the story which we might as well finish up here. After getting the job and preparing to move to a new city, Ali gets a warning from Kanayo not to go and so she decides to skip her flight despite doing so putting her new job in jeopardy. When she turns on the news that night… her flight had crashed and there were no survivors. At this point, Ali becomes obsessed and cannot live her life to any extent without constant reassurances and guidance from Kanayo who frankly seems to be getting tired of her coming around to visit him despite how obvious it is that she WOULD considering what he predicted, but we’ll get to that soon enough. She gets so upset and lost in her own life that she stays up all night and oversleeps the next morning; missing Kanayo at the coffee shop who had just left before she arrived. She scrambles down the street searching for him and SCREAMING his name over and over again until she finds him. He sees her, turns around to walk over, and BAM!! He gets hit by a car and freaking DIES!!
Ali is lost forever as she no longer has a guide taking her on her path, and Forest Whitaker has some choice words to say about her.
“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. Ms. Ali Warner, facing the bleakest of futures… in The Twilight Zone.”
YES! He said it that time!! As many points as I’d give this episode for FINALLY saying IN THE TWILIGHT ZONE again, I just can’t get behind how this episode handles this premise. The key to a Nick of Time is that the fortune telling machine is just a tool; an incidental and small bit of novelty within the grand scope of life. Shatner works past his superstition with the help of his wife and decides to live his life to the fullest in a world of unknowns rather than limit himself to this one small space of certainty; the fate that befell the couple who came into the diner right after Shatner and Breslin left. Here, that sense of scope is lost because it’s clear as day AND its life or death. Shatner and Breslin ALMOST getting hit by a car as the seer ambiguously predicted manages to remain a skeptical point at best, but here? She didn’t get on the plane as Kanayo said, and she DIDN’T die. I feel like because it’s THAT stark it ends up taking away Ali’s agency which is once again WHY Nick of Time works; it’s about characters thinking, processing, and obsessing over something that may or may not be true; to put their fates in this machine or let the dice roll as they may. I don’t see what Ali should be struggling with when SHE AVOIDED DEATH ONLY BECAUSE OF THE WARNING, and therefore her arc isn’t particularly interest. Neither is Kanayo for that matter who may have a more dynamic character than THE MYSTIC SEER (though I’d still argue that latter had lots more personality), but the story doesn’t know what to do with him! Is he good? Bad? Sinister? Kind? It never settles on one answer so it hints at all of them in the hopes of the audience deciding for them which they shouldn’t be doing if the story is supposed to be about Ali. Heck, they probably should have just done an episode with him! Though that would PROBABLY be a bit too close to ripping off Stephen King.
Now all that being said, while I genuinely do not like the way this episode takes a great story like Nick of Time and twists it into a dour pointless parable, I can see the motivation behind it. This series was made in the wake of 9/11, and the episode’s not so subtle intimations about the plane crash being a terrorist attack makes it clear what they’re going for here. People woke up to an uncertain world and started looking for answers wherever they could. John Edward, TV psychic known the world over as The Biggest Douche in the Universe, had his big TV show at the time and Method Man’s character seems to be a play on Miss Cleo with his over the top affectations and the way the way he’s framed throughout. From that perspective I can see why this episode was made, but t least for me though, if you’re going after THAT kind of target, I’d much prefer that they REALLY go in on it and make Kanayo more villainous than he is here (or even as villainous as the machine in Nick of Time), but again, he’s shown to be above reproach and is absolutely right about everything, so where’s the critique of scam artists like Cleo and Edwards? I guess you could say that the show didn’t want to be JUDGEMENTAL about those who believe people like that, but if that WAS the motivation here than it just takes most of the teeth out of what we’re seeing; making it a dour and middling tragedy rather than something truly evocative like the episode of the Twilight Zone it’s based off of which may have had one of the happier endings of the series but still felt like something meaningful had taken place instead of just the veneer of meaning. If anything sums up my opinion of this episode best, it’s the fact that I watched Nick of Time at least five times while watching this, and The Path twice if I round up a bit. There’s some value to be found in this episode and I appreciate what it’s TRYING to accomplish, but it doesn’t hit enough of the targets for me to call it a success or to recommend it all that much. That said, when trying this blatantly to outdo a classic episode from the original series, it doesn’t take a fortune teller to predict that this would have been the outcome.