THE TWILIGHT ZONE
Season 2, Episode 2
Available on CBS All-Access
What if the world around you wasn’t real? What if everything you knew — your spouse, your kids, your relatives, your job, everything you owned, knew, and loved — was a complete lie? Stop me if you’ve heard this one. Science-fiction classics such as The Wachowskis’ The Matrix, Alex Proyas’ Dark City, Alejandro Amenábar’s Abre Los Ojos (Open Your Eyes) and David Cronenberg’s Existenz have all covered this concept. Frustratingly, “Downtime” (the 2nd episode of the new season of The Twilight Zone currently airing on CBS All-Access) has the potential to join that list but botches the execution.
Morena Baccarin (Firefly, The Flash) plays Michelle Weaver, a ruthless, yet driven go-getter who works for the Farringham Hotel in an undisclosed city. She’s vying for the position of hotel manager — and gets it after telling a fairly objectionable joke to her boss before he promotes her. Some of the staff waits outside to applaud her and she wanders the halls, looking sharp, confident, like a shark. Everything is perfect. She deals with the most angry hotel customer with patient precision, smooth as the blade of a chef’s knife.
But, then, a curious thing happens while she takes a break at a local coffee shop: her ears ring, her heart pounds and, when she comes to, she walks outside to see the population of the city staring up an impossibly large red orb with a yellow “eye” floating in the sky. This is “downtime”, she’s told by various citizens of the city — before that citizen also freezes and looks up at orb with wonder, mouth agape. Even her husband tells her it’s “downtime” before wandering outside and freezing up while looking at the sky, leaving Michelle in a waking nightmare and wondering if anything will ever return to normal.
We learn (fairly early) that Michelle and her entire world aren’t real. It’s part of an alternate world created by a sleep-aid system called “Sleepaway”, which allows the sleeper to have lucid dreams where they’re successful and happy. Unfortunately for Michelle, her human counterpart (the one dreaming her up in the real world) has just had a major health issue that has incapacitated them to the point where Michelle is stuck while the customer service avatars attempt to console and help Michelle through the problem. Ultimately, Michelle is given the choice between “logging out” or staying in her fake “world” for good without the aid of her human counterpart — provided she never “breaks character”.
Imagine being told that your options are to continue to live a life you know is synthetic or stepping out of it and choosing to no longer exist. What would you do in a situation like that? It’s interesting, to say the least.
Jordan Peele, the producer/narrator of this series and the writer/director behind such modern classics as Get Out and Us, finally contributes an episode of the series he holds dear (he wrote it but did not direct it) and that’s something to celebrate being that Get Out and Us feel like extended Twilight Zone episodes.
First and foremost, Morena Baccarin’s is excellent as Michelle. To see someone with all their wits about them suddenly and completely break down in the face of extraordinary circumstances is something to behold and she pulls it off nicely.
The issue is with Peele’s script which, while giving us something to think about, also gives us a story that feels as though it needs more time to “cook”. The overall concept is unbeatable but, at 30 minutes (I cannot believe I’m about to say this), this is one episode which needed to be longer, especially as it pertains to Michelle as a “character”, The whole story is ultimately damaged, first, by the decision to divulge the secret of Michelle and her world ten minutes in and second, skipping all the suspense necessary for a story like this to thrive while wrapping everything up quickly with a nice happy bow.
Yes, Michelle runs and hides from the people who are ultimately attempting to come to her aid, but it doesn’t feel like she’s in any danger and all of this results in Peele explaining to us that Michelle is now a different — and more content — person than when she started — except her “change” is so sudden, it seemingly runs contrary to what Peele’s telling us.
And, so, “Downtime” is what it is: a decent sci-fi offering with an underdone script — though, knowing what he’s capable of, I would love to see Peele expand upon what he gave us here in the future.
LOST IN THE ZONE
- SPOILERS HERE (whatever spoilers may be left — but swipe anyhow) One of the plot points I wanted to mention involved Michelle’s human counterpart (who we never see but who is mentioned by Sleepaway’s “tech support” people) and his wife, Ellen (played by Serinda Swan of TV’s Graceland and Coroner). There’s a great scene where Ellen attempts to speak to Michelle like she’s her husband, “Phineas”. Michelle, of course, doesn’t know who Phineas is (she’s a damn avatar!) but agrees to go on a walk with Ellen where they end up sharing a quick kiss. Ellen swears that her husband is somewhere inside of Michelle, to which Michelle objects. They split but we see Ellen again at the end inside of the hotel that Michelle runs. I’m assuming that Ellen is now a Sleepaway customer and she’s entered the world Michelle lives in. She doesn’t seem to recognize Michelle at all — but Michelle obviously knows her and she smiles in the most creepy manner. Since Michelle doesn’t have a human counterpart in the real world, is she a rogue function? Can she do whatever she wants at this point? Maybe I’m overthinking this…
- I cannot take that orb in the sky seriously. It looks like a giant Pokemon ball and I keep waiting for Pikachu to show up.
- It was nice to see comedian/actor Tony Hale (as Sleepaway’s customer service guy, “Tom”) who played Buster Bluth in Arrested Development, the hilariously dweeby “Gary” in HBO’s Veep and who also provided the voice of “Forky” in Toy Story 4 (which also featured Jordan Peele) and Disney’s ongoing animated series Forky Asks a Question on Disney+.
- EASTER EGGS:
- Whipple (of the classic Twilight Zone episode, “The Brain Center at Whipple’s”) is the creator of “Sleepaway”. You’ll remember that most of the technology featured last season came courtesy of Whipple as well.
- The cafe where Michelle takes her break is called “Cafe Du Coeur” which is featured in the visual novel, “Repeat”. That story is also about a seemingly normal city and school under the control of a supernatural force. Whether this was intentional or coincidence (“Repeat” seems so obscure and means nothing within the “Zone” universe) is to be debated.
- The “Busy Bee Diner” returns in this episode. It was all over Season 1.
- Michelle runs past a 1956 Ford Farlaine Club Sedan, the same car that caused its driver some problems in the classic Zone episode “You Drive”.
- There’s a sign in the city that reads “Maple Street”, a nod to the classic Zone episode, “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street”.