When in doubt, lean into the sci-fi. Though this new iteration of The Twilight Zone is still struggling to find solid storytelling footing, it’s had better luck in creating the kind of bizarro-world atmosphere that made the original series so magnetic. While not yet enough to overcome the focus on concept over character that the writers have exhibited thus far, the vibe sure has softened the blow (to varying degrees); ditto for “A Traveler,” which wanders off in so many script directions that it can’t find its way home. But because of a nicely creepy setting, coupled with an oily performance from Stephen Yeun as a dapper stranger who mysteriously appears in the holding cell of a remote Alaskan outpost town, this fourth episode manages to hide its imitation humans with an alluring mask.
Taking place only a few hundred miles from the North Pole, “A Traveler” kicks off with a local police sergeant named Yuka hauling her ne’er-do-well brother into the station for public drunkenness. Neither appears to be too concerned about the charges, as this is Christmas Eve, and the police captain (Greg Kinnear, making something out of nothing) has a custom for the occasion of pardoning one prisoner. Instead, the pair rant and sulk about what a supposed a-hole her boss is, and how Christmas is stupid. However, once they arrive at the station party, Yuka discovers that her brother is not alone in his cell block — a well-dressed stranger (Yeun) waits patiently, claiming he is a YouTube “aggro traveler” who has come all this way just to participate in the festivities. Feeling jovial and on the receiving end of some generous ego-stroking, Captain Pendleton pardons the enigmatic newcomer, and sets him loose on the booze and karaoke.
It’s pretty obvious from the get-go that things are not as they seem, and that this man — whose identification reads “A. Traveler” — is a liar. However, only Yuka seems to think that it’s weird that some random out-of-towner got into a jail cell without anyone noticing, so she attempts to discover the truth while everyone else takes him in like he’s always belonged. Well, sort of. Meanwhile, Mr. Traveler soon sprinkles misinformation among the meager residents, sowing distrust and conflict until he has them exactly where he wants them. Or rather, where they want them…
Quick-eyed viewers will smoke out very early on what’s afoot here, and all the misinformation in the world won’t distract them from the truth. This episode doesn’t hide the inspiration it has taken from the Twilight Zone classic “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” but whereas that masterpiece kept its slowly unraveling chaos focused and under control as its characters turned on each other, “A Traveler” wanders all over the place in search of a unifying theme that sticks. The dangers of fake news gets the most play, but there are also shots taken at western religion and colonization thrown in for good measure, as well as asides about government corruption and racism, because why not? Then there are plot considerations involving leaked Air Force sites, Russian espionage, desire for job advancement, and a stuttering power generator. Sheesh! At least the good name of pumpkin pie emerges unscathed.
Any one of these topics is a potential gold mine for a setup like this, but “A Traveler” undermines its strongest (fake news) by getting off-topic too often. Perhaps it’s a lack of confidence, or perhaps the writers were bursting with things to say, but the result sometimes feels like too many people talking at once. Still, there are some clever scenes of mistrust that work quite well if you don’t pay too close attention to the ridiculous specifics, and as long as the characters are allowed to act like real people.
That last element has been the toughest to come by in this new Twilight Zone, and unfortunately “A Traveler” is usually no different, especially when it comes to consistency. Whether it’s a police captain not even curious about how someone infiltrated his jail cell — let alone his station — or a supposedly thorough officer who does the most generous background check any criminal could possibly hope for, the opening act is riddled with false notes when it comes to believable human behavior. There are even moments later when people hang on every word of a publicly proven liar for no explainable reason. But these former idiots then shift gears without warning, with Captain Pendleton suddenly remembering how to do his job, and Yuka restraining her perpetual sulk long enough to occasionally be proactive. Who are these people? What is their standard for taking things seriously? Everyone here seems subject to whim, completely unpredictable, when they should be a grounded contrast to the uncanny.
Regardless, there is muddled success that follows that weak opening, and it mostly rests upon the isolated setting, as well as the capable shoulders of Stephen Yeun. As Mr. Traveler, he dances back and forth between quirky cheerfulness and ominous betrayals, gliding across rooms like a circus ring leader, directing his audience’s attention to whatever spectacle he next wishes to shine a light on. It might be a ruse, and it might not, but figuring out which is which comprises much of the fun here. Yet, he also knows how to take on a more threatening demeanor by remaining utterly still, intimidating in his silence, perfectly content to let others fall apart by blathering. He hits all the right tones, and plays especially well off Kinnear’s insecure, bombastic chief. Maybe the show’s writers should stick to writing aliens, because they sure have a problem depicting us Earthlings.
The gorgeous isolation of this remote outpost also plays a big part, establishing an atmosphere of vulnerability and dread that faintly hearkens to similarly set stories like The Thing or 30 Days of Night. There’s no one out there to help these people, no outside world that can come to the rescue; they’re on their own in the dark cold, and that’s sometimes an unnerving place to be — especially when there’s something that doesn’t belong. It’s enough to draw sci-fi viewers in, to create a lull that distracts from human logic, but as the moral of “A Traveler” shows, fake can only be hidden for so long. If this series is to really start going to far away places, then it needs to keep at least one foot on Earth.