Romantic comedies tend to be better at the “meet-cute” than the “get-to-know-ya.” There’s a reason why so many TV and movie love stories begin with the couple hating each other. It’s easier in a way for writers, directors and actors to work with conflict than accord. It requires less imagination to depict soon-to-be lovers spending 45 minutes or so sparring over petty annoyances and diverging personal values. All the creative team has to do is to come up with one position or character trait and then counter it with the opposite. “He’s neat, she’s slobby,” “One’s liberal, one’s conservative,” and so on.
In The Twilight Zone episode “Meet In The Middle” though, Phil and Annie connect right away. Phil finds so many of the women he dates disappointing. Annie feels neglected and invisible. But after they stumble across each other in a restaurant, they start spending hours every day together, commiserating about the TV shows they love and the people they hate. Annie’s all Phil ever wanted.
But she may not be real.
When CBS All Access revived Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone last year, the new series arrived with much ballyhoo, but mixed results. There were a couple of brilliant episodes, a few just-okay hours, and a distressing number of out-and-out duds. Despite Jordan Peele’s involvement as a producer and host—and despite an admirable effort to make the Serling-style eeriness and plot twists relevant to now—too many episodes of this new Twilight Zone were overlong, and too many felt like they were straining to be both meaningful and mature.
So it’s an encouraging sign that The Twilight Zone’s second season begins with an episode that’s relatively simple, and highly watchable. “Meet In The Middle” only runs 43 minutes (which is probably still 10 minutes too long, but that’s okay). It has a straightforward story; and Jimmi Simpson and Gillian Jacobs give engaging performances as Phil and Annie. While the episode definitely has a point to make, credited co-writers Emily C. Chang and Sara Amini and director Mathias Herndl don’t hammer at it too hard.
The scenario is this: While Phil’s stuck on yet another dreary date, with a woman who obsesses over the cooking show Chef Boss, he suddenly hears Annie’s voice in his head for the first time, saying a wary “hello.” After an initial freakout on both sides, the two begin a telegraphic conversation that continues off-and-on for weeks, until they finally agree to meet in person, halfway between his home in Ashford City and hers in Diamond Falls.
But here’s the twist: While Phil’s taking a train to meet the woman of his dreams (maybe literally), she warns him telepathically that she’s being threatened by a burly bearded man in a plaid shirt. She leads him to the man’s house, but after Phil muscles his way in and and bludgeons him to death, he finds Annie sitting on the steps with her daughter, crying because the man he just killed was her husband. The police arrest Phil; and as they’re taking him away, he hears Annie in his head again, essentially admitting that she suckered him into committing murder.
But maybe this is just what Phil wants to believe. Maybe the only way he can deal with the crime he just committed is to tell himself he was baited into it.
Again, the space between the setup and the twist in “Meet In The Middle” runs too long. Chang and Amini carry through with the rom-com tradition of “boy loses girl,” as Phil cyberstalks Annie before their big meet-up, and pushes her away after he finds out she’s married. It’s a bit much.
And the episode has an even bigger flaw… or maybe it’s just something that bothered me because it’s a personal pet peeve. As good as Simpson is as Phil—mixing genuine vulnerability and sweetness with a dollop of creepy entitlement and self-delusion—he’s presumably been directed to react to the thoughts in his head as though he’s having an actual silent conversation. It makes his performance more visually dynamic, but it just looks weird, to see a guy sitting in a coffee shop laughing and nodding at nothing, with other people around.
That said, Phil is supposed to be a little weird. We see him in therapy early on, talking about his delusions and his dissatisfactions; and while he seems like a nice guy, there are hints he has some issues with women. He gets distracted when his date has curlier hair than her profile picture suggested. (He also doesn’t understand the dishes she wants to order, which suggests that maybe he doesn’t like his ladies or his meals too ethnic.) He promises to guide Annie through his favorite music and his favorite sci-fi, to improve her taste.
Maybe this episode isn’t about a woman manipulating a lonely man into freeing her from an abusive marriage. Maybe it’s about a man who can’t find meaningful real-world relationships because he can’t accept people for who they are. He’ll meet a woman in the middle, sure… so he can drag her to his side.
- CBS sent critics a Twilight Zone gift box filled with snacks, which included hints to the easter eggs and callbacks we can expect this season. The hint for this episode is, “You’re looking at a species of flimsy little two-legged animals with extremely small heads, whose name is Man.” That’s an excerpt from Rod Serling’s narration in “People Are Alike All Over,” a season one original Twilight Zone in which astronauts exploring Mars are telepathically lured by a beautiful woman to their new home… a zoo!
- Nice touch to play “Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You”—with the line “you’re just too good to be true”—during Phil’s IRL meeting with Annie.
- Welcome back to The A.V. Club’s Twilight Zone reviews! Unlike season one, this latest run is dropping all at once; so rather than these reviews running weekly, look for one review every morning for roughly the next 10 days. I’ll mostly be following the episode order as it is on CBS All Access, but be warned: CBS only sent three episodes in advance and I’ll be doing those first, regardless of where they ultimately fall. Next up is “The Who Of You,” followed by “You Might Also Like.” I’ll let you know down here at the end of each review which one’s coming next.