Well, we were due for a dud.
Up until now, the episodes I’ve been reviewing from this second Twilight Zone season have been, at minimum, pretty solid… which is unexpected, given what a mixed bag season one was. So it’s almost reassuring in a way that “Ovation” is as blah as it is. The mediocrity provides a necessary contrast, reaffirming that the likes of “Downtime” and “The Who Of You” were actually good.
Let’s dispense quickly with the best parts of “Ovation”—namely Jurnee Smollett and Tawny Newsome, two versatile actresses who make everything they’re in better, even when the material’s not so great.
Smollett here plays Jasmine, a struggling busker who seems to have caught a lucky break when a mega-star pop singer named Fiji (Sky Ferreira) hears her sing out on the street and gives her a lucky medallion. Fiji then promptly steps in front of a bus, and all the adulation she’d been receiving—and apparently hating—transfers almost immediately to Jasmine, who becomes an overnight sensation after she’s invited to compete on an American Idol-like show called Ovation. The medallion seems to compel anyone in her vicinity to applaud and cheer everything she does—sometimes so loudly that no one can hear when she actually misses notes and forgets the words to her songs.
Newsome plays Jasmine’s older sister Zara, a successful medical professional who thinks Jasmine has been wasting her life chasing her musical dreams. Zara initially doesn’t even seem that impressed when her sister becomes a star on TV… though we find out later that Zara’s indifference may just be a passive-aggressive form of jealousy. When Jasmine gets sick of being idolized—even quicker than Fiji did, apparently—she gives the lucky medallion to Zara, who uses it herself to transform into the next big thing, Mynx.
There are some strong moments scattered throughout “Ovation.” The episode gets off to an effectively unsettling start when a fashion photographer tells Fiji. “You are a beautiful octopus, you are about to feed on your prey… Imagine who you’re about to devour.” (Cut to: Jasmine, about to receive a gift that’s going to ruin her life.) There’s also a wonderfully disturbing image later, when Jasmine rushes to Zara’s hospital and a comatose patient in the middle of open heart surgery rises and starts clapping for her.
“Ovation” was directed by Ana Lily Amirpour, who made the cult films A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night and The Bad Batch, and who has also directed episodes of Legion, Castle Rock, and, yes, The Twilight Zone. Amirpour takes some unusual chances with camera angles and framing, often pitching everything slightly askew or bunching characters into parts of the frame where TV characters rarely dwell (except maybe in Mr. Robot and Atlanta). Those chances don’t always pay off, but they are signs of life in an episode that otherwise only really has its main cast going for it.
Yet even with an unexpected final ten minutes that sees Jasmine first retreat from public life and then become a violent stalker of Mynx—whom she stabs to death, unaware she’s killing her sister—too much about “Ovation” is drearily predictable. The kind of fun “how would this actually work?” details—the ones evident in the earlier episodes this season, which show the writers, cast, and crew really thinking through their premise—are largely absent.
There’s a little bit here about the money that comes with fame, and a little bit about the expectation that Jasmine look sparkly and sexy whenever she’s in the public eye. But even with over 40 minutes of screen-time to burn, the writers don’t seem to have thought enough about the particular circumstances of Jasmine’s rise and fall, beyond repeatedly painting “being a celebrity is a shallow and unrewarding endeavor” in a broad brush. The whole arc of the episode is just: A nobody becomes famous due to some strange magic, then discovers fame sucks.
Cue Jordan Peele, whose outro this week is just a narration-free slow clap. I can’t decide if that’s a clever way to end “Ovation” or just a tacit admission that there’s just not much to say about this one.
- The easter egg clue in the press kit for this episode is a simple one: “For one penny, they will be able to look into the future.” I didn’t even need to Google that line to know it’s from “Nick Of Time,” a Twilight Zone episode that always creeps me the hell out when it pops up on MeTV. It’s thematically similar to “Ovation” too, in that it’s about people in thrall to an object—a cheap novelty fortune-telling machine in the older episode’s case—that seems to be determining their fate.
- Thomas Lennon plays the host of Ovation, and sports a mustache that makes him look a little like Paul F. Tompkins. Later, Tompkins himself appears, playing a talk show host. I wish I could say there was some reason why two comic actors who look so much alike are playing different roles in this episode, but I’m stumped. It’s just kind of randomly confounding.
- Next up: “Among The Untrodden.”