"This isn't your father's 'Twilight Zone,' " says a note attached to the latest episode of UPN's series. "Not your father's 'Twilight Zone,' " like the slogan "Not your father's Oldsmobile," is meant, obviously, as a recommendation. But it's really just grimly honest truth-in-labeling.
"Not as good as your father's 'Twilight Zone' " would be more honest and truthful still.
Rod Serling's imaginative anthology of spooky and fantastic tales has been revived before, not only as a TV series but as an ill-fated motion picture. UPN's version is unlike the other imitations in perhaps every respect but one: It's inferior to the original.
"Your father's 'Twilight Zone' " was a true television classic, the likes of which we will apparently not see again.
Even so, the new version, which is hosted by actor and sometime director Forest Whitaker, is not devoid of respectable qualities and nifty touches. It airs tonight at 9 on Channel 20.
Each one-hour "Zone" tells two half-hour stories; UPN sent "Sensuous Cindy," one of the stories airing tonight, for preview. "Cindy" is indeed a tale that could not have been told during the original run of "Twilight Zone" in the '60s. It's about a man named Ben who's going to be married to a woman named Samantha in six months and who's vowed not to have sex with her (or anyone else, of course) until their happy, happy wedding night arrives.
There would have been no way of dealing with that setup in the original show because on television of that era, nobody talked about having sex before, during or after marriage -- or at any other time, either. Television characters, like Barbie dolls, were not equipped with genitalia.
Ben -- who is played by Greg Germann, formerly of "Ally McBeal" -- is feeling understandably constrained by his celibacy yet does not want to be unfaithful to his fiancee. At the offices of Brash magazine, where Ben works, a friend and co-worker presents him with what seems like a satisfying and moderately moral alternative: virtual sex with a computer-generated blonde named -- as you may have guessed -- Sensuous Cindy.
Ben straps himself into a large head-harness consisting of goggles and earphones and slips away to a virtual-reality love nest where Sensuous herself (Jaime Pressly) is very ready, extremely willing and apparently quite able: "Hi there. I've been waiting for you," she purrs. Before Ben knows it, he's floating around on Cloud Nine. Actually, from the looks of things, it might even be Cloud Ten.
Then Ben goes back to Samantha, marries her and lives happily ever after. Not! This would hardly be a "Twilight Zone" if that happened. No no, as you might expect, there are unexpected complications. Ben finds himself unable to keep virtual reality from intruding on real reality.
There are mysterious phone calls in the night (just as there were on last week's "Twilight Zone" episode about a cop who shot a Satanic pimp) and a nasty little encounter in an elevator.
It seems Ben suffers from claustrophobia, a detail the script should have passed along earlier for the elevator scene to be believable and effective.
What happens next? Naturally we have taken a critic's oath not to reveal any more about a plot that depends on twists and turns and flip-flops. And just when you think you've gone through the last bit of twisting, there's one more mind-bender to come.
As host, Whitaker isn't as impressive, or even as audible, as Serling was. And where the original series set its surrealist stories against realistic, sometimes stunningly banal settings (most often filmed on the old MGM back lot), the new version looks goofy and spooky all the time, making the whole thing somehow less compelling.
But when Ben tells his computer-geeky friend about his problems with Sensuous Cindy and the friend says, "You're weirding me out," he hits upon pure essence of "Zone."
Nothing on TV, not in all these years of trying, has ever been as proficient at weirding us out as Serling's original masterpiece -- and that includes, unfortunately, UPN's earnest but modest imitation.