Had Alonso Alvarez-Barreda’s father gotten his way, his son would have become a ping pong World Champion. Raised in Tampico, Mexico, Alvarez-Barreda grew up dutifully practicing for such a goal, at times spending six hours a day at a ping pong table. In his father’s eyes, becoming a World Champion was more attainable a goal than what young Alonso really wished to do: become a filmmaker. Ever since watching The Shawshank Redemption when he was 12, Alvarez-Barreda knew that what he wanted to do was be behind the camera. With a slew of award-winning short films under his belt (including the micro-budget Historia de un letrero, which he shot for $50 in his home town), an increasingly busy schedule directing television (Snowfall, 9-1-1, Party of Five) and a few features in the near future, it’s clear whose wild-eyed vision won out.
Summer 2020 finds Alvarez-Barreda unveiling one of the most ambitious projects he’s ever been a part of: a new episode of the legendary series The Twilight Zone. Rebooted by CBS All Access and hosted by Get Out‘s Jordan Peele, this newest iteration of the sci-fi anthology series continues a legacy of tackling pressing social issues with allegorical (and often supernatural) stories about every day people.
Despite only being cursorily familiar with the famed series, the Mexican filmmaker knew the responsibility that would come with this assignment. Oddly, enough, though, he found inspiration in his own town of Tampico to create the uncanny world of “A Small World,” the episode written by Steven Barnes and Tananarive Due.
His life in Tampico may not immediately feel relevant to directing a piece like “A Small Town,” which is set in a wintery place that’s lost some of its luster after a highway cut it off from the traffic that had steadily supplied it with out of towners. But audiences looking close enough will see how much of Alvarez-Barreda’s upbringing in that small Mexican town informed his vision for the “Littleton” at the center of this eerie story about Jason (Marlon Wayans Jr.), a man who finds a replica of his small town in an attic and realizes anything he does to the scaled model ends up manifesting itself in the town right outside. A new paint job on an ailing local haunt livens up; a new sign ends up luring more drivers through town — even a spider ends up serving as a monstrous warning.
As he toys with his power, hoping to use it for good (and make his late wife proud), this everyman soon comes up against a question that eventually becomes his own undoing: can he embody selflessness as he watches an opportunist mayor take credit for his work as he betters a town long confined to oblivion?
The casting alone makes “A Small Town” bristle with a radical reimagining of how such towns are usually depicted on screen. Not only is Wayans Jr. front and center, interacting with townspeople like Ana, played by Natalie Martinez and the Pastor, played by Paula Newsome, but the many background actors who populate this snowy remote community depict a diverse demographic that makes it difficult to nail down where exactly a town like this actually exists.
“We wanted to make it feel like it was a small town that people could understand what the dynamics were. But we also wanted it to feel like it could be anywhere,” he says. “Like there’s not a racial thing — it’s not like it’s predominantly Asian; it’s not predominantly Mexican; it’s not predominantly white. It was kind of like weirdly suspended in time, Twilight Zone-wise, but also has the warmth of a small town where people know each other and feel cozy.”
Which is not to say he didn’t want it to have a Mexican footprint. Ana’s son, who spends much of the episode doodling in his notebook and even creating a mural for the suddenly thriving town, stands in for Tampico. “Every single drawing that this kid has is thematically from Tampico. I wanted to have a Mexican topic, sort of subliminally displayed on this art, which is a character in itself on the show.”
Ultimately, though, Alvarez-Barreda hopes the episode speaks to people all around the world. “All of these characters have an opportunity to control things. But when you think you’re controlling, it’s the other way around — you have no control. I just love the idea that these characters are just thrown into these extraordinary circumstances in everyday life. And I feel like we have that in, in our lives right now. The time that we’re living in, to me, is like a Twilight Zone episode. Like the coronavirus may as well be a spider in in our world. I just love the themes of being careful with the power that you get in every choice in your life. That, to me, was fascinating.”
The second season of The Twilight Zone is now streaming on CBS All Access.