by a contributor
from Alex Sobel, author of Home:
The Twilight Zone is my favorite television show. Created by Rod Serling, who not only gave the show its poetic narration, but also wrote 99 of the 156 episodes, The Twilight Zone was an anthology show that often mixed sci-fi or supernatural elements with well-developed characters, emotional depth, and biting social commentary. It’s a show that when I first saw it when I was little, immediately made me want to be a writer (somewhere I have notebooks with knock-off episodes that 10-year-old me wrote just in case they brought the show back to television). It’s a show that when I see it now, I feel my chest tighten with how much I love every second of it. It’s a show that when I find someone who hasn’t seen it, I immediately insist that they watch it. So with that, here are the episodes that I always start people off with. A list of some of my favorites that showcase the wide range of styles and themes the show was capable of, and will hopefully get those who are Twilight Zone-deficient hooked.
Two things that people associate with The Twilight Zone are science fiction monsters and twist endings, but “Walking Distance” (in my opinion, the single greatest episode of the series) has neither of those. Just an interesting character who, in less than 30 minutes, is better developed than most shows are capable of in several full seasons of episodes. Martin is a worn out businessman who, when his car breaks down, decides to visit the town that he grew up in. When he gets there, he finds that he’s actually traveled back in time, his parents are still alive, and the town is exactly as it was when he was little. What follows is a reflection on the dangers of nostalgia, the pain that comes from a life of irreversible losses, and the emptiness that is adulthood: and how despite all that, life is still worth living.
“The Obsolete Man”
I once read that Rod Serling’s stories often showed how much love he had for people and for humanity as a whole. In no episode is this more present than in “The Obsolete Man.” Burgess Meredith, in one of his four appearances on the show (one of which is arguably the series’ most famous episode, “Time Enough at Last,” which aside from the gut-punch of a twist ending, isn’t really a standout) plays Romney Wordsworth, a librarian (how could he not be with that name?) who, in a totalitarian future, is put on trial for being an obsolete human, the sentence for which is death. The episode consists mostly of dialogue between Wordsworth and Fritz Weaver’s calculated Chancellor, and their verbal sparing reveals the depth of man’s search for meaning, for relevance, for purpose, and what it really means to be obsolete.
“Nick of Time”
Most people would lean toward William Shatner’s other Twilight Zone appearance, “Terror at 20,000” (another great episode that could have easily been on this list), but for me, “Nick of Time” is better. Shatner’s Don Carter is a superstitious man whose car breaks down (this show loves having broken down cars) on his honeymoon. When he and his new wife stop in a diner, Carter begins to get sucked into the power of the “mystic seer,” a small fortuneteller box that for a penny gives you a slip that appears to predict Carter’s future. The beauty of this episode comes from the ambiguity of whether or not the mystic seer is really revealing the future, or it’s all in Carter’s superstitious head. It forces him to ask the question: if we were able to know our future, would we really want to know?
“Eye of the Beholder”
It’s a bit of a standard choice, but I couldn’t leave this one out. As I mentioned above, The Twilight Zone is really well known for it’s twist ending, and “Eye of the Beholder” has one hell of a twist. Janet Tyler is a woman living in a totalitarian society (the show also loves its totalitarian societies) who has a face so hideous that, if this final operation doesn’t work, has to be shipped of to a special camp of “people just like her.” If you’re one of the few people who don’t know the ending, I won’t ruin it here, but I’d recommend watching it for yourself.
“It’s a Good Life”
Because The Twilight Zone is an anthology show, the appeal changes from episode-to-episode. Some have social commentary, some are great character studies, some are fun sci-fi romps, and others, like “It’s a Good Life,” are creepy as hell. Bill Mumy (who in the same year also starred in the episode “Bang! You’re Dead” of another great anthology show, Alfred Hitchcock Presents) plays Anthony Fremont, a young boy who has psychic abilities and uses them to terrorize the adults of his town. The episode is a great comment on how power shouldn’t be given to the irresponsible, but again, it’s really enjoyable because the kid is so damn creepy, turning people and animals into horrific creations or “sending them into the cornfield,” his term for killing them. This episode is also darkly funny, as the adults are forced to be uneasy around the child out of fear. There’s no real closure or twist ending in this one. Just a great episode of my favorite show of all time.