Friday, May 11, 2012

Happy National Twilight Zone Day!

I haven't written a non-American Idol post in a while, but I was inspired to rise out of the muck when I discovered that today is National Twilight Zone Day.

In honor of the greatest TV series ever, I've compiled a list of my 20 favorite episodes. The first half of the list is actually a previously published (with a few slight changes) article that I originally wrote for Starpulse back in 2008, prior to the July 4th Twilight Zone marathon. Enjoy...and let me know which of your favorites I left out!

1. "A Kind of a Stopwatch"
Annoying motor-mouth Patrick McNulty (Richard Erdman) spends his days boring everyone to tears and dreaming of a world in which he's a respected and popular man about town. One day, a stranger gives McNulty an old stopwatch that has the power to stop time. At first, he uses the watch to amuse himself, until realizing that it could be the key to making his lofty dreams come true. As happens with all residents of The Twilight Zone, McNulty's repeated temptations of Fate come back to bite him in the end.

I think it's kind of funny that I (via Starpulse) am now linked with this episode's Wikipedia page, as it cites my original article's ranking of it as the best episode of the series. I'm certain that a lot of people disagree with that ranking, and I have no problem admitting that this is definitely more of a sentimental favorite than anything, as it always takes me back to the childlike wonder of daydreaming about finding such a magical watch. But these types of "best of" lists can never be completely objective, so anyone who gets mad over what was ranked where probably spends a lot of his or her time mad about stupid things.

Twidbit: You'll recognize the premise as one that's been recently recycled in the 2002 sci-fi teen flick, Clockstoppers, and Adam Sandler's 2006 comedy, Click. The ep was also parodied in "Stop the World, I Want to Goof Off," a segment from The Simpsons' Treehouse of Horror XIV.

2. "The After Hours"
Anne Francis stars as Marsha White, a woman who heads to a large department store in search of a gold thimble. (Talk about the times changing. I mean, really, who buys thimbles anymore?) Much to Marsha's dismay, she accidentally gets locked in the empty store overnight. At least she thinks it's empty—but some very lively mannequins have a few surprises in store.

Twidbit: Playing to the common childhood fantasy that store mannequins come to life at night, this episode is a bit more fanciful than frightening, yet still very satisfying.

3. "And When the Sky Was Opened"
Three astronauts crash-land in the desert after a space flight, during which their ship disappeared from the radar for 24 hours. No one knows what happened in that lost day, but strange things start happening upon their return. When space buddies Ed Harrington (the charming Charles Aidman) and Clegg Forbes (old-time über-hottie, Rod Taylor) visit a bar, Harrington disappears from right under Forbes' nose. Immediately after he vanishes, no one has any recollection of Harrington's existence, not even hospitalized astronaut #3, Gart Williams (Timothy Hutton's dad, James). As Clegg vainly tries to jog his friend's memory, he's overcome with a strange sensation of "not belonging" on Earth and runs out of Gart's hospital room. When Gart tries to follow, he finds himself smack-dab in the middle of Clegg's nightmare. An awesome, surreal trip through The Twilight Zone where not everything makes sense, this episode may frustrate people who like their stories wrapped up into neat little packages. Others will love the ambiguity, because it's left up to the viewer to decide what is real and what is illusion.

Twidbit: Watch out for Rod Taylor's fantastic flip-out after Harrington's disappearance, where he can't think straight enough to say anything but, "You're crazy! You're…you're CRAZY! You're crazy, you know that? You're…you're CRAZY!"

4. "Eye of the Beholder"
One of the most universally recognizable and beloved TZs of all, this tale focuses on the plight of Janet Tyler, a disfigured woman going through her last of many failed plastic surgeries. Through most of the episode, the doctors' and nurses' faces are obscured, placing viewers in the same world of darkness in which Janet lives under her layers of bandages. All of this secrecy may also make it easier for most viewers to figure out the twist, but the big reveal still packs a powerful visual punch, and the societal message within is thoughtful and timeless.

Twidbit: This popular episode, starring soap actress Maxine Stuart and Donna Douglas of The Beverly Hillbillies, has so permeated pop culture that references to it can be found everywhere. Perhaps the best-known and funniest parody was a skit on Saturday Night Live featuring Pamela Anderson in the lead role.

5. "A World of Difference"
This episode has often been compared to The Truman Show and Stranger Than Fiction. A remarkably convincing performance by Howard Duff helps make this largely underrated installment a series highlight. Duff is Gerry Raigan, a troubled actor who convinces himself that he is actually Arthur Curtis, the character he is portraying in a film. His vain attempts to prove his identity to everyone else are heartbreaking, but he gets no sympathy from his shrewish ex-wife, Nora. When Gerry's agent tells him that the Arthur Curtis picture is being scrapped, he frantically rushes to the set in the hopes of preserving his "other life."

Twidbit: Nasty Nora Raigan is played by Eileen Ryan, the real-life mother of often-nasty actor, Sean Penn! See if you can spot the family resemblance.

6. "Night Call"
Long-time character actress and frequent TZ guest-star Gladys Cooper plays Elva Keene, a bored, old, wheelchair-bound lady who rarely communicates with anyone but her housekeeper. During a storm, she receives a strange phone call, but can't hear anyone on the other end. She continues to receive similar calls full of nothing but crackling static, until one night when a man creepily croaks that he wants to talk to her. In an attempt to get to the bottom of this mystery, Elva contacts the telephone operator who gives her some rather shocking news. The two lead ladies are fantastic in their roles, and that disembodied voice is guaranteed to give you the chills!

Twidbit: "Night Call" is a less gruesome version of an old urban legend.

7. "Will The Real Martian Please Stand Up?"
During a snowstorm, a bus driver and his six passengers make a pit stop at a greasy spoon. Soon after, two policemen arrive to inform the gang that a UFO crashed nearby and a trail of footprints led them from the ship to the diner. When the bus driver does a head count, he realizes that there are now seven people in his group, and paranoia takes over as everyone tries to weed out the alien. This unforgettable ep serves up a great ensemble cast, and the double twist is the cherry on top!

Twidbit: Illustrating how quickly normal people shift to irrational behavior in the face of fear is a specialty of the Zone. For more finger-pointing panic, check out the classic, "The Monsters are Due on Maple Street" (more on that in a bit) or the less effective wartime drama, "The Shelter." 

8. "The Midnight Sun"
Nora and her landlady, Mrs. Bronson, are the only two residents left in their apartment complex after a panic sends everyone searching for shadier surroundings. An unthinkable phenomenon occurred one month prior - the Earth's orbit shifted, causing the planet to gradually head closer and closer to the sun. With the end near, Nora and Mrs. Bronson try to comfort each other during their last hours. However, the landlady soon succumbs to the heat, leaving Nora alone and frozen with fear. What seems to be just an interesting character study turns out to be one of the most original plots in the series, with a truly unexpected twist.

Twidbit: Lois Nettleton (Nora), who died in 2008, is often recognized by younger generations as George Costanza's girlfriend's mother, who catches George eating an éclair out of the garbage on an episode of Seinfeld.

9. "Nick of Time"
William Shatner and Patricia Breslin are cast as Don and Pat, a honeymooning couple forced to stop for auto repairs in small-town Ohio. While they wait in a nearby café, Don becomes obsessed with a table-top fortune-telling machine that seems to have all the right answers. Pat begins to wonder which is more frightening: the accuracy of the machine's answers or Don's self-destructive superstition.

Twidbit: The Shat also appeared in another episode, "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet," which is far more popular, but far less engaging.

10. "Ring-A-Ding Girl"
An under-appreciated gem, this episode tells the story of Bunny Blake (Maggie McNamara), a glamorous movie star who receives a very special ring from her hometown fan club. The ring beckons her back home, where it continues to send Bunny cryptic messages that hint at an impending tragedy that could affect many of the locals.

Twidbit: Try not to dwell on the supernatural time-space paradox involved, and soak up the atmospheric beauty of Bunny's final scene - one of the series' most haunting images.

11. "The Hunt"
During a nighttime raccoon hunt, mountain man Hyder Simpson (Arthur Hunnicutt) jumps in a pond to save his faithful dog Rip. The next morning, Hyder and Rip head back home, where no one seems to be able to see or hear them. Hyder soon realizes that he and Rip didn't survive their hunting trip, and the duo sets out in search of a place to go. They soon encounter a man who appears to be Heaven's gatekeeper, but when the man tells Hyder that dogs aren't allowed inside, Hyder refuses to enter, opting instead to take his chances on "Eternity Road."

Twidbit: If you're a dog lover, this one oughta bring a tear to your eye.

12. "The Hitch-Hiker"
After Nan Adams (Inger Stevens) has a blow out during a cross-country trip, she begins seeing a shabby-looking hitchhiker at different points along her journey. His presence is merely unnerving until he appears at a railroad crossing, where she stalls out and is nearly hit by an oncoming train. From that point on, Nan is convinced that the hitchhiker is trying to kill her, causing her to become more and more unhinged.

Twidbit: If you're a fan of the '60s cult classic Carnival of Souls, this episode's twist may be pretty easy to figure out! 

13. "The Monsters are Due on Maple Street"
One day, a mysterious light flashes over a peaceful neighborhood, after which, everyone's vehicles and electrical devices stop working. The residents laugh off a local teen's suggestion that this is an alien invasion being helped along by a resident who isn't what he appears to be. But when the power starts working for certain people, friends and neighbors quickly begin to turn on each other. As I mentioned earlier, this is a classic episode, and one that so perfectly illustrates "mob mentality" that it's often screened in classrooms to teach children the dangers of prejudice and paranoia. And even though it originally aired in the '60s, it's a great commentary on our ever-growing dependence on technology.     

Twidbit: While this is a stellar episode, much of the acting is laughably hammy. However, Claude Akins (aka Sheriff Lobo!) is pretty solid as the neighborhood voice of reason, and Jack Weston (aka Mr. Kellerman!) is perfectly cast as the biggest pain in the ass on the block.

14. "Nothing in the Dark"
Gladys Cooper gives another great performance in this tale of Wanda Dunn, an elderly woman who has shut herself off from the world in an attempt to evade Mr. Death. But when a young policeman named Harold Beldon is shot outside her door, she decides that she must help him and brings him into her home. Although Wanda begins to warm to Harold, can she really trust that he's not Death in disguise?

Twidbit: Ms. Cooper's co-star is a very young Robert Redford in one of his earliest acting roles.

15. "People Are Alike All Over"
Working equally well as a testament to "always trusting your first instinct" and a snarky burn on the human race, this episode follows the Mars voyage of optimistic astronaut Mark Marcusson (Paul Comi) and fearful scientist Sam Conrad (Roddy McDowall). After a crash landing that ultimately kills Marcusson, a fearful Conrad is left alone to deal with the human-looking Martians he encounters. When the Martians (especially a hottie with a terrible mullet) appear friendly, Conrad finally begins to relax, adopting Marcusson's earlier assertion that people on Mars would be the same as people everywhere.

Twidbit: Vic Perrin, who plays one of the Martians, was best known for his role as the Control Voice of another popular sci-fi anthology—The Outer Limits.

16. "Mr. Dingle, The Strong"
This is one that may not show up on many other "favorite TZ episode" lists, but I've always had a real soft spot for it. Of course, it could be because I have a real soft spot for star Burgess Meredith. This is one of the few straight-up comedic episodes, which follows Meredith's lovable loser Luther Dingle as he is used as a test subject for visiting aliens who zap him with super strength.

Twidbit: Although Meredith is the star, there are also some memorable performances here by well-known character actor James Milhollin and a cranky-as-ever Don Rickles. 

17. "It's A Good Life"
Perhaps the ultimate case for Supernanny, Anthony Fremont (Billy Mumy) is a little boy with boundless mental powers, who uses them to lord over and terrorize everyone in his family and town. But that's not a bad thing! That's good! And you better think good thoughts about Anthony, or you'll end up in the cornfield...or worse.

Twidbit: The episode is based on Jerome Bixby's short story of the same name, which is often considered one of the best science fiction stories ever written. Sadly, it was sanitized and given a happy ending (read: DESTROYED) in Twilight Zone: The Movie.

18. "Living Doll"
I've always considered this (although the case could be made for "It's A Good Life") the one true "horror" story of the series, as most episodes focused on the supernatural or unexplained, with elements of horror thrown in. There's really no message here (other than "Hey, don't be a bastard like Telly Savalas"). This is just about an evil doll that won't think twice about breaking someone's neck. No doubt Chucky has posters of Talky Tina all over his bedroom wall.

Twidbit: This episode was the basis for another of the best Simpsons' Treehouse of Horror segments, "Clown Without Pity." If only Telly had known that it was as simple as flipping Tina's Good/Evil switch, things may have ended differently!

19. "The Dummy"
An at-his-hunky-peak Cliff Robertson portrays ventriloquist Jerry Etherson, a guy with a very big problem: his dummy, Willy, is alive. Oh, and he's possibly evil and trying to take over Jerry's life. Making things worse is the fact that everyone, even Jerry's trusted agent, shrugs this story off as nothing more than the delusion of an alcoholic. But Willy is real. Make no mistake about that. I have to admit that I've never quite understood the ending of this episode, but that doesn't keep it from being one of the most effectively creepy images from the series.

Twidbit: Jerry's agent, Frank, is played by Frank Sutton, immediately recognizable to most as Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C.'s Sargeant Carter.

20. "On Thursday We Leave for Home"
When The Twilight Zone took over a new timeslot for its fourth season, the show was forced to expand its episodes to an hour-long format, which nearly everyone agreed was, well, about 30 minutes too long. (TZ quickly returned to the half-hour format for its fifth and final season.) Although it was a disappointing season overall, there are a handful of hour-longs that I really enjoy, like "Printer's Devil" (another Burgess Meredith appearance!), the often heavy-handed but satisfying "Valley of the Shadow," and the underrated love story "Passage on the Lady Anne." But the best of the season was "Thursday," which stars James Whitmore as Captain William Benteen, the self-appointed leader of a colony of people stranded on an unbearably hot planet. When a rescue ship from Earth arrives, Benteen begins to struggle with the desire to go home and the desire to keep his group (and power over them) together.

Twidbit: It's pretty easy to draw parallels between Captain Benteen and another Whitmore character, The Shawshank Redemption's Brooks Hatlen. Both are men who have managed to make the best of a hellish situation, elevating themselves to positions of respect and importance. Both are men who so fear losing that status that they would rather remain "caged" than have to start from scratch as "free men."   

Classics That Didn't Quite Make the Cut:

"To Serve Man" Next to "Eye of the Beholder," this story of big-headed, too-good-to-be-true aliens, is one of the most familiar and memorable TZs. It's definitely a four-star episode, but one that relies heavily on its twist, giving the reruns less impact. On the other hand, The Simpsons' parody, "Hungry Are the Damned," from the very first Treehouse of Horror, is positively hilarious and almost commands multiple viewings!

"Time Enough at Last" This iconic episode is one of four starring Burgess Meredith as yet another milquetoast character. It's a well-executed episode, but this is one instance where the series' signature "ironic twist" actually spoils things. Most of the time in The Twilight Zone, the comeuppance fits the "crime," but Meredith's character, Henry Bemis, is just a nice guy who loves to read! Watching him suffer such an undeserved, harsh fate makes it hard to truly enjoy this story.

"Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" William Shatner reacting to the gremlin on the wing of his airplane is fun for a while, but this little monster story certainly isn't the most compelling of this historic series.

4 comments:

Travis Cody said...

Thanks for the walk through the Twilight Zone. I have promised myself that one day I'll start from the beginning and watch them all through.

Dale said...

There are a few on your list I haven't seen yet so I scanned them not wanting to know anything. I loved Time Enough At Last because when I first saw it, I didn't well, see it coming. Such a great series. The dvd set has all the Serling bumpers at the end of the episode previewing the next episode and a few original commercial spots thrown in. I'm mid-way through Season 2 so it'll take me time to get through them all. Great round up, thanks!

Barbara Bruederlin said...

Holy smokes, you sure know your Twilight Zones, missy! I am really only well versed in a handful of episodes, as childhood is an increasingly fading memory these days. Good thing I don't have any pressure to be a pop culture guru.

Dr. Kenneth Noisewater said...

I vote for the one with Bill Shatner because he's hilarious. Good work on this! Must have taken a while.

 

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