Top 15 Episodes of The Twilight Zone

At The Long Take, we make no bones about privileging film over television. But, if the small screen generally doesn’t get much love as a medium on the site, this isn’t to say this is an anti-television zone. Despite my rampant love of cinema and distinctly vocal shun of most of what passes for entertainment on the small screen, a few shows slip by now and again into my personal canon and mean as much to me as some of my favorite films. Such shows are definitely an exception, but they are worthy of analysis, and prime fodder for my love of list-making. It says something, of course, that most of my favorite shows veer toward the anthology style that innately predisposes a certain narrative of economy more akin to cinema than long-winded season-arc style television. Something about a singular episode privileges visual construction over over-cooked narrative, and this is a categorical good in my book. What more fitting a show to inaugurate television to the blog than one of the elder statesmen of all anthology television shows: Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone, still one of the most startling and consistently inventive shows ever aired, and a proving ground for actors, writers, and directors who would go on to greater heights. As strong as the whole show was, as with any anthology show, quality varies significantly. But the best episodes stand up with anything made in the ensuing fifty years; without further adieu, here are my Top 15 Episodes of The Twilight Zone.

Notably absent: “To Serve Man”; Make a convincing argument to me that doesn’t rest entirely on the famous three words of dialogue, and maybe I’ll reconsider.

15. The After Hours

“The After Hours” is a joke waiting for its lame punch-line, but it’s so aware of this fact that it tacitly sidesteps the expected horror-show as we wind up to the eventual revelation and instead get right to the point for a second-half of unexpectedly dry comedy, sly urban-myth evocations. Some sharp, unusually pointed camerawork encircles us and devours us and our expectations with it.

14. Walking Distance

It takes a special episode of The Twilight Zone to go for the tear ducts and come back out the other side; “Walking Distance” may be the only surefire success the show had on that front, especially when you consider how often it would revisit the general theme of “man longs for childhood in adulthood and their mind has a brush with youth so that they can go on living in adulthood”. It isn’t the best episode of the show, but the surprisingly understated drama captures a certain milieu of innocence and loss that plays with nostalgia, rather than playing on it. We can add another to The Twilight Zone’s many successes at doing “moods” other television simply doesn’t even try.

13. The Hitchhiker

One of the most singular and frightening episodes, “The Hitchhiker” makes elegant use of its budget by relying on numbing repetition to cut through the fat of narrative storytelling and contrast the progression of mood with the stagnancy of editing and camerawork. It uses the same images and cuts over time to tell a forward-pushing story through static means, perfect for a work about a woman whose life unravels when she keeps seeing the same man on the side of the road in what is presumed to be a continuous forward drive across the country side. A textbook work of editing.

12. The Eye of the Beholder

In terms of its assumed primary purpose, the gimmick of “The Eye of the Beholder” doesn’t work at all; in 2015, it is unlikely that anyone could watch the episode and not realize that the majority of the characters never reveal their faces. It is painfully unsatisfying to assume that the characters must look “off” as a result, and because we know the story to be about a woman who has bandages over her face for her supposed “ugliness”, we can essentially guess the final moments within a minute or two of the beginning of the episode. It doesn’t matter though; even if it is inadvertent, the episode’s trick of hiding the faces amidst a cavalcade of dimmed lighting and stuttered movements stumbles upon a portal into our minds, rearranging the physical composition of the screen and daring our eyes to explore the complex puzzle that is the way in which the faces are hidden. We dart across the screen, following where the characters follow, transfixed even against our better judgment, and the sense of subfuscous, gloomy, even perverse dread instilled by the shadowplay blankets the episode in a visual melancholy absent most episodes of the show. As plot it’s overworked, but as style, and mood, it’s dynamite.

11. Living Doll

Many episodes of the show, too many, buckle under its implicit sexism – The Twilight Zone being television about the fears of the time, and the early 60s were rampant with worrisome men cowering over the thought of empowered women. Others, still, fail for Serling’s occasionally too genteel hold on preachy ethical fable. “Living Doll” is as far from either of these flaws as the show ever got. One of the great straight horror episodes of all television, “Living Doll” finds shielded eyes not in anything supernatural, but in the corrosive hands and guised-power-play of a patently paternalist modern man, a second husband/father (played with scabby thuggishness by Telly Savalas) to a widowed woman and her young daughter. Of course, the supernatural does enter the picture, creeping into the frame in the form of a doll possibly animated by the willpower of a daughter tired of her father’s brutality. Whether or not the harsh, noirish shadows cower from the doll, or find sympathy in the plastic being’s attempt to rid society of male dominance… that is for you to decide in this cruel ethical parable played out as a battle of wills in a house – the ultimate symbol of male privilege and  social control – losing its sanity in the modern era.

10. The Howling Man

This deeply misunderstood and underrated episode sees the show finally and fully aware of its rambling melodramatic texture, for once opting not to disguise it but to exploit it for all it was worth. So many episodes of the show are about confronting temptation as an object of the devil; it’s fitting that the “The Howling Man”, the episode that most literalizes this tension at the core of a deeply moralizing show, is one of the show’s greatest achievements. Asking nothing less than to literally confront temptation in the most elemental way possible, it places us in the shoes of a man told that a person locked behind a door is the devil. He finds himself knee deep in a Biblical study of cause and effect with ghastly existential overtones and horror caused by the most destructive and difficult villain of all: the self. It is indefensible as morality in the real world, but this extra-earthly work of lush, lustful storytelling doesn’t come at us as a work of the real world.

For all the supposed forward thinking qualities of The Twilight Zone, “The Howling Man” is the most hypnotic, downright mystifying episode of the show because it is so arcane, boasting slanted angles and obscure emoting and fog so thick it could strangle even the most righteous person lulling us into a torrential stew of toil and trouble. This sort of bold, baroque storytelling is synonymous with old-school drama these days; it’s seen as dishonest, obtuse, and fanciful. Newsflash: fiction is dishonest and fanciful, and a quest for “realism” is a nicer name for a path taken by dead films walking. “The Howling Man” knows this, and uses it to unmask humanity’s heart in a steamy masquerade of proud fiction at its most operatic.

9. The Monsters are Due on Maple Street

A prime study in paranoia, this slightly-overrated episode (by virtue of it being one of the most identifiable parables about social paranoia in the show’s canon) is still a biting little slice of (then and now) modern American nastiness that saw the show’s subversive bent taking on corporate suburbia with blunt force trauma. Its strengths are legion, from the efficient, crisp beat-to-beat suspense that never flags to the sense of suffocating interpersonal heat captured by traumatic editing and frayed camerawork that heightens from content to erratic as the episode progresses. It literally manifests the tension of its characters in the heart and soul of the visual storytelling itself (the increasingly nervous, pulsingly quick edits late on are real treats). Bonus points for the way the episode slyly incorporates a facade of modern American sitcom-suburbia to inoculate us from harm by sheathing its horrors in a cloth of made-for-television safety (literally aping the visual style of late ’50s sitcoms), before slowly but surely flicking off the safety and tearing the sitcom-facade away at the seams. No episode of the show has more to say about television itself.

8. Nightmare at 20,000 Feet

A prime secondary Zone outing for pre-Star Trek William Shatner and an early showcase for director Richard Donner, the most famous episode of Rod Serling’s cavalcade of forward-thinking horrors is a delirious roller-coaster descent into the inner sanctum of the mind’s eye at its most traumatic. Boasting such an elegant, unexplained story about a man on an airplane who believes he sees a mysterious creature on the outside on the wing, Nightmare indulges in the elliptical, monomaniacal narrative form of its title with clarity and precise understanding of editing mechanics to construct the feel of a nightmare. Not to mention, it boasts some shockingly potent screen depth for such a cramped, claustrophobic, perfectly framed location. Careening from scene to scene with boastful dread whilst never loosening its taut, twitchy, lurching sickle of senselessness, Donner descends with cheery fright into the pit of man’s elemental social fears: that of seeing something, and no one believing you. It is such a simple concept, yet presented so restlessly, assuredly, and apocalyptic-ally that it cannot be denied.

7. The Midnight Sun

“The Midnight Sun” is far more than a mere twist in a hand-basket; more than maybe any episode of the series, this one has a very prescient “present” quality. While so many other episodes of the show attain a certain detached experimentation, “The Midnight Sun” is always right in front of you, forcing you to confront it, making you feel everything. A story about the Earth getting closer to the sun told from the perspective of two women in an apartment building, everything about “The Midnight Sun” is tactile and flexing, growing around each individual sweat gland and spilling out into the draconian emptiness surrounding them. Of course, the air around the sweat isn’t empty…its filled with a heat so pervasive and all-knowing it turns to fire in the air, inducing mania in characters and desperation in viewers. This is a story with little dialogue (much of it presented in stark, brutal, unadorned terms very much unlike the usual flowery theatrical material known to fans of the show, the dialogue not so much cutting with joie de vivre here as sighing in plain-spoken melancholy). Instead, the episode relies on brutal, hard edits and lingering still shots that watch as the paint melts over time and everything crashes to a standstill. This is one for the gut.

6. The Masks

Ida Lupino directs this caustic comedy of manners about a dying New Orleans man who uses masks to teach his selfish offspring a lesson with his final breaths. Clearly, she understands the stage-bound nature of the show, directing with a depth-of-field and elegance befitting a mostly static plane, breathing life through set design and little details of the man’s house filling in the gaps of his life like an animator constructing character out of particularly persnickety stick figure with an eye for melancholy and ruthless cunning. “The Masks” is literally about humanity as a performance; the garish, coldly inhuman masks of the title do not so much create but reveal the brittle humans of the episode, announcing them for the world to see. It is an episode about the relationship between exterior and interior, fittingly lurching through a decrepit mansion just as it skulks about the innards of human minds before drawing those minds out to the surface.

Periodic cuts to the life blood outside the mansion contrast the coldness of the inside with the warm, improvisational jauntiness of the outside, just as the script draws out the contrast between the average, even wholesome exterior faces of the family and the egotistical, self-obsessed, cold human insides lying in wait, barely hidden under a veneer of normalcy. By the end of the episode, this veneer is lost to them, their faces now contorted in the insides they hid from society, the public/ private divide no longer a beacon of hope for the characters. At the end of the drollest, most cunningly damaged episode of the show, these characters will step outside of the television theater, into a life of lonesomeness forcing them to stare back at themselves in fear.

5. Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?

Comedy was never The Twilight Zone’s knight in shining armor, but this winking, lithe anti-mystery, by far the most successfully playful episode of the series, generally pokes around in territories that even films at this point only treated with a stone-faced grimace (territories which didn’t even exist in television, mind you). Of course, the 60s would become a decade of cheeky horror played with a spry, mischievous smirk, and “Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?” is one of the earliest incarnations of this trend. Opening with a note-perfect visual recreation of the sort of “ooh spooky” set-up that shows like this were built on, this episode then slowly but surely tweeks the formula in ways we don’t initially notice. Soon enough, of course, the playful subversions cascade down the screen (by the end, the reveal of the alien itself is a perfectly pitched joke, and the sardonic post-reveal another joke at their expense). Even the idea – a bunch of bodies stranded in a diner in a snowstorm, one of them an alien – reeks of “Twilight Zone also-ran”. But the episode takes the idea of previous highlight “Monsters Are Due on Maple Street”, and indeed, the whole cloth of ’50s and ’60s “Cold War gone amok” paranoia thrillers, and plays it like a particularly excitable piano. The Twilight Zone never had more fun with itself than it did in this second season continual-high.

4. Time Enough at Last

Anyone tired of The Twilight Zone’s endless hole of verge-of-saccharine shenanigans should take a whiff of the show’s cruelest episode, and one of its earliest success stories. Boasting a lightly demented performance from semi-regular player Burgess Meredith as a man who just wants to read surrounded by a society that won’t let him, this is one of the rare episodes of the show to play no favorites as it lulls us into sympathy with Meredith only to have us derive joy from the world’s destruction (he is the only one left, prompting him having an eternal amount of time to read on his own). As the episode progresses, the droll humor asks us to confront his own malcontent individualism and the way his whimsical demeanor is actually a darker variant of disinterestedness in humanity (it is also one of the few episodes to come around from the show’s too-frequent “cruel, bitter wife” presence to see this harpy image as a fictional product of the male world). Featuring the show’s most haunting final twist, and one of the few that genuinely forces us to reconstruct the characters before us at a mental level, it’s a sharp, biting half hour of television.

3. The Invaders

So much of what made The Twilight Zone a success was its military-grade dialogue; the thought of an episode without dialogue seems a disaster waiting to happen. Perhaps for exactly this reason Serling and co. got started on perfectly exactly that idea, and they did a bang-up job of it to boot. Pumping up the visual storytelling to levels unseen in television at the time (and today), “The Invaders” (written by Richard Matheson, always the show’s least likely writer to suddenly come down with a case of the expositions) takes a grisly, noirish form of loneliness and exploits every ounce of the tension and lingering, sticky dread allowed by its luminous color-starved cinematography.

Boasting an uncommonly expressive shriek of a silent performance from a particularly lonesome looking Agnes Moorehead (easily the show’s greatest single performance), the old Orson Welles-regular captures sweat pouring down like liquid desperation as she battles two small invaders wandering through her grotesquely-light cabin (the way the lighting embellishes Moorehead’s cracked, age-stricken skin is the greatest visual achievement in the show’s history). Elsewhere, the piercing nail sound-design, caught in the act of distorting space amidst the silence and coming toward us from all angles, throws us for a loop, never allowing us to understand the geometry of the cabin and never seeming to come from any one area of the screen in particular (the shot selection does wonders to distort space here too). All of this achieves the goal of dropping us in a mundane place and turning it as alien as humanly possible through an act of feral editing, sound, and camerawork (and if the act of filmic landscape transformation isn’t the noblest gesture in all of film, I don’t know what is). The Zone pulls one of its most daring achievements off with supreme gusto, throwing us into the ghoulish carnival ride that is the show’s greatest traditional horror film and never letting go. It is nothing short of the most perfectly constructed episode of the show.

2. Five Characters in Search of an Exit

If “The Invaders” is the best directed episode of The Twilight Zone, this season three highlight is the most revealing. For all The Twilight Zone dabbled in television re-writing, it is a much more conventional show than we might imagine, radical for its time but not as much as we might think (once upon a time this sot of rotating mini-movie anthology style was quite common upon the small screen). For all its sci-fi and horror excursions and its omnipresent macabre-gallows quality, it never really went all the way out there to earn its title in terms of narrative restructuring and deconstructive fiction-breaking. “Five Characters in Search of an Exit”, for once, accomplishes exactly this sense of alien storytelling, and yet curiously approaches us as one of the oldest, most elemental narratives in the book: five characters, trapped in a space, desperately scrambling every nook and cranny of their minds to find a way out lest hopelessness and submission burrow in.

Yet because it is so primal and primitive, because it is so unadorned and direct, it seems to greet us as something crawling up from the catacombs, death-marked and palpably uncomfortable, and unwilling to leave. It plummets to the depths of the human experience, lost in an anti-narrative that for once actually rethinks the rules and regulations of the holding pattern that could sometimes become “Twilight Zone, rinse, repeat”. For this reason, it seems as fresh and unkempt today as it ever has. It needs no explanation, no pontificating, no reason; it simply is, like the characters that grace its title, and its alien presence is a work of post-structuralist fiction as bold and brash in its own way as the Fellini films it owes an existence to. The Twilight Zone often went to the horror nesting ground for some of its most successful endeavors, but never before or again did the horror manage the dualism of floating amorphousness and crippling present-ness like here, a horror found not in the self or another but in the pure concrete fact of knowing and not knowing.
1. An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge

What does it say about one of the greatest works of American television that its two best episodes are its most European ones? As much as I admire Serling’s world-as-a-teleplay moral parables and his cadre of able-minded followers’ own amiable work, the show does not necessarily earn as much consistent ingenuity as it may sometimes claim. Over time, episodes fell into a regular groove, and for all the show’s experimentation, it wasn’t exactly a narrative-lambasting descent into the human id that lived to play with the fundamentals of television and filmmaking as they were then known. The Twilight Zone ain’t the French Wave, after all.

Except once, that is; the single best episode of the show and one of the greatest short films ever produced, a 1962 French adaptation of Ambrose Bierce’s short story of the same name, brought into the future by Robert Enrico’s spellbindingly impressionist vision of the human imagination. For all its moroseness (it is after all coming to us in the form of a Twilight Zone episode, after all), “Owl Creek” is basically a metrical, lush distillation of the human mind in its death throes, given to flights of fancy and some of the most mirthful moments of living it can breech during its harried plunge into the rapture. Lyrical and explorative, it reaches into the depths of the human condition and bursts with dynamic, gliding camera angles that preceded Terrence Malick by a good decade.

Add in some careening, dejected early ’60s folk (before the genre became an altruistic way to refer to the drag that is “singer-songwriter” music at its floppiest) and a choking, clocked use of visual repetition to convey stagnancy even in motion, and you’ve got one of the New Wave’s best kept secrets. Serling’s achievements were many; acquiring this Civil War era tale of loss, reunification, and loss again (a stark parallel for the Civil War aftermath of Reconstruction if ever there was one) and airing it on American television so the masses could bask in its emotional wallop may be his greatest gift to mankind.

 

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