October 2, 2009
Today is the fiftieth anniversary of the broadcast debut of The Twilight Zone. I wasn’t around in 1959, but I can join in by celebrating a less precise anniversary.
Picture, if you will, a precocious pre-teen with a morbid turn of mind and not enough pop culture fantasies to nourish it. He’s seen the show before. Episodes like “The Dummy” and “Little Girl Lost,” caught in passing on the way to The Flintstones or The Facts of Life, scared the heck out of him when he was a little kid. But now he’s just the right age to groove to Rod Serling’s dark imagination. He drags his dad to the local Waldenbooks to buy him the only literature he can find about the show, Marc Scott Zicree’s The Twilight Zone Companion, which he all but memorizes as he follows the show in syndication, twice a night, once on WGN and then a different episode on the Fox affiliate. It’s been twenty years, give or take a couple of months, since I discovered The Twilight Zone.
One thing that occurred to me recently is that most of my opinions about each Twilight Zone were formed as a response to those taken by Zicree in his book. Given the dearth of other reviews or commentaries, the Companion’s raves, pans, and pointed dismissals – three or four lines of Pauline Kaelish hauteur directed at the likes of “Hocus Pocus and Frisby” – tended to fix themselves permanently in a Zone fan’s consciousness. Over the years, when I’ve found other Zone aficionados who were sufficiently well-versed to compare notes on individual episodes, the discussion has sometimes played out in terms like: “You know, I liked that one more (or less) than Zicree did!”
Last month I reviewed Martin Grams’s The Twilight Zone: Unlocking the Door and lamented Grams’s decision to withhold his own opinions on the show. That made me wonder: who else has weighed in on the subject since Zicree’s book came out? Surely, on the internet, there must be a plethora of kibitizing on the subject of beloved (or hated) Twilight Zones. And of course, there is.
There are on-line polls where fans can vote for a favorite episode, and forums and websites where they can explain their choices. The Twilight Zone Cafe is a website devoted entirely to Zone chatter, with a thread for every episode and surveys to determine the best and worst of them. Today, to mark the anniversary, the New York Times got into the act, accruing 172 reader responses within eight hours. (Note that, just as the Times’s blogger predicted, only two reader comments were submitted before someone listed an Outer Limits and an Alfred Hitchcock Hour among their favorite Twilight Zones!) Even Facebook, a Twilight Zone-worthy concept if ever there was one, contains a page devoted to the topic. The discussions on these sites sometimes reflect fuzzy memories and unsophisticated ideas, but the affection that viewers continue to express for The Twilight Zone is awe-inspiring.
For a number of reasons, I tend to view the Internet Movie Database’s user ratings with skepticism. But I noticed that for most Twilight Zones, unlike episodes of many other TV series, the IMDb has recorded more than 150 votes. Perhaps that’s enough to constitute a valid statistical sample, even in the absence of any transparency as to how the system works. Most of the Zones fall within a fairly narrow numerical range on the IMDb’s ten-star scale. If an episode scores over a 9.0, it’s a masterpiece. Under a 7.0, and the public can be envisioned as holding its collective nose.
In general, the scores are predictable, although after studying them for a while I noticed one intriguing anomaly. Twilight Zones that turn on an especially clever twist ending skew higher than episodes that instead emphasize character or mood. Fair enough, you may be thinking, surprise endings are what The Twilight Zone is all about – until I point out that IMDb users rank “The Shelter” (8.4), “Printer’s Devil” (8.3), and “The Masks” (8.3) above “Walking Distance” (8.0). Now that’s what I’d call a twist! I think I’ve found more evidence for my pet theory that American audiences take comfort in clever plotting to the exclusion of all else.
As I mentioned before, thumbing through The Twilight Zone Companion – and now, surfing through all those Zone outposts on the internet – brings out the contrarian in me. I always feel like slaughtering a few of the sacred cows in the Twilight Zone’s pens, and sticking up for the underdogs in that fifth-dimensional kennel. I could easily compile a list of both species. But since we’re celebrating an anniversary, I’m going to focus on the positive.
Here, then, are thirteen episodes (presented in chronological order) that I think have slipped through the cracks. These aren’t my personal favorites, which are probably about the same as everybody else’s. They’re the Twilight Zone’s red-headed stepchildren, the ones that haven’t received quite as much love as they deserve from audiences and critics.
1. “The Lonely” (November 13, 1959) Arguably somewhat underappreciated amid the bounty of the early episodes, this is The Twilight Zone’s greatest tragic romance. Jack Warden creates one of his most touching everymen, and the location shooting (an increasing rarity as the series wore on) turns Death Valley into a visceral hell-on-an-asteroid. The final twist may play as contrived, but the power of Serling’s writing is not in that punchline but in the earlier, emotional double-reversal (Warden hates the robot girl, then can’t bear to part with her), which has rarely been executed so skillfully within the confines of a half-hour teleplay.
2. “A World of His Own” (July 1, 1960) Deliberately slight, this budget-friendly bottle show casts Keenan Wynn as an urbane Walter Mitty-ish writer who solves his Betty-or-Veronica dilemma with the help of an enchanted dictaphone. Ending season one with a throwaway gag was a bold, unexpected move, and to overpraise it would miss the point. But Richard Matheson’s droll script resounds with an intricate verbal wit that still sounds fresh and unusual within The Twilight Zone, mainly because it was a mode in which Serling (though he seems to have vaguely inspired Wynn’s character) could not write.
3. “Twenty-Two” (February 10, 1961) A polarizer. Some fans find it shrill and obvious, including Zicree, who calls it “not one of the more shining examples of The Twilight Zone.” Others will delight in seeing comedienne Barbara Nichols pull off a straight dramatic lead, and appreciate the repeated wallop of the spooky stewardess’s refrain (“Room for one more, honey”: for my money the connoisseur’s “It’s a cookbook!”) The smeary imagery enhances the nightmarish quality of the story, making this the only episode to actually benefit from the second-season humiliation of videotape.
4. “The Odyssey of Flight 33” (February 24, 1961) Horror in the lowest key. Armed with technical advice from his airline-pilot brother, Serling crafts a deliciously slow-building atmosphere of terror out of nothing but flight-crew jargon and offscreen space. Naturally, some find that “boring.” As in “Little Girl Lost” (also undervalued), there’s an appealing purity to the contest between concerted rationalism and the batshit inexplicable. The casting of non-star underplayers completes the formula (one show-off in the cockpit would have ruined the big reveal), and the uneasy ending provides even less closure than usual.
5. “The Rip Van Winkle Caper” (April 21, 1961) There’s something seedy and harsh about this nasty little futurist neo-noir, with its second-rate cast and its jerky narrative, stitched together by a rare intermediate Serling narration. But The Twilight Zone was entitled to – even enriched by – a few tawdry little B-movies to bottom-half a double bill with A-stories like “Walking Distance.” (See also: “Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up,” another great shaggy-dog story that irritates a certain segment of the fans.) The final twist is half-gotcha, half-groaner, but its mean-spiritedness is just right for this “Caper”’s ugly anti-heroes.
6. “Two” (September 15, 1961) A sentimental favorite. Perhaps the spectacle of two future superstars making googly-eyes at each other across a rubble-strewn MGM backlot contains an element of camp that has kept this one off too many of the all-time favorite lists. But giving Charles Bronson all the dialogue and making Elizabeth Montgomery, everyone’s favorite motormouthed sorceress, act with her orbs, is irresistible against-type casting (at least in hindsight). Plus, settling the Cold War after it’s too late for all but two of us to care is pure Serling.
7. “The Hunt” (January 26, 1962) Earl Hamner, Jr., was The Twilight Zone’s most underappreciated writer; he belongs in the “Big Four” in place of the overrated George Clayton Johnson. Nestled at the heart of this script, which plays like a supernatural episode of The Waltons, is the lovely conceit of a man who turns his back on heaven because St. Peter won’t let his dog in, too. Some of the execution can be faulted, especially the awkward shifts between locations and faux-exterior sets, but I find Arthur Hunnicutt’s sad-eyed performance (which Zicree sees as “leaden . . . and with no range”) straightforward and moving.
8. “I Sing the Body Electric” (May 18, 1962) This respectable Ray Bradbury adaptation has one magical scene, in which three newly orphaned children play Mr. Potato Head at the robot factory and come up with adorable uber-granny Josephine Hutchinson. The remainder is perhaps not all it could be, but “I Sing the Body Electric” certainly doesn’t fail spectacularly enough to earn the contempt that some fans have heaped upon it; perhaps Zicree jinxed it by reporting the episode’s extensive production problems, and Bradbury’s negative reaction. To those who find it saccharine, I ask: have you seen that ostensible classic “Kick the Can” (or as I like to call it, “Pass the Bucket”) lately?
9. “Jess-Belle” (February 14, 1963) By a wide margin the best of the hour-long Twilight Zones, “Jess-Belle” uses the added length to create an authentic sense of place (Hamner’s beloved Blue Ridge Mountains) and mood (a morose fatalism expressed in the performances, the music, and the folk-tune that replaces Serling’s closing remarks). Instead of the usual high-concept twists, “Jess-Belle”’s strangeness manifests in the form of a subterranean sensuality – the animal transformations as an expression of repressed desire; the leering flirtatiousness in Jeanette Nolan’s startling turn as the old witch – that’s atypical both for The Twilight Zone and among Hamner’s catalog of folksy backwoods stories.
10. “The Bard” (May 23, 1963) And you thought the modern-day-imbecile-hooks-up-with-historical-genius fantasy genre began with Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. But – no. Granted, the TV-industry satire trotted out here is in no danger of dislodging Network from its pedestal. But Serling’s only funny comedy mines more laughs than expected out of a time-traveling Bill Shakespeare, and Burt Reynolds’s side-splitting evisceration of Brando may still be his best performance.
11. “You Drive” (January 3, 1964) Edward Andrews, occupying a rare and welcome leading role, exudes maximum smarm in this Duel precursor about an unrepentant hit-and-runner whose car meets out justice. It’s a one-idea premise, but director John Brahm executes the driverless car effects so cleverly that nothing more is needed. Modern cinema abounds with tales in which our cars want to kill us (The Car) or fuck us (Crash) or both (Christine). But can anyone think of an earlier version of this technophobic meta-narrative than “You Drive”?
12. “Black Leather Jackets” (January 31, 1964) Associations with schlocky fifties juvenile delinquency films have unfairly shivved the reputation of this alien biker gang saga. Maybe Lee Kinsolving and Shelley Fabares don’t quite sell the teen angst, but I love the sheriff (a creepy, pre-Hill Street Michael Conrad) and the all-seeing, Mabusean video device: even before the space hoodlums arrive in their titular garb, humanity is already doomed. “Jackets” channels McCarthyism, but it also looks ahead to the free-floating, anyone-could-be-an-alien paranoia of The Invaders and The X-Files.
13. “Come Wander With Me” (May 22, 1964) Everyone points out, correctly, that this star-crossed backwoods romance makes no sense. And you were expecting what in the Twilight Zone? One viewer’s nonsense is another’s surrealism, and here the narrative incoherence recedes as the claustrophobic soundstage-exterior sets (which sabotaged other episodes) give the proceedings a unique, otherworldly feel. Bonnie Beecher and Gary Crosby were non-entities, but they’re just right for the material: Beecher, who hung out with Dylan and married Wavy Gravy, looks as if she has strummed a guitar barefoot before; and Crosby, always diffident and uneasy on screen, must have felt comfortably in his father’s shadow as “Come Wander With Me”’s folkie-poseur.
Now, which episodes do you think are underrated . . . or overrated?