Sunday, July 25, 2010

September 28, 2009: 50 Years of “The Twilight Zone”

On this coming Friday in 1959, at 10:00 PM Eastern Time, on the CBS network, “The Twilight Zone” debuted, and television was changed forever. By far the smartest series to enjoy a successful run on American television at that point in the medium’s brief history, “The Twilight Zone” sharpened the suspense anthology series already introduced by “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” and “One Step Beyond” immeasurably. Episodes of those two pioneering programs tended to be heavy on the flab, light on the satisfying conclusions, and weak in the directorial department (except, of course, when Hitchcock was at the helm). “The Twilight Zone” certainly had its share of weak episodes, but the great ones were dazzling unions of cinematic direction, masterful acting, and well-paced, pointed scripts (with the occasional mind-blowing resolution).

Although Rod Serling constantly protested that he never intended to use “The Twilight Zone” as a platform for social commentary, I find it hard to believe that this very smart fellow didn’t realize that a supernatural program could be a cagey Trojan Horse in which he could smuggle storylines about racism, the insanity of war, the shallowness of consumerism and capitalism, anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, nuclear war, and Fascism onto conservative, late ‘50s/early ‘60s network TV. The political progressiveness of “The Twilight Zone” is just as much of a factor in its deathlessness as the way it could chill one’s bones. I greatly believe that terror is difficult to maintain in lengthy doses, which is why a pithy ghost story is infinitely more frightening than any 900-page Stephen King novel. The creepiest episodes of “The Twilight Zone” had the same concise power to terrorize, and as crude as the show could be in comparison to what can be achieved in modern cinema, I find certain episodes of “The Twilight Zone” to be among the most frightening “movies” I’ve ever seen (just thinking about the denouements of “The Dummy” and “Living Doll” are still enough to send me running for the nightlight). “The Twilight Zone” could also be deeply moving, and while it didn’t always do humor well, there are some neat exceptions, such as “Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up”, “The Mind and the Matter”, and “A Penny for Your Thoughts”. None of these episodes are laugh-out-loud hilarious, but they’re all fine installments for their witty plots and twists.

Whether “The Twilight Zone” intended to be funny or frightening, heart rendering or socially critical, it was almost always innovative, intellectually electrifying entertainment. Very few shows from its era hold up, making the 50th anniversary of “The Twilight Zone” a true landmark to celebrate. I recommend you do so by watching some of your most-loved episodes. If you’re a “Zone” novice, here are my ten personal favorites (in chronological order) to get you started:

1. “Time Enough at Last” (original air date: November 20, 1959)

No matter how many times I see this tragic tale of bookworm Henry Beamish, my heart still breaks for the poor schmuck. This has as much to do with an extraordinary performance by Burgess Meredith as it does with Serling’s outstanding adaptation of Lynn Venable’s story.

2. “The After Hours” (original air date: June 10, 1960)

Sweet and sad, but also really unsettling. That “Marsha! Marsha! Come off it, Marsha!” scene is nightmare material. Anne Francis also has the distinction of being the most compelling actress ever to appear on “The Twilight Zone”.

3. “The Howling Man” (original air date: November 4, 1960)

A wonderful blend of the absurd (those insane brethren with their Moses beards!) and the horrific (Look out! You’ve unleashed Satan!) by Charles Beaumont, one of the Zone’s most prolific and skilled writers.

4. “Eye of the Beholder” (original air date: November 11, 1960)

“Eye of the Beholder” has lost a little power due to its over-reliance on a twist ending, but it will always rate as one of “The Twilight Zone’s” finest moments because of a great co-performance from Maxine Stuart and Donna Douglas, the arresting make-up, and the brilliant way director Douglas Heyes misdirects the viewer.

5. “It’s a Good Life” (original air date: November 3, 1961)

Like anyone needed another reason to find children totally creepy. “It’s a Good Life” is the story of Anthony Fremont, a freckle-faced cutie pie with more power than any child—or adult—should possess. I always wondered why we don’t get a good look at the two-headed gopher Anthony conjures in the beginning of the episode. According to Bill Mumy (who played Anthony) in Martin Grams Jr.’s indispensable book The Twilight Zone: Unlocking the Door to a Television Classic, we may have only gotten to see the gopher’s tale because the creature “was too disgusting and they probably feared repercussion from viewers.” Man oh man, I’ve never wanted to see that gopher as much as I do now.

6. “To Serve Man” (original air date: March 2, 1962)

While its brilliant twist is the greatest legacy of “To Serve Man”, it’s not nearly as disturbing as the image of Richard Kiel with his mouth hanging open as an incongruously amiable voice speaks his dialogue.

7. “The Dummy” (original air date: May 4, 1962)

Nothing is scarier than breaking the fourth wall (i.e.: when a character in a film looks directly into the camera, creating an unexpectedly personal connection with the viewer). This happens in a terrifying way at the conclusion of “The Dummy”, making for one of the most unforgettable moments in “The Twilight Zone”. You may want to forget it, but you won’t.

8. “Jess-Belle” (original air date: February 14, 1963)

One of the few great episodes from the “The Twilight Zone’s” hit-or-miss fourth season in which the show was stretched to an hour-long. There is no shocking twist, socio/political message, or cavalcade of chills in “Jess-Belle”; it’s simply a wonderfully spun yarn with impeccable performances from Anne Francis as the titular heartsick witch, Jeanette Nolan as the self-delighted Granny who bewitched her, and James Best as the object of Jess’s obsession. For its flawless acting, atmosphere, imagination, and pathos, “Jess-Belle” is my favorite episode of “The Twilight Zone”, even though it is so atypical of the series that it’s the only one that does not end with a parting monologue from Serling.

9. “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” (original air date: October 11, 1963)

The gremlin looks like a giant teddy bear with a harelip, so why is that reveal when Bill Shatner pulls aside the curtain still so horrifying? Probably because of the relentless white-knuckle tension that precedes (and follows) the scene.

10. “Living Doll” (original air date: November 1, 1963)

Tell Savalas goes toe-to-toe with Talky Tina. The final moments of this episode are among the most frightening in the “Twilight Zone” canon. I’m sure the decision to use slow motion was a means of stretching out the sequence to fit Serling’s narration, but it really contributes to the queasily disturbing atmosphere. “Living Doll” is “The Twilight Zone” at its most terrifying, which means it’s TV at its most terrifying.

For those who are a bit more “Twilight Zone” savvy, here are 5 of the most underrated episodes.

1. “The Lateness of the Hour” (original air date: December 12, 1960)

During the second season, the Powers That Be at CBS tried to save cash by having the TZ crew film six episodes on inexpensive video rather than film. Serling was adamantly opposed, but he relented. The experiment was an absolute failure. Grainy, flat video did nothing to convey the rich, shadowy atmosphere that made “The Twilight Zone” an aesthetic triumph as well as a triumph of storytelling. This was particularly unfortunate considering that a few truly fine stories were captured in this subpar format, including “The Lateness of the Hour”, a creepy story about a wealthy inventor who populates his home with robot servants. The ending is a bit predictable (especially if you’re familiar with the standard “Twilight Zone” 9th-inning twist), but it is handled in a way that still makes it shocking with each subsequent viewing.

2. “The Prime Mover” (original air date: March, 24 1961)

One of the better humorous episodes, “The Prime Mover” stars Buddy Ebsen of “The Beverly Hillbillies” as a barback who develops telekinetic powers after getting zapped by a fallen power line. His asshole boss then schemes to exploit Ebsen’s newfound abilities by taking him to Vegas to ace the craps tables. The piece is terrific because Ebsen brings a nice mixture of selfless agreeability and conscience to his performance, so it’s a real pleasure when he gets the last laugh.

3. “Long Distance Call” (original air date: March 31, 1961)

The crew seemed to be getting a better handle on their video equipment by the time they shot “Long Distance Call”, because it looks better than the other episodes shot on tape. But this is yet another show that derives its power more from story than presentation. On his way to being typecast as a creepy kid, Billy Mumy plays a little boy whose grandmother gives him a toy telephone for his birthday. After Grandma croaks, she and her grandson start chatting on the phony phone. The premise and Mumy’s performance would make this one of the more unsettling “Twilight Zone” episodes on their own, but when coupled with the truly fucked-up things Granny says during their conversations, you have one of the most demented 30 minutes of television ever aired.

4. “Printer’s Devil” (original air date: February 28, 1963)

Burgess Meredith was an actor so integral to “The Twilight Zone” (he starred in a record four episodes) that when Steven Spielberg produced Twilight Zone: The Movie in 1983, he was chosen to succeed the late Rod Serling as narrator. Hardly as well-remembered as “Time Enough at Last”, “Printer’s Devil” is a hidden treat for Meredith fans, who had come to love him for his good-natured, everyman characters. But here he is as cast as the villain—in fact, he is cast as the ultimate villain: Satan. Shades of his future work as The Penguin on the “Batman” series peep through as Meredith helps a flailing newspaper owner get back in business by creating sensational headlines (“HIGH SCHOOL PRINCIPAL EXPOSED AS BIGAMIST!”). Another great episode from the 60-minute “Twilight Zone”.

5. “On Thursday We Leave for Home” (original air date: March 2, 1963)

Here’s another hour-long “Zone”, and it’s the one that Serling said was the only “really effective show” in the extended format. He was being more than a bit unfair to other excellent episodes, such as the aforementioned “Jess-Belle” and “Printer’s Devil”, as well as “Miniature”, and “The Incredible World of Horace Ford”, but there’s no mystery about why he singled out “On Thursday We Leave for Home” (aside from the fact that he wrote it). Thirty years before the show begins, a spaceship crashed on a barren planet with two suns and the ship’s captain is tasked with maintaining order among the survivors, none of whom remember Earth. As the throng grows mutinous, the Captain fears his control over them may be in jeopardy. “On Thursday We Leave for Home” is classic “Twilight Zone” in its delivery of a moral message, its slow-mounting tension, and its chilling conclusion. A forgotten episode that deserves to be remembered among the classics.
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