Wednesday, October 2, 2013

21 Underrated Episodes of “The Twilight Zone” You Need to Watch Now!

“Time Enough at Last”… “The Eye of the Beholder” … “To Serve Man” … “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street” … “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”…

You don’t have to be a “Twilight Zone” freak to be familiar with every twist and turn these episodes take. They are among the 35 or 40 shows that have found a place in Rod Serling’s canon of classics. But what of the other 120-something episodes? Surely there are a few should-have-been-classics in that bunch.

There are, and the following episodes may be good next steps to take after watching “The Howling Man,” “The After Hours,” “Walking Distance,” and the others that have found permanent places in annual “Twilight Zone” marathons or have been parodied on “The Simpsons.” So I now submit for your approval 21 Underrated Episodes of “The Twilight Zone” You Need to Watch Now! 

(Read cautiously... here there be spoilers)

1. “The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine”

With the fourth episode of his series, Rod Serling gave Sunset Boulevard a supernatural twist. Like Gloria Swanson, Ida Lupino was a Hollywood Star of yesteryear cast as a Hollywood star of yesteryear pining for her lost fame. Also like Swanson’s Norma Desmond, Lupino’s Barbara Jean Trenton spends her days watching her own old films in her cavernous Hollywood mansion in a secluded funk. “The Twilight Zone” was still finding its way when “The Sixteen Millimeter Shrine” aired, and the next show, “Walking Distance,” would be the first genuine classic. The twist of “Sixteen-Millimeter” may be a bit predictable, but it still offers a transcendent resolution to the melancholic twenty minutes that precede it. Lupino brings affecting pathos to Barbara Jean Trenton. Following her own acting hey day, Lupino became one of the first significant female directors of the sound-film era, and she’d work her magic on “The Masks,” one of the last great “TZ” episodes.

2. “The Lonely”

With episode six, “Escape Clause,” Rod Serling pulled a classic “Twilight Zone” trick for the first time: he royally screws one of his characters. However, Walter Bedeker is such an unlikable sod that we don’t care too much. With “The Lonely,” Serling uses the same stunt but to much crueler effect. He establishes Jack Warden’s intergalactic prisoner Corry as a wholly sympathetic man, sentenced to isolation on a desert planet for some unnamed crime. During a routine supply delivery to the prison planet, the rocket ship captain presents Corry with a special gift: a pretty android intended to make his solitary confinement a little less solitary. Serling’s twist is particularly complex as it tucks shocking tragedy in an ostensibly happy ending. There would be no such happiness in the next episode, “Time Enough at Last,” which took Serling’s sadism to an unprecedented peak.

3. “People Are Alike All Over”

Serling gets more mean-spirited jollies from the plight of an intergalactic traveler when a pair of astronauts travels to Mars. One is Roddy McDowall’s cynical Sam Conrad. The other is Paul Comi’s more hopeful Mark Marcusson, who believes that “people are alike all over.” After Marcusson doesn’t survive the journey, Conrad is given sanctuary by some very accommodating and human-looking Martians. At the shocking conclusion he has the horrifying realization that both he and Marcusson were correct in their philosophies about people. While “People Are Alike All Over” was based on a short story by the prolific sci-fi writer Paul W. Fairman, a more perfect encapsulation of Rod Serling’s own take on humanity is hard to imagine. One can also detect seeds of his Planet of the Apes in “People Are Alike All Over,” which may be the best underrated “Twilight Zone” of season one.

4. “A World of His Own”

The final episode of the first season has its issues. Like too many “Twilight Zones,” Richard Matheson’s “A World of His Own” is grungy with the sexism of its time. Playwright Gregory West develops the ability to wish things into being by merely describing them on his dictation machine. As any paunchy writer who looks like Keenan Wynn probably would, he conjures up a submissive blonde dream girl he names “Mary.” She brings him drinks while calling him “master.” To slightly ameliorate this scene, Gregory refers to Mary as “mistress.”  That he has a wife adds extra meaning to the use of the term, though. Making the relationship extra dicey, he casually makes Mary disappear whenever his wife shows up even though the blonde mistress clearly doesn’t like being wished into the cornfield.

So “A World of His Own” is hardly a perfect “Twilight Zone,” hence it not being rated among the classics. Yet, if you can get past the very 1960-ish gender dynamics, you will find much to enjoy in a tender performance from Keenan Wynn (soon to be seen as the extra-thick Colonel “Bat” Guano in Dr. Strangelove). Wynn makes a character that is clearly an asshole on the page less assholey on the screen. There’s a good twist, too, but best of all are the side tricks Gregory pulls, as when he conjures a real live elephant to prove his ability to his wife and when he makes another writer named Rod Serling appear in his living room. This would be Rod’s only actual role in a “Twilight Zone” story, and he did such a fine job that he would give his opening narration on screen henceforth.

5. “The Lateness of the Hour”

The first great folly of “The Twilight Zone” occurred in season two when CBS schemed to save a few bucks by having six episodes shot on videotape. The experiment was a disaster. Video’s grainy flatness paved over the cinematic clarity and detail that was so crucial to the program’s atmosphere. This was a particular shame considering that two of these episodes, “Night of the Meek” and “Long Distance Call,” are rightly regarded as classics. Serling’s “The Lateness of the Hour” does not share that distinction, though it is a hidden treat for fans of his nastier twists. Inger Stevens’s Jana is a beautiful young woman who should be out on the town and yucking it up with friends similarly in the primes of their lives. Instead she’s a veritable prisoner in her elderly parents’ house where android servants attend to their every need. At the end of her wits, Jana demands her freedom to live a more fulfilling life, to raise a family of her own, which forces mom and dad to make a difficult and horrifying decision. Again, we have a “Twilight Zone” with a somewhat predictable twist, but director Jack Smight executes it so shockingly that it will remain powerful even for those who’d seen it coming for the past twenty minutes. It almost doesn’t matter that the video presentation looks like shit.

6. “The Prime Mover”

There’s so much “The Twilight Zone” did exceptionally: establishing a crushing sense of dread, sucker-punching expectations with last-minute twists, giving Burgess Meredith work. Comedy, however, was not always its strong point. Season two’s “A Penny for Your Thoughts” and “Will the Real Martian Stand Up?” are probably the only overtly comedic episodes to achieve classic status. In between them fell a less-celebrated comedic episode called “The Prime Mover.” Buddy Ebsen plays a telekinetic schlub who goes to Vegas with his opportunist buddy to score big. Ebsen’s understated performance is the greatest pleasure of this light-hearted show with a Charles Beaumont script (based on an unpublished story by fellow “TZ” traveler George Clayton Johnson) a lot more humane than Serling’s usual fare. Dane Cook is very worthy of mention too as the fast-talking Ace Larsen. Ace’s arch is further evidence of Beaumont and Johnson’s compassion. “The Prime Mover” is not as funny as “A Penny for Your Thoughts” or as wild as “Will the Real Martian,” but as a rare example of warmth in “The Twilight Zone,” it’s aces.

7. “The Mind and the Matter”

Many a “Twilight Zone” character has been horrified to find himself to be the only man on Earth. Archibald Beechcroft has the opposite problem. A misanthrope adrift in the overpopulated city, he’d like nothing better than to be a population of one. Of course, he gets his wish in “The Twilight Zone,” and of course, he quickly comes to regret it. Beechcroft’s attempts to make his new life livable get more and more absurd until he creates a world populated by various versions of himself that must have influenced the funniest scene in Being John Malkovich (though the special effects in Spike Jones’s movie are a wee bit better). Comedian Shelley Berman, whom modern audiences may know best as Larry David’s dad on “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” doesn’t necessarily make Beechcroft likable, but he does make him a lot of fun to watch.

8. “The Grave”

When it aimed for chills, “The Twilight Zone” was so scary because it was so succinct. Brevity similarly accounts for the effectiveness of campfire ghost stories, so it is appropriate that a story his father told him as a boy inspired Montgomery Pittman to write one of the show’s creepiest half hours. In “The Grave” a bunch of bar flies dare a boastful gunman to stab his knife into the grave of Pinto Sykes, the slain outlaw he was hunting. The catch: Pinto vowed to pop out of his grave and grab the gunman if he ever dared cross his grave. Pittman, who also directed, crafts the climactic showdown at the grave with full-on Halloweeny atmosphere rich with crying winds, skeletal trees, and that crushing sense of dread I mentioned above. So it too was appropriate that “The Grave” aired a few nights before Halloween 1961. The cast is great too, with Lee Marvin playing the gunman, Stafford “Police Chief O’Hara” Repp as the bartender, and James Best, Strother Martin, and Lee Van Cleef as the bar flies. The less well-known Elen Willard chews up the spooky scenery as Pinto’s crazy sister.

9. “Once Upon a Time”

“The Twilight Zone” gained some pretty serious comedic credentials when Buster Keaton starred in “Once Upon a Time.” Keaton plays a janitor in over-priced (seventeen cents for a sirloin steak?), over-technological (you could kill someone on one of those penny-farthing bikes!) 1890. He steals a time-travel helmet to transport himself out of that era of insanity and ends up in 1960 when, of course, prices and technology just drive him crazier… which only make this amusing episode more amusing for modern audiences that would kill to pay $1.49 for a sirloin steak. The humor in Richard Matheson’s script is a bit obvious, but Keaton elevates it with legendary abilities still strong at age 66. “Once Upon a Time” is also special for the 1890 scenes created in homage to Keaton’s silent films. As well as doing away with sound and using title cards, which even give voice to pigs and chickens, the producers reproduced the jumpy look of silent movies by cutting out every third frame of film.

10. “The Last Rites of Jeff Myrtlebank”

Airing later in season three, “The Last Rites of Jeff Myrtlebank” is almost a companion piece to “The Grave.” Another old-west horror story by Montgomery Pittman featuring James Best, “The Last Rites” differs from its predecessor in its jokier tone. Best is the title dude, who like Pinto Sykes, just won’t stay dead. Unlike Pinto, Jeff doesn’t wait until the denouement to return. This episode begins with his funeral and his most surprising resurrection. The show then plays out as a sort of comedy of manners, as the folks who so mourned Jeff at his funeral suddenly can’t hide their revulsion and terror upon his unnatural return. “The Last Rites of Jeff Myrtlebank” is a fun stab at hypocrisy and a nice vehicle for the charming Best, who hasn’t made his last appearance on this list.

11. “The Fugitive”

A couple of episodes later, Charles Beaumont gave us a delightful fantasy called “The Fugitive.” A shape-shifting alien is on the run from denizens of his home planet. Taking the name Old Ben and the kindly appearance of J. Pat O’Malley, the alien hides out in the home of an imaginative little girl and her crotchety, skeptical aunt. Who the alien is and why he is being pursued is one of the series’ more unpredictable twists, not least of all because it manages to make the marriage of a 12-year-old girl to a guy who spends most of the episode looking like a 57-year-old man totally not creepy.

12. “The Trade-Ins”

Rod Serling doesn’t allow himself to succumb to his cynical impulses with “The Trade Ins.” In the future, an elderly couple has the option of trading in their decrepit bodies for young, strong ones. The problem is that they only have enough bread for one. We think Serling is going to go his usual route near the climax of the story, but he gives us a double-twist that makes “The Trade-Ins” one of his most humane episodes. If you find yourself a bit down after watching Charles Beaumont’s classic “Number Twelve Looks Just Like You,” watching “The Trade-Ins” is a good way to fix your mood.

13. “The Changing of the Guard”

Season three ends with another unusual wave of warmth, though we have to wade through some pretty dark stuff to get to it. On the precipice of his forced retirement, English lit professor Ellis Fowler considers blowing his brains out…on Christmas Eve, no less! With the help of some ghosts of students past, Ellis sees the worth of his life with intense poignancy. Much of that poignancy flows from Donald Pleasence’s wonderful portrayal of Ellis. He makes “The Changing of the Guard” a great episode despite Serling’s slightly saccharine script and some fairly unconvincing old-age make up.

14. “Death Ship”

When Rod Serling first conceived “The Twilight Zone,” he intended it to be a 60-minute series. CBS shot the idea down, and the creator was left with the 30-minute show most people know. For years, many “TZ” fans had no idea that Serling got his wish in season four, because those oversized episodes were kept out of syndication. The hour-long shows of season four are also obscure because the length didn’t really work. As stated above, the genius of “The Twilight Zone” had a lot to do with its brevity: set up a situation, develop it a bit, toss in a twist, and get out. Consequently, a lot of the 60-minute shows feel flabby. The best of them play down the formula and play out as mini-movies (that particularly holds true for the next episode on this list).

As for Richard Matheson’s “Death Ship,” there’s still a twist, but the plot zig-zags so much leading up to it that by the time it arrives, and we know that the crew of a spaceship is either dead or they aren’t, it doesn’t matter that much. What matters is the eeriness of the crew’s discovery of a crashed ship identical to theirs— populated by corpses identical to themselves. They do not know if they are witnessing a portent of the future or a mirror of the present, which means they don’t know how to undo what they assume is their own inevitable deaths. “Death Ship” is a grim, churning, depressing episode. It also contains one of the series’ most heartrending scenes when one of the astronauts leaves his body for an impromptu family reunion. For that one incredible scene alone “Death Ship” would rate among the series’ greatest episodes.

 15. “Jess-Belle”

And here writer Earl Hamner, Jr., and director Buzz Kulik deliver what may be the most a-typical “Twilight Zone” of all. There’s no twist. There’s not even the usual closing narration from Rod Serling. When I first came across “Jess-Belle” on television, having missed the opening minutes, I had no idea I was even watching “The Twilight Zone” until the final credits. Yet this is also one of the series’ very best, and my personal favorite of them all, because it is a beautifully realized piece of work on every conceivable level. Hamner’s script about a jealous witch is rich in wordplay and built upon villains as sympathetic and just plain likable as the heroes. The acting is wonderful right down the line, with Anne Francis breaking hearts as the heart-broken title witch, James Best exuding his usual charisma spiced with palpable conflict as the man she loves, and Laura Devon perfectly conveying pain and reluctant understanding as the third point in that romantic triangle. However, Jeanette Nolan as Granny Hart, the old witch who fulfills Jess-Belle’s wish to win her man’s heart, steals the show. Nolan seems like she’s having the greatest fun of her career yodeling a creepy tune over her cauldron one moment and goading Jess to give her beau “a witch’s love” with jolly aplomb the next. Kulik films the show more like James Whale than the usual small screen director, complete with Whale’s mastery of shadow, pathos, and humor. Granny Hart’s instantaneous transformation from a bedraggled hag to a very presentable lady is an especially clever touch. Because it is so atypical of the series, “Jess-Belle” is a poor representative of “The Twilight Zone,” so it may have fallen through the cracks even if it had been chopped in half and aired in another season. But taken on its own merits as a funny, creepy, romantic, and quite sad hour of television, it is one of the very, very best.

16. “Miniature”

For two decades, “Miniature” was the most obscure episode of obscure season four. That’s because it was wrapped up in a plagiarism suit, though by all accounts, this script was the sole work of Charles Beaumont. With “Miniature,” Beaumont created his most touching “Twilight Zone.” Robert Duvall stars as a loner who falls in love with a tiny doll living in a tiny dollhouse at his local museum. When no one else is looking, the doll comes alive. As Duvall falls harder and harder for the doll, his behavior seems weirder and weirder to the outside world. Choosing fantasy instead of reality is a classic “Twilight Zone” theme, and one that Beaumont had also explored in “The Fugitive.” Like that season three show, “Miniature” is a low-key, unusually warm “Twilight Zone” that resolves with a most unusual romance. It’s lovely.

17. “Printer’s Devil”

For his last visit to “The Twilight Zone” Burgess Meredith took a serious u-turn away from nice-guy type to play the baddest cat of all. In Charles Beaumont’s adaptation of his own story “The Devil, You Say?” Meredith plays a twisted-cigar gnawing Satan. He helps revive a flailing newspaper for the requisite steep price. This is fairly run-of-the-mill “deal with the devil” stuff. What elevates it beyond the beyond is Meredith’s absolutely delightful and delighted Devil. He doesn’t just revel in his supernatural abilities to light his stogie with a flick of his fingers or set off a string of disasters on slow news days; he seems to really enjoy working the printing press! Perhaps Meredith’s presence has helped lift the status of “Printer’s Devil” slightly above its fourth season mates, making it perhaps the best-known episode of that underrated season. It still isn’t quite regarded as a classic, though the star’s villainous turn makes “Printer’s Devil” most deserving of viewing. It may have also been responsible for Meredith’s casting as the villainous Penguin on “Batman” just three years later.

18. “The New Exhibit”

There are a lot of scary episodes of “The Twilight Zone,” but few qualify as full-blooded horror. Charles Beaumont and Jerry Sohl’s “The New Exhibit” is one of those rare exceptions. It gets started in a classic horror setting: a wax museum. Finding the museum on the verge of demolition, the care-taker claims ownership of five figures: the murderers Albert W. Hicks, Henri Désiré Landru, William Burke, William, Hare, and Jack the Ripper. Martin the caretaker makes his basement over as a new home for his creepy charges, and becomes unhealthily obsessed with maintaining them. This being “The Twilight Zone,” it’s just a matter of time before these lifeless exhibits start displaying the antisocial behavior of the real men after whom they were molded. Director George T. Clemens makes the crucial error of actually showing the wax figures move, which erases any tantalizing ambiguity regarding whether they are real monsters or are only killers in Martin’s mind. Nevertheless, “The New Exhibit” is one of the creepiest episodes, and Psycho co-star Martin Balsam makes Martin one of the eeriest oddballs to ever take residence in “The Twilight Zone.”

19. “In Praise of Pip”

As we’ve seen, season four produced a fair share of strong episodes, but the hour-long experiment was ultimately a failure. Season five returned “The Twilight Zone” to its more complimentary half-hour format. However, with 120 episodes now under its twilight belt, the show was definitely looking a bit long in the tooth. There were still several classics in store— “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” “Living Doll,” “Number Twelve Looks Just Like You,” “Night Call,” “The Masks” —but the most classic days were most definitely in the past. The same could be said of season five’s underrated shows. There are precious few, though the season did kick off with one of the most underrated episodes of the entire series. Alongside Burgess Meredith, Jack Klugman was the most frequent repeat star in “The Twilight Zone.” As the drunken bookie of “In Praise of Pip,” he gave his finest performance, and quite possibly, the finest performance ever given in Serling’s netherworld. After receiving a telegram that his son is dying in Vietnam, Klugman’s Max Phillips encounters his boy back in the States… where Pip is just a little kid again. Max’s receipt of the telegram plunges the knife in your chest. His encounter with little Pip cuts your heart out, making for the most emotionally wrenching episode of “The Twilight Zone.”

20. “The Jeopardy Room”

Just eight episodes away from the end, “The Jeopardy Room” fiddles with the established “TZ” formula a bit, doing away with all supernatural weirdness. As a result, it plays out more like an installment of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” than “The Twilight Zone.” Serling’s show is still an excellent half-hour of twisty TV. Martin Landau plays Ivan Kuchenko, a KGB agent attempting to defect. Kuchenko finds himself trapped in a hotel room where a bomb threatens to put a messy end to his defection. A sweaty-palmed thriller ensues with Landau handling what is largely a one-man show with the brilliance he’d so often display after becoming a star. Another pre-fame fellow helps make “The Jeopardy Room” a high-quality episode: Richard Donner directs.

21. “Mr. Garrity and the Graves”

Down to the final five episodes, Serling handed in his last exceptional script. “Mr. Garrity and the Graves” is stuffed with so much of what made the greatest episodes great. It mixes genres (horror and western) and tones (scary and funny). It is wittily written and well acted and director Ted Post realizes it with shadowy atmosphere. John Dehner plays Jared Garrity, a conman who guarantees the members of a small community he can bring their deceased loved ones back to life. It all builds to a scene that may have made a strong impression on young George Romero. If it did, Romero is in the minority since “Mr. Garrity and the Graves” is so rarely mentioned in discussions of “The Twilight Zone”… just like the other fine episodes on this list. 

"The Twilight Zone" premiered 54 years ago today.
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