With neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville and Boston, a President who grows more insane by the day, and a peninsular totalitarian state finally creating successful nuclear weapons, it’s time to have another look at possibly the most influential dramatic TV series of all time, Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone.
Created as a response to his dissatisfaction with having his politically-heavy, current-events themed scripts censored by network executives, The Twilight Zone allowed Serling, as well as noted fantasy/sci-fi writers Charles Beaumont (The 7 Faces of Dr. Lao), Richard Matheson (the novel I Am Legend) and George Clayton Johnson (Logan’s Run) the opportunity to tell stories about the turbulent 1960s using monsters and aliens, but always reminding the audience that the greatest enemy is ourselves. This unique blend of fantasy and commentary influenced many of TV's greatest writers, including JJ Abrams, Vince Gilligan, and George R.R. Martin, who, before writing the fantasy novels which made him famous, penned scripts for the 1980s Twilight Zone reboot.
Though he dismissed his work towards the end of his life as having been only “momentarily adequate,” Rod Serling’s writing (along with the other writers mentioned above) has had a lasting power that has certainly informed my generation’s values and artistic sensibilities, and will do so for the generation below me, as long as there’s still Netflix and biannual SyFy channel marathons of the show. Here’s a list of ten episodes, all streamable on Netflix, that stand as a testimony to what Serling, his writers, and the cast and crew created, why they’ve lasted, and how they speak to this fraught moment in our society:
“Walking Distance” (season one)
J.J. Abrams’s favorite episode, “Walking Distance” tells of ad executive Martin Sloan (Gig Young), who visits his hometown of Homewood and realizes he’s gone back in time to when he was eleven years old. While there, he realizes that he cannot recapture the past, as he causes more damage to his younger self than good. Like Emily Webb in the shattering third act of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, Sloan realizes that reliving the past brings more pain than it’s worth, feeling that he has lost his innocence living in the big city. Serling’s beautiful writing speaks to our innate need to go home again, and the crushing realization that, when we do, it’s never what it once was. As we become obsessed in our culture with “rebooting” old properties, we become trapped by the past, forgetting to create new memories to cherish years later. “Walking Distance” captures that paradox beautifully, and remains one of the most beloved episodes of the original series. Bonus points for Bernard Herrmann’s crushing score, which stands with his finest film compositions.
“Time Enough at Last” (season one)
Shunned bookworm Henry Bemis (a pre-Rocky Burgess Meredith) finally gets everything he ever wanted when he becomes the lone survivor of a nuclear holocaust and comes across an abandoned library, only to have his glasses break. The ending is so famous that it overshadows the rest of this darkly humorous episode, where everyone surrounding Bemis, including his wife, are so heartless. If we had to deal with those people, we’d want to take solace in reading too! But, as with many episodes, Serling reminds us that while solitude may be desirable, it isn’t enviable, as Bemis finds out for himself in the rubble of a nuclear wasteland. Even if you haven't seen this one, you've seen it parodied in popular culture numerous times.
“The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” (season one)
Serling’s indictment of the McCarthy era, this episode works as a commentary on any moment in our history when people are manipulated to turn against each other. As a neighborhood witnesses a power failure that leaves all their machines powerless, except for some that mysteriously start and stop, they begin to suspect the worst of one another, believing that those whose cars and lawnmowers work could be aliens. The episode portrays how easy it is to manipulate mass opinion against another person, as people are accused of “staring at the sky” during the night, or working in the basement on something they’ve never seen. By the end, when chaos breaks as the mob finally turns against itself, we see how any time people are quick to condemn each other, the results are always the same. This is a work that should be taught in high schools alongside Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.
“The Big Tall Wish” (season one)
This sweet story about a down-on-his-luck boxer and his surrogate son who believes in wishes is not one of the series’ more famous installments, but a noteworthy one for casting black actors in a story where their race is secondary to the plot. Playing boxer Bolie Jackson is Ivan Dixon, one of the original cast members of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, and he gives a poignant performance as a man who is too bruised to believe in wishes. Stephen Perry, the young boy who makes “the big tall wish” for him to win the match, is free of sentimentality, and his scenes with Dixon play beautifully. It’s for episodes like this that the series won a Unity Award for Outstanding Contributions to Better Race Relations, and white writers who seek to write believable black characters would do well to look at it.
“The Eye of the Beholder” (season two)
This story of an “ugly” woman wrapped in surgical bandages after an operation who longs to be “beautiful” features one of the series’ most famous reveals – that she’s actually beautiful by our standards, and all the “normal” people are actually ugly. Although people who’ve never seen the episode before can see this twist coming, it’s still a beautifully directed, shot, and scored moment. What makes the episode such a classic today is not just it’s commentary on our standards of beauty, but the fact that it’s set in a totalitarian state where, during the main character’s breakdown, the “Leader” gives a televised address preaching conformity and unity. This theme of people losing their individuality would come back in another equally effective episode, season 5’s “Number 12 Looks Just Like You.”
“The Obsolete Man” (season two)
Burgess Meredith returns as religious librarian Romney Wordsworth, a citizen of a totalitarian state where both books and religion have been banned. The state, led by a vicious Chancellor, declares him obsolete and sentences him to death, but he has an ace up his sleeve when he invites the Chancellor to witness his execution. The concept of an anti-intellectual state who makes enemies out of the learned is something we have seen repeat itself all throughout history, as intellectuals are always targeted by any dictatorship, and while it hasn’t happened here quite yet, it no doubt terrifies me that it could, given the illiteracy of Trump’s voters. The austere, Kafkaesque atmosphere of the episode has been a huge influence on my artistic work, especially the ending, a chilling turn which I won’t reveal here. I had a serious nerd-gasm a few years ago when I met Fritz Weaver, the actor who played the Chancellor, at a party and told him how much I loved his work in it. He snapped right back into character and said to me, “You are an obsolete man!”
“Two” (season three)
This episode, the only one not on my list by Serling, was written and directed by Montgomery Pittman, who did two other episodes in season three. This is my favorite of them, a near-silent love story about two soldiers left after World War Three, an American (Charles Bronson) and a Russian (Elizabeth Montgomery), who must overcome their hostilities in a barren world. I'm a huge Bronson fan, and this is one of his first big roles after he broke out in The Magnificent Seven. As in his best work, he conveys a deep sensitivity and compassion towards Montgomery's Russian, who only has one line. As it stretched on, The Twilight Zone could get sidetracked by portentousness and sentimentality, but not in this case.
“Deaths-Head Revisited” (season three)
One of my top five episodes, “Deaths-Head Revisited” represents the form of dramatic storytelling I love most: two characters with diametrically opposing views having at it. This one takes place in the ruins of the Dachau Concentration Camp, where former Captain Lutze has come back to revisit the good old days, when he was an SS Officer tormenting the Jewish prisoners. He is greeted by a former inmate, Becker, played by Joseph Schildkraut, who rips away his nostalgia and forces him to confront the horrors he perpetrated head on. Schildkraut's performance, is remarkable for its stillness - he barely moves his arms or raises his voice - but through the sheer strength of Serling's writing, he embodies the voice of the six million. Oscar Beregi, as Lutze, is a villain you love to hate, and seeing him get his just deserts is both satisfying and horrifying, as we realize just how horrific his actions were. Serling’s closing narration is a moving testament to why all the camps must be left standing.
“It’s a Good Life” (season three)
Another episode whose premise has become part of popular culture, Anthony Fremont, a little boy with horrifying psychic powers, runs his small Ohio town like a dictatorship, where everyone is subject to his whims and no one can think any negative thoughts, regardless of what he does. Even when he burns something down, or sends someone he doesn’t like into “the cornfield,” everyone goes, “It’s a good thing you did, Anthony! It’s a real good thing!” It’s hard not to look at little Anthony’s face, with his beady eyes and permanent scowl, and think of the short-fingered vulgarian who demands two press briefings every day with only the good parts.
“The Little People” (season three)
I watched this oft-parodied classic last night instead of tuning into Trump’s Afghanistan speech. It turned out to be a fitting choice, as its story of an astronaut who finds a colony of miniature-sized people on a stray planet and becomes their god, is an accurate depiction of our leader. As Peter Craig, Joe Maross goes over the top in all the right ways, drunk on power as the “little people” learn to fear and worship him, even building a statue of him. When he refuses to follow his compatriot back to Earth, he is warned: “You’re going to play make-believe for another 48 hours and then you’re going to crack wide open. You’ll have a million little microbes honoring you with torchlight parades, but you’re going to die of loneliness.” He doesn’t die of loneliness – he dies when a giant who’s even bigger than he is crushes him – but the message is the same. Dictators are often the loneliest people in the world, and the image of the little people tearing down his statue in glee at the end is one of alarming immediacy. Serling’s warnings, in this episode and beyond, are not to be taken lightly.
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