It’s a New Year’s tradition, and indeed one of the inspirations for this very blog. So let’s list the ten best Twilight Zone episodes of all time (feel free to disagree, add your two cents, whatever).
“The After Hours”
A simple premise, mannequins getting to live for one month among the human race, is the inspired climax of an identifiable crisis for Marsha White. Winningly portrayed by Anne Francis, anyone can grasp a day from hell where everyone else makes like you’re crazy when you know, you’re sure that you’re seeing and hearing what others just miss. And the mannequins calling Marsha back to her true self is one of the creepier moments of the series.
A truly horrible family cannot wait for the death of its patriarch and the inheritance to follow. There’s just one catch. They have to wear grotesque masks during a fateful Mardi Gras. In the end, the masks disfigure the family, exposing the evil in their souls for the world to see. It’s a deserving comeuppance, and I defy you to feel any pity (sometimes you need a little superiority).
“Night of the Meek”
Art Carney’s drunken Santa is fired on Christmas Eve. But then he receives his heart’s desire, the ability to give all the love he has to the denizens of his neighborhood. And the cherry on top? He actually becomes Father Christmas for all time. A strong supporting cast enhances this sweet tale of love, redemption, and miracles.
“It’s a Good Life”
Anthony Fremont looks harmless enough, a big-eyed little boy living with his parents in a farming community. But don’t cross the kid, don’t even think bad thoughts in his presence. He’ll wish you into the cornfield, and he’s cut off his neighbors from the rest of civilization (or perhaps destroyed it) to get his way. The scariest episode on this list (I wouldn’t want to get stuck in Peaksville).
“The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street”
As relevant as ever. Neighbors turn against each other in the wake of a mysterious blackout. One by one, voices of reason are drowned out as scapegoat after scapegoat is blamed for the growing chaos. Maple Street destroys itself while the aliens who found it all too easy to create such hysteria look on. The enemy is within, people.
“‘The Eye of the Beholder”
You don’t see it coming the first time. So powerful are the performances, especially that of Maxine Stuart, that the actors’ voices and gestures skillfully conceal the fact that not one face is seen until the wild reveal. Janet Tyler is the raving beauty, and the hospital staff, the majority of the society are apparent monsters. But not all are without compassion (Miss Tyler’s doctor in particular seems conflicted about a world where physical differences dictate and condone prejudice). Quite the fable on how hate begins, how it gains acceptance, and the pockets of courage and comfort in between.
“Nick of Time”
William Shatner is a good actor in this story of superstitions. Don and Pat Carter get detoured on their honeymoon, and Don, already the paranoid sort, becomes so entranced by a diner novelty toy, that he almost sabotages a future that while uncertain is still full of promise. The Carters get a happy ending, but that’s not the case for another weary couple enslaved by ominous predictions. Nothing really supernatural going on. Just plain old human fear. And that’s scary enough.
“The Obsolete Man”
Of Burgess Meredith’s many Twilight Zone appearances, this is my favorite. A librarian is deemed useless by a totalitarian state and set to be executed. But he turns the tables on his oppressors, and even though he loses his life, he exposes The Chancellor, and therefore the State, for the cowards that they are. The final scene of The Chancellor about to be torn apart by his former comrades is both rewarding and disturbing. Not an easy trick.
“A Game of Pool”
A fantastic duet between Jack Klugman (another Zone regular) and the great Jonathan Winters boasts sharp dialogue and a thought-provoking ending. Klugman’s Jesse beats his late rival at the titular game, but with it comes the cost of carrying the mantle of success for all time. Sure we all want to be the best at something, anything, but if the price is no rest, no peace, maybe we should reevaluate our priorities.
“On Thursday We Leave for Home”
The hour-long episodes are a mixed batch, but this entry is one of the best acted installments of the entire Zone. James Whitmore’s Captain Benteen has kept a lost colony alive with stories of Earth and the promise that they’ll return one day. But when the rescue ship arrives, Benteen cannot let go of his leadership role. Despite efforts to scare his people into remaining on a hellish but familiar planet, Benteen is left alone. Only then does he remember the beauties of home, and the final shot of Benteen stranded is a warning to those who would let power go to their heads.
Food for thought in The Twilight Zone and the New Year.