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Sunday, July 3, 2016

Static Thoughts - Top 10 Underrated Twilight Zone Episodes

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Edited by Robert Beach

This weekend is the Fourth of July. Among the many legitimate traditions of reckless firework use and copious drinking, there’s the very geeky tradition the Syfy channel has of hosting a marathon of the original Twilight Zone show. They do this same thing around New Years, presumably attracted by the winter use of fireworks in our holiday calendar. It’s become a favorite part of the holiday for someone like me who has pets that are incredibly skittish around loud noises. The only downside of the marathon is that it tends to focus on the same handful of big episodes. 

Stuff like the “To Serve Man,” “Time Enough At Last,” “Eye of the Beholder,” “Will The Real Martian Please Stand Up,” “The Gift,” “The Doll,” and “It’s A Good Life” have become such a consistent part of the viewing diet they’ve been grandfathered into the popular lexicon as a whole. So, this year I’ve combed through the depths of the Twilight Zone to bring you my top 10 most underrated episodes. These are ten episodes that often get overlooked for the bigger names of the franchise; the stuff that more people should check out.

This is one of those episodes that I think a lot of people are aware of without really knowing. There are a few more like that on this list, which is a big part of why I consider them ‘underrated.’ These aren’t necessarily the best, but they’re excellent enough to deserve a lot more recognition and awareness beyond the passing familiarity they tend to inspire.  

“The After Hours” is about a young woman who comes into a department store and becomes convinced that the mannequins within are alive. Though she shrugs off this notion at first, she ends up locked in the store after hours and proven correct than she realizes. 

This is a good example of how well creepy execution can buoy an obvious premise. From the start, you’re more or less certain the mannequins are alive because, well, you’re watching The Twilight Zone. Freaky stuff like that reigns supreme. The trick here is that the show uses your foreknowledge against you, playing on the dramatic irony of how aware we are of what’s wrong compared to how unconvinced everyone else is. 

By the time the store closes down, we know things are going to go very wrong, and the creepy isolation of the department store is decidedly unnerving. It manages to zero in on what makes mannequins scary; the way they imitate being alive. Also, the ending twist in this episode is a great subversion of expectation just in case you thought things were too predictable.

Here’s an exercise in the terror of inevitability, emphasizing the sheer crushing horror of a fate that is truly and unquestionably inescapable. For reasons unknown, the Earth has been thrown off its rotation and is falling towards the sun. The episode follows a young woman and her elderly neighbor in an abandoned city as the days get hotter, longer, and more unbearable. 
As I said, the true horror of this episode is the finality of the fate that’s befallen these characters. Watching these women go through the motions of life as the world slowly dies around them is incredibly eerie and unsettling on a deeply personal level. The Earth’s incineration nears as there are no rescue ships or underground tunnels to save us. Humanity is just doomed.  

There’s also the environmental angle that, not intended initially, can’t help but become a lot more frightening in recent years. With climate change and global warming still massive problems that the world seems unwilling to fix, we’re barreling towards a future where the Earth is left so hot it’s literally uninhabitable.  We aren’t falling into the sun, sure, but there’s a legitimate chance we might actually see this episode come to pass in real life. And that is truly terrifying.

This is a bizarre episode for Twilight Zone. The episode’s structure is built around the conventions of pulpy space yarns that informed sci-fi in the decades prior to Twilight Zone’s inception. That happened a few times on the show but “I Shot an Arrow in the Air” is easily the best example of it and stands out as an all-time classic of the show’s narratives and characterizations.  

The plot is about a team of four astronauts who crash land on an alien planet and are forced to struggle through a desolate landscape in the hopes of surviving and maybe figuring out some form of rescue. Initially, this premise is steeped in space pulp with the fearless rocket men and their brave captain standing tall against the weird alien world they’ve come to, new pioneers of the Space Age. All that gets immediately stripped away when one of the crew is injured and the group is forced to contend with how to go forward.

It turns the episode into a great “lost expedition” story emphasizing their crew’s desire to remain civilized clashing against the need for pragmatism in the face of the unknown. All of this is also plastered in some of the most ‘50s machismo one could conceive of, so it’s a lot like having Captain America lead a pack of morally complicated people through the wasteland trying not to give in to the greater demons of our nature.  

 7. THE DUMMY (S3E33)
Have you ever even seen a legitimate ventriloquist act in real life, or did we just hound them all to extinction with our fear of their dummies? Anyway, this episode’s creepy ventriloquist dummy take on the horror movie genre gave us Magic, Dead Silence, and a whole ton of Goosebumps novels.  

In all seriousness, “The Dummy” is a really great take on the subject. Its 24-minute length makes it a better fit for the length of time one can actually be creeped out by a ventriloquist dummy. That’s the big problem with dummies conceptually; they’re only scary because they’re so freakish and weird. If we’re allowed to be around them for a good amount of time, we become normalized and the scariness starts to wear off. The actual plot of “The Dummy” is less of a haunted doll set-up and much more of a psycho-drama, Twilight Zone’s favorite genre of story. 

The plot is about a hit comedy ventriloquist who has been diagnosed with schizophrenia for believing his dummy is actually alive. We, the audience, are pretty well convinced from the start there’s actually a lot of doubt in the episode. Doubt settles in thanks to the lead actor selling the hell out of being just un-credible enough for us to think he might be crazy. The ending twist and explanation are among the series’ best and really fits the strange fold of reality the Twilight Zone so embodied: the idea that there were places where the world simply worked off how we feared it would rather than any real logic.  

Speaking of an off-center world, look no further than this chilling entry. “Mirror Image” features one of the most under-explored horror boogeymen: Doppelgangers. During the classic age of spiritualism in the 1800s, doppelgangers were a major part of ghost stories. They’ve more or less died out in more recent years.  

The idea is that they’re your exact duplicate from somewhere else as only you can see them. Their goal is to try and take over your life; the more they take over, the more you fade out of existence. It’s a creepy notion that fits the Twilight Zone’s aesthetic perfectly, and they do a dynamite job with the idea in this episode. 

The whole story is set in an all-night bus stop as a woman is waiting to catch the midnight bus. The station is almost completely deserted, which makes things pretty damn creepy to start. When she starts catching glimpses of her identical twin throughout the station, things get way creepier. The Doppelganger is very well realized in the episode. Inhuman, alien, it understands some of the subtleties of being human, but not enough to convince. So you’re left with this creepy husk that seems like it could snap and become violent at any moment. It’s a dynamite thriller that ends on a superbly bone-chilling final note. 

Fundamentally speaking, The Twilight Zone is a sci-fi show, using weird fiction as metaphor and commentary on the human condition and the state of things in our time. Every once in a while, the show would dip into the outright spooky and supernatural with a full-on ghost story. That’s what “Long Distance Call” is.  

The episode revolves around a young boy who’s very close with his well-meaning grandmother, who in turn is maybe a little too protective of her young grandson. Then the grandmother dies unexpectedly. The boy reacts typically at first (tears, sadness) before he finds out he’s able to speak with his grandmother on the other side through his play phone. 

What’s so compelling about this story is the ambiguity it has around the very idea of ghosts and the afterlife. The grandmother’s ghost isn’t outwardly menacing, but we can tell there’s something a little strange going on from the start. Though they do a good job making her come off as a bit of a strange person in real life, so it’s hard to tell if the behavior we’re seeing is the result of her death or just the way she is. As things progress, they manage to keep that ambiguity through to the very end of the episode: the disconnect between the living and the dead and the way it can turn even the purest love and kindness into something ugly.  

This is one of the more topical Twilight Zone episodes as it revolves entirely around the nuclear paranoia endemic to the era. What’s more, it’s also one of the few episodes to not feature any supernatural or sci-fi elements as it’s simply a drama. It just so happens to be a drama informed by nuclear annihilation. 

The episode opens in the midst of a birthday celebration of several neighboring families, all gathered together to toast their unity and friendship at this their trusted friend’s latest year on Earth. The celebrations are interrupted when the radio announces several unidentified objects hurtling towards the east coast and tells everyone they should duck and cover immediately. The problem: only one of the four families has a bomb shelter and now everyone wants in. From there, the episode descends into a terrifying rush to get into the shelter as the families locked out quickly give way to hatred, savagery, and their worst impulses. 

While the basic idea that your friends and neighbors could be turned into absolute monsters over the question of survival is creepy enough, the really frightening part is how natural they all are about that monstrousness. It’s not like we’re seeing these people driven to an unfortunate extreme. We see their natural barbarism bubble up to the surface now that the shackles of society have been thrown off. There’s a particularly arresting moment where they all turn on the one immigrant family in the group that’s clearly a deliberate parallel made to the racism that still dominates so much of our reality as well as it did Rod Sterling’s. 

This is one I think a few more people though I still rarely see it pop up on “best of” lists or the like. While a lot of Twilight Zone episodes are tinged with the ethos and iconography of Nazism, owing to the way World War 2 had dominated the country’s consciousness and Rod Sterling’s life just a decade prior to the program, this episode has the most explicit parallels.  

The episode takes place in a dystopian reality of fascist rule where certain people who are judged to be obsolete are sentenced to a death of their choosing. The titular obsolete man is Romney Wordsworth, a librarian in a world where the state has outlawed all books and deemed him obsolete. Wordsworth chooses death by a bomb and spends his final hours alongside the Chancellor who sentenced him to death.

The episode is an incredible stand out owing mainly to the twin performances at its heart. Burgess Meredith, a favorite actor for the Twilight Zone, plays Wordsworth and he gives an incredible performance as a truly humble man, empowered simply through the speaking of truth and his quiet dignity. Meanwhile, Fritz Weaver gives a truly chilling performance as the Chancellor capturing the mannerism and look of Nazi propaganda films to an unsettlingly accurate degree. Even though it’s heavy handed, this is a great episode about why fascism was more than just an absolute evil; it was terrifying. 

Here’s another episode elevated from a simple good idea by an amazing core performance. The set-up is that a man named Adam Grant has been found guilty and sentenced to death. As he sits on death row, he continues to insist that this entire world and situation is just a dream of his.  

Even though leading man Dennis Weaver never did anything else of note, he’s phenomenal here, to the point you really do believe him. His desperation and obsession, the madness inherent in his claim that the world is simply a dream he’s concocted, Weaver sells all of it incredibly well. What’s more, the episode’s pacing and staging are just superb, playing more like a stage play than anything else. 

We don’t just follow Weaver; we also touch in with the District Attorney who prosecuted him and a newspaper editor who believed his story. Cutting between the two stories, the episode does a great job slowly convincing us, outlining more and more how this world isn’t real by pointing out the natural contrivances of fiction. Before they’re pointed out, we take a lot of the weird elements of this world for granted because that’s how things work in fiction. Turning that complacency into a hook to hang the narrative on is genius. 


“Stop At Willoughby” isn’t just the most underrated Twilight Zone episode; it’s damn near the best episode (and personal favorite) of the entire show. A lot of that plays into how well it pulls off a very weird balancing act. Once more, we’ve got a story grounded in the Twilight Zone's favorite wrinkle of reality where things just happen because they do.  

In this case, the episode revolves around an advertising executive with a pushy, status-obsessed wife and a bullying ogre of a boss. Feeling crushed under the pressures of work and home, the executive longs for simpler times only to find that, on the long train ride between New York and Connecticut, he’s somehow able to dream himself into the small town of Willoughby that embodies those simpler times he longs for. What’s so great about this episode is the ambiguity and climactic reveal about the nature of Willoughby. See, the idea of a man trying to return to some previous time of younger innocence was one of Rod Sterling’s favorite concepts to explore. It pops up in a ton of Twilight Zone episodes and even bled over into his follow-up series Night Gallery

All of those stories tend to emphasize the potential of the present or the glory of the past, Willoughby is the only one to accept that as alluring as the past is, returning to it comes at an incredible price. It’s a “be careful what you wish for” story of the best kind and stands as a reminder that those who live in the past won’t be present in the future. 

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