The Twilight Zone stands out amongst my favorite series for a multitude of reasons. For starters, it’s the only show that I wasn’t alive and watching it live for at least part of its run on this list. I have encountered the series (and for the record, I’m just counting the Rod Serling 1950’s/1960’s portion of the series, not the reboots) through reruns. As a result, there was no true waiting week after week, pondering what would happen next. I had the commercial breaks to go through that, but there was not building with these characters over the years.
Of course building with characters isn’t really necessary here, as this is the only anthology show on this list (Alfred Hitchcock Presents wasn’t far off, though). Though Rod Serling’s narrator makes appearances in every episode, he’s hardly a recurring character, and other than abstract characters like God, the Devil, and Death, there’s no recurring characters to latch onto.
As a result of my viewing habits and the fact that this is an anthology show that doesn’t push you to see every installment (what happened before…) this is the only show on the list where I haven’t seen every episode. I’d like to, but the DVD collections have always been either wildly expensive or not comprehensive, and so there may be a treasured jewel or two out there that could crack this Top 10 that I haven’t seen. If you have one that you love in particular that you aren’t seeing listed, the comments section is ready and willing (I’d love to get some tips). Until that time, though, here are my absolute favorites (for the record, this is one of the hardest lists I’ve had to make so far-I’m not looking forward to the Top four after the Sophie’s Choice I had to make once I got to fifteen finalists).
10. “A Nice Place to Visit” (#1.28)
The Twilight Zone has a way of making even the most predictable of episodes creepy and stirring, as is the case with “Nice Place to Visit.” Here we have a small-time crook who is shot named Rocky Valentine, and he is taken to a place where he is given whatever he wants by a man named Pip (wonderfully played by Sebastian Cabot, who of course would enjoy his greatest fame as Mr. French on Family Affair). The episode wears on with Rocky becoming bored with everything being predetermined and given to him on a silver platter. All the time Rocky assumes that this is heaven, but in the end, Pip, with a menacing cackle proclaims, “Mr. Valentine, this is the other place!” Rocky tries to escape from his own personal hell, and we get a trippy and nasty sense of what The Twilight Zone has to offer.
9. “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” (#5.3)
Here’s where the truth really hurts-yes, my friends, William Shatner can act. Quite well when given the chance, in fact. This episode, which also features Christine White as Shatner’s forlorn wife, is one of the most iconic of the series, and while the other Shatner episode (the terrific “Nick of Time”) has a more terrifying and twist-y ending, this one is more exhilarating in the moment. The final scenes, with Shatner opening the airplane door amidst certainty that the creature is going to take down the plane-you will be on the edge of your chair. One of the truly wonderful things about anthology television is that the rules of the show (that the main characters cannot die or be wildly discredited) are gone, and you’re left with a petrifying reality: the crazy man you scoff at may just be telling the truth.
8. “Five Characters in Search of an Exit” (#3.14)
The good Twilight Zone’s now how to land that gut-punch final moment where we say, “ohhh” and realize what has been in front of us the whole time. The great Twilight Zones, though, manage to create something real before we get to the twist, and make no mistake, “Five Characters” is one of those great episodes. We get to know a clown, ballerina, army major, tramp, and bagpiper throughout the episode as they are trapped in a large metal container, not knowing how they got there. Theories abound as to where they are, including their dreams or even Hell (this is such a fun wink to the Twilight Zone, since both options would totally be plausible within the context of the series). Instead, though, we discover that they are all toys in a bin, abandoned and left for an orphanage, doomed to forever be passed around without any connections. It’s a heartbreaking ending, and a testament to all five actors involved that they have made such an impact in twenty minutes.
7. “The Eye of the Beholder” (#2.6)
One of those episodes we all know the ending of, and probably figured out to begin with, but it’s such a cool concept and such a wonderful spin on a story that you cannot help but fall in love with it. I adore the way that the story really tries to keep you convinced that you are waiting to see the hideous nature of the patient’s face, at least at first. Had you not known to expect the unexpected (it is the Twilight Zone, after all), you might not have realized that it was beautiful Donna Douglas underneath the bandages (kudos to the filmmakers for not using her recognizable voice to give away the ending). The final moments, where we see the thinly veiled prejudice metaphor-chilling.
6. “Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?” (#2.28)
A classic whodunit, and largely a bottle episode for the show, we get a handful of people abandoned in a diner, with one of them clearly an alien. Throughout the episode, which is almost entirely dialogue and little action, we see accusations fly throughout, with each person coming under suspicion. The great thing about The Twlight Zone is that the clues are all there as to which person is the Martian, but they’re subtle enough that you don’t catch them. The truly great scene at the end, though (parodied to death since, but who can blame them thanks to the cheeky visuals?) where we learn that there is not one but two aliens in that diner, is classic Twilight Zone-twisty and still vastly entertaining throughout.
5. “The Masks” (#5.25)
First off, trivia time: legendary actress Ida Lupino directed this episode, making her the only person to both star in and direct different episodes of The Twilight Zone. It’s also (probably) the least known of these episodes, and appropriately seems to be the installment that rings in midnight during the New Year’s Eve marathons. The reason it feels essential is because it is petrifying in the absolute way it handles the evils of the characters. You don’t feel for the Harper family as they sit back and wait for their patriarch (played by Robert Keith) to die, hoping to get all of his money. They are, of course, boorish, cruel, vain, and flighty. And yet when the masks come off and they are hideously deformed, pity and shock overtake you as an audience. That’s what The Twilight Zone does best-it knows how to mess with your emotions and gives you a concept that you rarely see in television: a lack of escape.
4. “Time Enough at Last” (#1.8)
Like all of the great Twilight Zone episodes, it’s been parodied to death and even parceled through scientifically. That being said, this is better than “To Serve Man” (the other quite iconic episode, and one that just misses this list) thanks to the way that it sets up the entire episode. So simple is the story (one man’s quest for self-acceptance-that’s really what it’s about) that the devastating ending hits even harder. With his glasses on the ground and his entire life ruined (and that gun too close by for comfort), Burgess Meredith screams, “there was time now!” It’s a message that holds true in real life-that happiness, like all things, is fleeting and we don’t know when it will leave us next.
3. “It’s a Good Life” (#3.8)
If you want to go for full-on horror, there’s no beating little Anthony Fremont. There’s something petrifying about a little boy who is in charge of the world, and we see that in this episode, as Anthony, given absolute power, wreaks havoc on the entire town and tortures people into thinking only happy thoughts. The episode gave us the illusion of being sent into the corn, and gave a young Cloris Leachman a great role as Anthony’s mother, but the best part is the final moments, when someone has the courage to stand up to Anthony in hopes that someone else will kill him, but the people are too petrified to move (Rod Serling’s symbolism, once again) and Anthony is left to destroy another day. Modern horror films would kill to have such simple evil onscreen and such terror elicited from their audience.
2. “The Obsolete Man” (#2.29)
While Numbers three through about twelve on this list are fairly fluid, the top two are written in granite. This episode, somehow even better than Burgess Meredith’s previous one, is something you would never see on television today, at least not without more niceties (the reality is that this show could never exist today on television in any form-it’d be WAY too controversial, and how sad is that?). Meredith plays a former librarian who has been deemed obsolete by the state. Throughout the half hour, we see him argue with a totalitarian member of the state, going into the philosophical need for art and freedom of religion and speech. The final moments are easy to see coming if you’re thinking about it, but Serling spends too much time making you ponder your own government and your own life to think about what is going to predict the next moves. It’s a groundbreaking installment in the series, and one that never really loses its potency-it may be more relevant now than when it first aired.
1. “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street” (#1.22)
So tragically real, it’s one of the only major episodes of the series that has not been lampooned in a Treehouse of Horror, perhaps because it’s too frightening to mock. A simple enough setting-the power is out after a giant flash, and a little boy speculates that it may be something more sinister than a meteor-perhaps an alien? The next twenty minutes is a frightening look at mob mentality, and the way that people begin to justify their increasingly violent and inhumane actions in the face of approval from the person standing next to them. As I’ve alluded to above, realism is what truly makes this series petrifying-it’s the fact that this sort of reaction to an unknown is completely plausible, if not likely. Later in the episode we see panic, and then a riot break out, and all the while the aliens on the hill watch as the humans destroy themselves. An allegory for our reaction to change? Nuclear war? Prejudice? It’s a story so universal it works on almost every level, but the one it works best on? Damn riveting television.
And those are my Top 10 Twilight Zone episodes-do you have a favorite that was missed? Would you have rearranged the order? And what would be your number one? Share in the comments!
For more of my favorites: Girls, Pushing Daisies, How I Met Your Mother, Game of Thrones, The Office, Ally McBeal, Sex and the City, Desperate Housewives, South Park, Mad Men,