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  • Dan Connors

The best television show of all time? Maybe.

“...the worst aspect of our time is prejudice... In almost everything I've written, there is a thread of this - man's seemingly palpable need to dislike someone other than himself.”

Rod Serling

“I was deeply interested in conveying what is a deeply felt conviction of my own. This is simply to suggest that human beings must involve themselves in the anguish of other human beings. This, I submit to you, is not a political thesis at all. It is simply an expression of what I would hope might be ultimately a simple humanity for humanity's sake.”

Rod Serling

The best television show of all time? Some people think so. The Twilight Zone, which aired from 1959 to 1963, has been lauded as ahead of its time and has built a devoted following that exists today, 65 years after the show debuted. The show has been adapted for movies, rebooted for television three separate times, and its episodes remain available on streaming services and New Year's Day marathons.

Why did such a show hit a nerve and obtain immortality at a time when other shows included Westerns like Gunsmoke, Family sitcoms like Leave it to Beaver, and corny variety shows like Red Skelton and Ed Sullivan? The Twilight Zone aired 156 episodes over 5 seasons, all of which I watched recently, and their stories haunt me still today. I was too little when the show debuted to watch it, but gradually caught on to it via reruns and syndication. Each show had a different cast, location, and message, and all were narrated by the show's creator, Rod Serling.

At a time when racism was still explicit and anti-Communist fervor and the Cold War had a nation on edge, somehow Serling was able to sneak in stories about what hatred and ignorance could do to a person while gently nudging them into a better understanding. He used science fiction and fantasy to camouflage the darker issues he was confronting, and it worked. Those issues are still with us, which is one reason the show still resonates today, while most other television shows of that era now seem outdated and silly.

The main strength of Twilight Zone was its creator, Rod Serling, who wrote some scripts and chose the others, keeping the show's quality and message strong and powerful. Serling had served three tumultuous years in the US Army during World War 2 in the Pacific theater, and he had seen more than his share of meaningless death and suffering. His war experience obviously affected his writing, and most of his episodes showed the folly of hatred, prejudice, and violence. Serling was a talented writer and not afraid to confront difficult topics while somehow not offending the conservative views of his time.

For any Baby Boomer like me, the Twilight Zone was an open casting call to all of the big stars of the 60s and 70s. I can't get over how many familiar faces I saw in totally different roles- Jonathan Winters, Elizabeth Montgomery, William Shatner (twice!), Burgess Meredith, Robert Redford, and Robert Duvall among many others. Most of these appearances were before they were famous, and you could see the spark of greatness that would follow them into their careers later on.

Most episodes ended with a twist, which is often hard to pull off. Serling's twist endings come with an emotional thud, sometimes gentle and heartwarming, sometimes sad, and sometimes forcing a bad character to face the consequences of their actions. Endings stay with you more than beginnings do, and the twist endings are what made the show so memorable.

Here is a list of popular episodes from a variety of sources that I heartily recommend:

  1. Time Enough At Last- Burgess Meredith is the sole survivor of a nuclear blast and surrounded by books.

  2. The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street- A haunting story of how neighbors turn on each other after an unexplained blackout.

  3. Nightmare at 20,000 Feet- William Shatner overacts wonderfully as a strange figure appears out his airplane window mid-flight.

  4. And When The Sky Was Opened- Three men return from space and then mysteriously start disappearing one by one as if they had never existed.

  5. The Invaders- An episode without any dialogue where a lone woman fends off attacks by tiny spacemen.

  6. It's A Good Life- A young boy, (Billy Mumy), possesses unexplained powers to wish anything he dislikes away into a cornfield, causing every adult to cater to his every whim with awkward and scary consequences.

  7. Eye of the Beholder- A woman goes through plastic surgery, hating her appearance, not realizing that the standards she is being held to are bizarre.

  8. To Serve Man- Aliens land on Earth and claim to have good intentions, bringing progress and friendship that have a darker agenda.

  9. The Midnight Sun- a haunting tale of two women alone in an abandoned apartment building facing increasingly hotter and hotter days, with a twist of course at the end.

  10. The After Hours- A woman goes to a department store to return a thimble and ends up on a strange floor all by herself, eventually coming to a bizarre realization about her origins.

There are so many good episodes. My personal favorite was The Night of the Meek, a lovely Christmas story about an out of luck nobody played by Art Carney who comes upon a magic bag. He finds that the bag will produce whatever presents the person requests and he goes about town giving things to friends and local children while avoiding the police and a meddlesome boss.

Science fiction and fantasy shows can tell us stories that reflect hard parts of life without attacking our fragile egos. It is one way to get around our misconceptions about life and ourselves and see some of the basic truths about life, love, and death. Rod Serling used that permission to tell 156 stories that will live forever. Is the Twilight Zone the best television show of all time? I find it hard to think of a better one, but the question is probably unanswerable. It's a matter of opinion. Rolling Stone listed The Sopranos as the best show of all time, IMDB rates Breaking Bad at #1, and Variety claims it's I Love Lucy.

Watch some of the episodes for yourself if you can and see what you think. They are available on SciFi network and many streaming services, as well as DVD. With our world still stuck in the mindset of prejudice and blaming others for our own misfortune, this show now 65 years in the past still speaks volumes to me. (Read the Serling quotes at the top of this essay again)

Here are some excerpts to give you the flavor of what the Zone was all about.

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