I have finally finished watching every single episode of the original Twilight Zone, and I have to say, it wasn't really much of a burden. All I had to do was, for the first half of this year, watch nothing else on television except the Zone - aside from, of course, sports. In retrospect, I wish I hadn't watched them in rough chronological order, since the fifth and last season was the weakest, but what the heck.
What made it easier was the fact that The Twilight Zone was a really good show. It wasn't just a bunch of spooky stories or weird tales; at their best, they always added an extra fillip of reality or drama that lent the shows real texture. I've picked out my five favorite episodes (which isn't quite the same thing as the ones I think are the best shows) (and interestingly enough, two of these are from that feeble fifth season), all of which demonstrate that in one way or another:
1. "The Hitch-Hiker": Doomed actress Inger Stevens (she ended up overdosing on barbiturates in 1970) stars as a woman driving alone cross-country who is haunted by a strange, silent man that she repeatedly sees trying to hitch a ride from her. Stevens is so freaked out by this that at one point she picks up a young Navy man and offers to sleep with him if only he’ll keep riding with her. No, really, she does, despite the fact that we’re in January 1960, and this aired on prime-time TV.
2. "A Stop at Willoughby": This is the one where the executive, Gart Williams, keeps falling asleep on his train home and being transported to a magical town about 80 years in the past. What’s unsettling is the way his business life is portrayed: His boss keeps yelling at him that “This is a Push! Push! Push! business,” which sends Gart back to his office to pop some Valium. At home in Connecticut, when Gart talks about giving up his hectic life for something quieter, his wife calmly informs him that she married him with expectations of his professional and monetary success, and has no intention of settling for anything less. At the very end of the episode, we see that the only escape from this modernist conundrum is the sweet relief of death.
3. "The Invaders": Agnes Moorehead delivers an astonishing wordless performance as an isolated farm wife terrorized by tiny invaders from outer space. In my favorite Twilight Zone performance ever, Moorehead is positively feral as she takes on the little critters, who at one point shoot some sort of ray at her, raising welts just below her collarbone. When she pulls the neckline of her dress down to see them, that’s about as sexy as the Zone ever gets. (Actually, the sexiest episode is the one where Lois Nettleton spends most of the running time hanging around in a slip and sweating bullets. Aside from that, there is no sex at all in that episode.)
4. "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet": Everyone remembers William Shatner facing off against the gremlin on the wing of the plane, but what makes it so delicious is the setup: Shat is just returning from a six-month stay at a sanitarium after a nervous breakdown, and the last thing he needs to do is tell people that the Snuggle Fabric Softener Bear has been rescued from a muddy ditch and set loose on the plane’s engines. Special bonus reminder of the pre-9/11 world: Shatner pulls the gun from a holster of a snoozing passenger. Plus, you know, Shatner is kind of a genius.
5. "Living Doll": Telly Savalas gets terrorized by a Talky Tina doll (voiced by Rocket J. Squirrel himself, June Foray) and tries to exact his revenge. What makes this one so juicy is the nature of the jerry-built family: Savalas has recently married his new wife and taken in her daughter, and he doesn’t seem too crazy about either of them, although the wife pledges that she’ll do anything to make him happy. He acts like he wants to take his Players Club Gold Card and head to Vegas, if not for this doll that keeps threatening his life. For what it's worth, the little girl doesn't really take to Telly, either. Those uncomfortable dynamics make this much more than just a scary story; it’s a family tragedy.