Why you should care
It’s part of the lexicon of popular culture, the name itself slang for strange or unexpected events. Cross over into three episodes that take you into the perplexing heart of … The Twilight Zone.
Although television was still in its infancy, by 1959 Rod Serling was already a veteran. He had three Emmys on his mantle, each for groundbreaking writing on anthology shows: Patterns was a scathing indictment of corporate culture, while Requiem for a Heavyweight was an unsparingly brutal look at the end of a boxer’s career, and The Comedian featured a stellar Mickey Rooney as a TV star who is anything but funny once the cameras stop rolling.
But despite his elevated prestige and accolades, Serling still had to contend with meddling corporate sponsors who frowned upon any subject matter that might discourage sales. So the “angry young man of Hollywood” created his own show, The Twilight Zone.
When you’re in the mood for a ‘Zone’ or two, do yourself a favor and dig a little deeper than the fan favorites.
It’s been 55 years since The Twilight Zone first aired, and it can be easy to look back and see it as tame, naive, maybe even a bit corny — but only if you deny the show’s context. In the late 1950s, no television show dared air such thought-provoking material. Mostly free from the heavy-handed interference of sponsors, Serling was able to fully flesh out controversial subject matter, sometimes thinly couched in science fiction or fantasy, sometimes stark and obvious. Weighty topics such as race, poverty and war were broached alongside more personal topics; loss of innocence, mental illness, alienation and myriad fears.
Serling’s own experiences in World War II made their way onto the show, as did his disillusionment with the Hollywood system. He enlisted other writers, dipping into a pool of Los Angeles’ talented sci-fi scribes, but he did most of the heavy lifting himself, penning 92 of the show’s 156 episodes over five seasons. And it didn’t take long for the show’s trademark twist ending to become his signature.
Because of its structure as an anthology show, each week took viewers to completely different eras, locales and scenarios. And with no set cast, The Twilight Zone quickly became a showcase for actors, both green and seasoned. We instantly remember classic episodes, and for good reasons — but there are so many others that deliver poignant insights into the human condition, that are beautifully written, shot and acted. To celebrate this venerable program’s 55th anniversary, here are three episodes that are under the radar, all written by Mr. Serling himself.
“The Obsolete Man”
This season two episode brings back Burgess Meredith in a fine performance as yet another beleaguered underdog, this time in the form of a librarian in a library-less world. Fritz Weaver, in his second series appearance, personifies the totalitarian state, a state that has moved past its vanquished enemies and on to its citizens. Both men perfectly capture the essence of their respective roles: an intellectual finally able to speak his mind, if only because he has nothing to lose, and a state official, forced to endure the punishment he so offhandedly doled out. A surreal ending only adds to the terrifying nature of this future government, and Serling’s end narration, as always, drives the point home.
“Cavender Is Coming”
On occasion, Serling liked to show the lighter side of the fifth dimension. In this season three showcase episode, written especially for budding comedy star Carol Burnett, the playful theme of having a guardian angel is turned on its head. Cavender thinks he’s improving his charge’s life by showering her with riches, and it takes him most of the episode to realize what she’s known all along. Agnes Grep doesn’t need a mansion or money to be happy. It’s her friends, neighbors and own eccentric self that truly fulfill her life. In an age of fierce conformity, Serling makes the case for individuality, warts and all. Punctuated by bass drum pratfalls and slide whistle gags, “Cavender Is Coming” is definitely on the whimsical side of The Zone, but Burnett plays Agnes with a quiet grace seldom seen in female comedic roles.
Although not a generally popular episode, “Walking Distance” is championed by Twilight Zone scholars as one of the show’s best. It’s an almost direct parallel to Serling’s state of mind at the time: weary, frustrated and yearning to go home, in every sense of the word. In the episode, a New York ad executive finds that he’s traveled back to his favorite boyhood summer, and wants nothing more than to stay put. Impeccably shot and thoughtfully acted, “Walking Distance” demonstrates that not everything in the Twilight Zone need be frightening or ironic. And the subtle beauty of Serling’s narration is among his finest work.
Next time you’re in the mood for a Zone or two, do yourself a favor and dig a little deeper than the fan favorites. Some incredible stories and performances await the adventurous viewer, to be sure. As Serling said, “Obscure metaphysical explanation to cover a phenomenon, reasons dredged out of the shadows to explain away that which cannot be explained. Call it parallel planes or just insanity. Whatever it is, you find it in the Twilight Zone.”