A couple of weeks ago, the legendary Joshua Kennedy informed me that he had been engaged in watching several episodes of the original THE TWILIGHT ZONE TV series. He asked me what my favorite episodes were...and that was not an easy question. THE TWILIGHT ZONE is one of my favorite TV series of all time, and it's one of the few series in which I have every episode on home video. Making a manageable list of favorite TWILIGHT ZONE episodes required a bit of work, since there are so many of them, and so many of them are very well done.
There's very few TWILIGHT ZONE entries that I would call weak or even mediocre. The entire five season run of the show had a level of excellence and intelligence that is still rare in American television today. Obviously the brilliant writer Rod Serling was the main force behind THE TWILIGHT ZONE, but several talented individuals contributed, including many classic Hollywood veteran directors and actors, and even music composers such as Bernard Herrmann and Jerry Goldsmith.
The majority of episodes were written by Serling, but plenty of other greats penned tales for the series, notably Charles Beaumont and Richard Matheson. THE TWILIGHT ZONE is best known for its fantasy/science-fiction/horror aspects, but it never was a show for kids--there's a sense of real adult drama in the majority of the episodes that one almost never finds in the genre of the fantastic. Most of the stories told on THE TWILIGHT ZONE are still as relevant as ever (some even more so).
So here's my list of favorite TWILIGHT ZONE episodes. I tried to avoid picking just the more renowned ones, but certainly some of the most famous tales will wind up here. Please remember that this list only applies to what in my opinion is the real TWILIGHT ZONE, the 1959-64 TV series. This has nothing to do with any later reboots, including the most recent one, which I have no particular inclination to watch.
"The Hitch-Hiker" (First Season) Written by Rod Serling, Directed by Alvin Ganzer
A young woman (Inger Stevens) is taking a cross-country trip by car....and she happens to see the same hitch-hiker over and over again. A simple tale--but quite effectively realized, and perfect for THE TWILIGHT ZONE format.
"Time Enough at Last" (First Season) Written by Rod Serling Directed by John Brahm
A introspective bookworm (Burgess Meredith) survives a nuclear war...but he's not all that put out by the situation, since it gives him plenty of time to read...or so he thinks. This is one of the best known episodes, and it features many of the elements one would see in the show over and over again--put-upon ordinary characters, the end of the world, and the idea that you should be careful what you wish for.
"The Fever" (First Season) Written by Rod Serling Directed by Robert Florey
An uptight middle-aged man (Everett Sloane) reluctantly accompanies his wife on a free trip to Las Vegas. By happenstance the man puts a coin in a slot machine--and he's hooked. I'll never forget this one, mainly because of the way the slot machine "calls" its victim's name through the sound of clinking coins!
"A Stop at Willoughby" (First Season) Written by Rod Serling Directed by Robert Parrish
A burned-out businessman (James Daly) gets off his commuter train and finds that he is in a bucolic 19th Century town called Willoughby. As the businessman's life gets worse, he decides that Willoughby is where he needs to be. One could look at this as a tragic tale....but maybe the main character is really better off, wherever he wound up.
"Walking Distance" (First Season) Written by Rod Serling Directed by Robert Stevens
This tale is the flip side of "A Stop at Willoughby". Another businessman tired of the rat race (Gig Young) goes back to his small home town, only to find that is is exactly the way it was when he was a child. But this time, the lesson is that you can't--and you really shouldn't--go home again. One of the most moving episodes, featuring music by Bernard Herrmann.
"The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street" (First Season) Written by Rod Serling Directed by Ron Winston
There may have not been any internet arguments when this episode was first aired in 1960, but the ability of humans to turn on and attack each other over essentially nothing was still the same. You don't need aliens to destroy the Earth when humanity is more than willing to do it themselves.
"Long Live Walter Jameson" (First Season) Written by Charles Beaumont Directed by Anton Leader
Walter Jameson (Kevin McCarthy) really, really looks young for his age. THE TWILIGHT ZONE would deal with the subject of immortality many times, but none better than this episode.
"Night of the Meek" (Second Season) Written by Rod Serling Directed by Jack Smight
This was one of the few episodes of the show to be shot on videotape. A drunken department store Santa Claus (Art Carney) gets fired on Christmas Eve, but then is given the gift of becoming the real Saint Nick. An unusually touching and warm tale from Serling.
"Shadow Play" (Second Season) Written by Charles Beaumont Directed by John Brahm
A man (Dennis Weaver) who is on death row tries to convince everyone around him that he is actually having a nightmare, and if he is executed, their lives will end as well. An episode with a truly mind-bending and thought-provoking premise.
"The Invaders" (Second Season) Written by Richard Matheson Directed by Douglas Heyes
Yes, it's the "tiny men in spacesuits threaten old farm woman" episode. But it still packs a wallop, due to the overall presentation of the idea and Agnes Moorhead's performance.
"On Thursday We Leave For Home" (Fourth Season) Written by Rod Serling Directed by Buzz Kulik
This is one of the hour-long episodes of the show. The extra-long format didn't really work for it, but it did for this story. A group of colonists have been stranded on a backwater planet for years. The only reason they have been able to survive is through the strength and determination of their self-appointed leader, a man named Benteen (James Whitmore). When a spaceship arrives, and the group suddenly learns that they are going to be taken back to Earth, their reliance on Benteen goes away, and the man becomes angry and jealous. This episode is an example of what THE TWILIGHT ZONE did best, in using a fantasy backdrop to examine everyday human behavior. This story contains some of Serling's best writing, and James Whitmore excels in the prime role of Benteen, a man who sadly finds out he's not as important as he once thought.