The Twilight Zone’s Dirty Dozen

“We had some real turkeys, some fair ones, and some shows I’m really proud to have been a part of. I can walk away from this series unbowed.” — Rod Serling

Turkeys? Serling may have been his own harshest critic, but he wasn’t entirely wrong here. Even a series as distinguished as The Twilight Zone, with a hit-to-miss ratio that most TV producers would kill for, had a few misfires along the way.

RodSerlingYoungMansFancy

But which ones missed the mark? It’s entirely subjective. One man’s gem is another man’s junk. Bring up “The Bewitchin’ Pool,” and you’ll hear from people who consider it a delightful fantasy, and others who think it’s a clunker. Many people findOne for the Angelssweet and charming; others can’t get past the fact that Ed Wynn is hardly convincing as a fast-talking pitchman.

I even spoke to a man once who’d been going through TZ in order and said he had finally hit a dud. Curious, I asked which one. His reply: “The Invaders,” which nearly everyone hails as a Zone classic.

But these debates are part of the fun. It’s interesting to compare notes, as we do with our favorite TZs, and discuss what we don’t like — and why.

CavenderIsComing2

Here are the 12 episodes you’ll find at the bottom of my list. Now, I’m not saying every one is an irredeemable time-waster. Even the worst TZ is better than much of what you’ll find on TV; they fall short mainly when measured against TZ’s routine excellence. And there are some aspects of nearly every episode below that I do like.

But for my money, the fifth-dimensional flops include:

MR. BEVIS
Season 1, Episode 33
June 3, 1960

Perhaps Serling wanted to show his range and prove that The Twilight Zone wasn’t always a foreboding place filled with dark corners and irony-laden lessons. And let me go on record here as saying that I’m not always opposed to using humor in a TZ. But for it to work, it has to have a light touch, and be … well, funny.

MrBevis

“Mr. Bevis” isn’t funny. It’s meant to be whimsical and send us off with a smile, and as an episode of some other series, it wouldn’t be terrible. But as an episode of The Twilight Zone, it’s a misstep. Small wonder to learn, then, that it had its genesis as a pilot for another series entirely. When Serling found no takers, it wound up as a TZ. Too bad. It’s overly cutesy and feels forced. Like Bevis’s zither music, it’s best left unplayed.

***

SHOWDOWN WITH RANCE McGREW
Season 3, Episode 20
February 2, 1962

It’s hard to imagine now, but Westerns were as ubiquitous on TV in the 1960s as over-the-top violence, soft-core porn and four-letter words are today. So who can blame Serling, one of the most outspoken critics of television who ever lived, for wanting to poke fun at how unrealistic TV westerns were?

ShowdownWithRanceMcGrew2

No one, I suppose, and “Showdown with Rance McGrew” does induce a few chuckles. But as is so often the case with Serling’s comedies, the laughs are slight and spread awfully thin. And the less said about how similar the “fake” Old West is to the “real” Old West, the better. Put this one out to pasture.

***

FOUR O’CLOCK
Season 3, Episode 29
April 6, 1962

When Serling is criticized as a writer, it’s usually for being heavy-handed and preachy. His defenders, myself included, quickly point out the beauty and lyricism of “Eye of the Beholder” and dozens of other Zone classics. We don’t want to discuss “Four O’Clock,” which is about as subtle and entertaining as a poke in the eye.

FourOClock

We get it, Rod. Oliver Crangle is a crank, and his relentless campaign to eradicate evil is itself the real evil here. But he’s too much of a cartoon villain for us to feel any real satisfaction when his easily predicted fate befalls him. Like the shrunken protagonist himself, this episode comes up short.

***

YOUNG MAN’S FANCY
Season 3, Episode 34
May 11, 1962

Man and woman get married, return to man’s boyhood home to sell it … and find signs that his dead mother is still around. This mildly intriguing set-up, however, is undone by cookie-cutter characters and by a terrible ending (spoiler alert): After trying desperately to keep her husband from succumbing to the inexplicable pull of his late mother, the wife sees him revert to a boy again and order her out of the house. The end.

YoungMansFancy

It’s hard to believe this weak episode came from the legendary Richard Matheson (“Nick of Time“, “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” and “A World of His Own“, among others), but even home-run hitters strike out now and then. “Go away, lady,” the boy tells his wife. Too bad he didn’t say the same to us at the outset.

***

MUTE
Season 4, Episode 5
January 31, 1963

It’s an interesting idea: A girl who’s been raised to communicate through telepathy alone is suddenly orphaned and must cope with a world who doesn’t understand her. A sympathetic schoolteacher is determined to help her fit in, even if it means browbeating the poor girl into being normal with techniques that seem borrowed from Nurse Ratched.

Mute

Her methods, which include having the girl’s classmates bombard her with thoughts to break her down and entice her to speak, may strike some as “tough love.” But all the good intentions in the world don’t make them easy to watch — or enjoy.

At the end we’re told “she’s loved, and that is so much more important than telepathy.” Granted, but this conclusion feels tacked on. Wouldn’t a story that explored how people who have telepathy are unjustly rejected by others be better? Maybe, maybe not, but I can’t help but feel dissatisfied at the ham-handed conclusion. For me, “Mute” falls on deaf ears.

***

THE INCREDIBLE WORLD OF HORACE FORD
Season 4, Episode 15
April 18, 1963

A man who yearns for the old days returns to the neighborhood where he grew up and encounters himself as a boy. Sound familiar? Yes, it’s the same basic plot as the far superior “Walking Distance.” That’s strike one. Strike two? Pat Hingle’s performance. Yes, he’s supposed to be a man-child, but he’s such an overgrown two-year old that he’s painful to watch. Fiction, yes, requires us to suspend our disbelief, but how Horace Ford could have landed a sympathetic wife, a good job and an understanding boss is asking a bit much.

IncredibleWorldofHoraceFord

When we see the pain etched on Martin Sloan’s face in “Walking Distance,” we want to put our arm around him. When Horace throws a tantrum, we want to slap him. That makes us indifferent to his fate — and that’s death for a Twilight Zone. Horace’s world, alas, is far more tedious than incredible.

***

FROM AGNES–WITH LOVE
Season 5, Episode 20
February 14, 1964

A “female” computer falls in love with her nerdy programmer. She even manages to clear potential rivals off the field by offering him bad dating advice. Cute, huh? Have I mentioned that this is a freakin’ Twilight Zone?

FromAgnesWithLove

Sorry, but cute and TZ don’t belong in the same dimension. The TZ-ish idea of a sentient computer is buried beneath lackluster writing and sitcom-ready characters. How this could roll off the assembly line that gave us “To Serve Man” and “Perchance To Dream” is beyond me. Maybe Agnes can compute an answer for me.

***

WHAT’S IN THE BOX
Season 5, Episode 24
March 13, 1964

Mark this box “return to sender.” For starters, it’s a second-rate story: the idea that the husband is seeing images of the near future sounds like a recycled TZ. But adding in two characters who yell and bicker so much they make “The Honeymooners” look like “The Love Boat” knocks a truly unpatchable hole in the boat.

WhatsInTheBox2

So when the episode reaches its bizarre homicidal conclusion, it’s hard to do anything but stare in disbelief — and not the good kind you get with better TZs. Sterling Holloway (the voice of Winnie the Pooh!) is on hand as a “mysterious” TV repairman, but why? Where did he come from? What’s the point? And why do the worst TZs lead me to ask too many rhetorical questions?

***

SOUNDS AND SILENCES
Season 5, Episode 27
April 3, 1964

Serling’s reign as TV’s king of comeuppance remains untouched. Many of his strongest scripts, for Twilight Zone and Night Gallery, feature some loathsome character who gets his just dessert handed to him with wit and style. “Sounds and Silences” plays like someone’s attempt to imitate Serling, so the fact that he wrote it himself is a bit surprising.

SoundsAndSilences

This episode came near the end of TZ’s run — when Serling had, as he put it, “written so much I’m woozy” — and it shows. Again, we find ourselves saddled with slapdash characters who stretch credibility. How, for example, could a comically tyrannical loudmouth like Roswell Flemington have even launched a successful business? Even his former profession as a sea captain passes belief, considering that this episode is itself one heck of a leaky vessel.

***

COME WANDER WITH ME
Season 5, Episode 34
May 22, 1964

A man sets out on a quest for something elusive and powerful. Sounds intriguing, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, the man is in search of … a song. Oh. Worse, he speaks in a grating “hep cat” slang that sounds too put on to be real.

ComeWanderWithMe

Some viewers praise this musical episode for its atmosphere, and there are some nice shots, but it’s not enough to make up for a languid pace and a dull story. For a musical episode, “Come Wander With Me” hits far too many false notes.

***

THE BEWITCHIN’ POOL
Season 5, Episode 36
June 19, 1964

Most people remember this episode for the notoriously bad dubbing of young co-star Mary Badham. But even if you can somehow accept the voice of June “Rocky Squirrel” Foray as coming from the lips of a child, you have to get past the irritatingly bad parents who drive their children to want to escape.

BewitchinPool

But just because we pity Sport and Jeb doesn’t mean we’re all that vested in seeing them relocate to some blandly conceived Huck Finn Land. A poor entry that may leave you searching for a hole at the bottom of your own swimming pool.

***

CAVENDER IS COMING
Season 3, Episode 36
May 25, 1962

Carol Burnett-style comedy and The Twilight Zone? Oil and water. Even if you count yourself among Burnett’s fans, there’s no denying that pratfalls and comic sound effects don’t fit the Serling-verse. Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that this episode was intended as a pilot for another series (like “Mr. Bevis,” whose plot is basically recycled here). When it wasn’t picked up, Serling retrofit it as a TZ.

CavenderIsComing

It has a nice message, I’ll grant you, but that’s not enough to trump its shortcomings. “Your assignment was to make her happy,” the head angel tells Cavender at the episode’s end, “and that’s precisely the way she is.” Would that the same could be said for us.

***

So there it is, my own “dirty dozen.” And that’s just about how I feel, too — dirty. I mean, we’re talking about the greatest TV series of all time! It’s good to purge, but I’m more than ready to go back to fanning over the good stuff.

So what are your least favorites? And what do you think of mine? Feel free to sound off below.

Unless you disagree with me. In which case, I’ve got Oliver Crangle on speed-dial.

***

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Hope to see you in some corner of the fifth dimension soon!

 

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About Paul

Fanning about the work of Rod Serling all over social media. If you enjoy pics, quotes, facts and blog posts about The Twilight Zone, Night Gallery and Serling's other projects, you've come to the right place.

Posted on 05/22/2014, in Twilight Zone and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 38 Comments.

  1. I might substitute Mr. Dingle the Strong instead of The Bewitchin’ Pool, but this is a pretty good list.

    • Ah, yes. That IS a weak one, no question. I think I’m just unable to rank anything with Burgess Meredith that low. But it’s close. Glad you liked the rest of the list!

      • I like Dingle but the special effect (aliens) are pretty lame. Then again, it was 1961, so what should I expect.

      • Well, it’s not just that it was 1961. They could have made them better. They looked cheesy because the episode was supposed to be a farce.

    • I agree! I like “The Bewitchin’ Pool.” It is contrived in places, but sad children being able to escape to a fantasy place is a classic idea. On the other hand, the Martians in “Mr. Dingle” are like something out of “Lost in Space.”

      • Yes, the basic idea of TBP is a good one; it just wasn’t well-executed. As for MD, see my reply to Dan above. Glad you stopped by!

  2. NotAPunkRocker

    Thank you for saying that about The Bewitchin’ Pool. I thought I was just cruel and heartless.

  3. I agree with that list. They are the ones that I never rewatch.

  4. I agree with your list (though I think that ‘Young Man’s Fancy’ does have a nice, creepy feel to it, and it’s an interesting idea). One I count as one of the weaker ones is ‘The Bard,’ which is like ‘Cavender is Coming’; the writing is heavy-handed and cliched, the jokes are lame (about the only redeeming bit for me is Burt Reynolds’ Marlon Brando imitation). I think Serling was not a natural at comedy writing. Another episode I don’t care to watch is ‘Jess-Belle’; Earl Hamner’s TZ stories just tend to be among my least favorite TZ shows.

    • Yes, as I mentioned, I thought YMF had some potential, but the ending ruined it for me. “The Bard,” well … I’m going to have to do a post about that one. I know where you’re coming from, and Serling’s was no comedy writer, THAT’s for sure, but I like the way he threw some barbs at what it’s like to write for TV. “Jess-Belle” I flat-out like! But it’s good to know we’re sympatico on most of my list.

  5. Serling apparently had a great sense of humor in real life but his “comic” TZ episodes were lousy (notice an over-reliance on goofy character names — any chance “Agnes Grep” might be ungainly, or “Luther Dingle” something of a wimp?). A pity, because there’s a lot of genuinely hilarious S/F out there.

    • Yes, he did like goofy names. Which is what you’d expect from someone whose natural talents did NOT lie in the area of comedy writing. Oh, well!

  6. Victor De Leon

    Whoa. Awesome list! Going to pretty much agree with you here on these picks, Paul. “What’s in the Box” and “Mr Bevis” (as well as “Agnes”) always make me cringe whenever I watch them but I kind of dig “Bewitchin’ Pool” on a couple of levels. It is kind of goofy, though, but that darn cake at the end looks soooo yummy.

    • Thanks, Vic! It wasn’t easy doing this list. Like I said at the end, it almost made me feel dirty! But at the same time, it was fun to do. And I know what you mean about TBP! I can appreciate their plight, and it DOES give us a happy ending. And come on: CAKE!

  7. I’m glad to say it did, GF. Hope this is all straightened out for you very soon!

  8. I agree with the list for the most part, although I actually sort of like “Young Man`s Fancy” (kind of creepy with the radio coming on by itself and the fudge in the dish). And “Come Wander With Me” I always sort of liked too because of the haunting title song and Richard Donner`s great camera shots. And Bonnie Beecher was a little honey. Floyd Burney was a real hothead, wasn’t he? Throws a rock at a bird in a tree and then beats a hillbilly to death with a guitar, lol. I`m reminded of “The Changing of the Guard” with Donald Pleasance. I never cared for that one. What do you think?

    • Oh, there are some very good touches in both YMF and CWWM. In fact, I can point out at least one thing I like about nearly every episode on my list. They’re not junk by any stretch, they’re just not TZ at its best. At least as far as I’M concerned — every episode has at least a few passionate defenders, I’ve found!

      Which, ha, leads me to “The Changing of the Guard,” which I’m actually a big fan of: https://thenightgallery.wordpress.com/2013/08/31/the-value-of-one-life/

  9. The first Twilight Zone episode I ever saw was What’s in the Box, which I stumbled across while switching channels after I came home from junior high. I was mesmerized, and have loved the show ever since.

    Come Wander With Me is the one I always cite as the worst episode. It never made any sense to me.

    • CWWM is definitely a bit of a head-scratcher. Even most of its fans cite the atmosphere, the photography — things like that. Rarely do they rave about the story itself. And wow, WITB was your first, and it pulled you right in? Like I always say, “bad” TZ is still better than most of what’s on TV. :)

  10. Dale Haskell

    Well,I guess I just have to say it since no one else has: BLACK LEATHER JACKETS.

    • I kind of like BLJ — with caveats. It has a common fifth-season affliction: an interesting idea that feels a bit haphazard or underdone. The basic story — aliens infiltrating small-town America — could have worked better with a more sophisticated approach.

      I’ll save the rest of my thoughts for a future blog post; I can’t really do it justice here. Stay tuned!

  11. I’m surprised that the episode “Two” is not on the list, which in my opinion is THE worst episode EVER :-)

    • Really? I like “Two,” and I have to be honest — I rarely hear a bad word about it. I’ve certainly never seen it listed as someone’s all-time least-favorite. But hey, that’s what makes the world go ’round. Thanks for commenting!

  12. Good ‘bad’ choices! One more I’d toss into the mix is ‘A Piano in the House’…as soon as the lead says his name is ‘Fitzgerald Fortune’, I got the feeling it was going to be a tedious viewing. Not ‘Cavender is Coming’ or ‘Four O’Clock’ bad, but pretty bad!

  13. David Zdziarek

    Agreed, your “Dirty Dozen” makes for an indeed blazing argument for substandard TZ fare. There were three more fourth-seasoners not even worth talking about, but the worst ever was the fifth-season “Uncle Simon”, with its’ virus-filtered characters, pipsqueak acting to accentuate, and an atmosphere as palatable as canned peas. Seeking had come a long way from ” Eye Of the Beholder” with THAT rustbucket fifth seasoner. To the junkyard with the robot, and Barbara, or best said, Blubbera, can go with it!!!

    • Yes, Serling even admitted that he felt pretty worn out toward the end of TZ’s run. I wish he had farmed out more of the writing, but his contract called for him to supply the bulk of the episodes, but even the best hitter in the world is going to strike out now and then, and if you overwork him, that ratio can only rise.

  14. This list was so funny! I agree with a bunch of your episodes. I was never crazy about the “funny” ones.

    “Like Bevis’s zither music, it’s best left unplayed.” – Cracks me up! Unless it’s zither music from “The Third Man” Soundtrack, don’t bother playing it. lol

    Never cared for Mr. Dingle the Strong, and off the top of my head The Last Rites of Jeff Myrtlebank was weak, it had a creepy premise – a man wakes up at his own funeral. I kind of laughed when he said he’s starving – everyone kind of backs up in terror – and this is pre-Romero zombie cannibalism. lol. But I find it too talky and goofy with a silly ending.

    And The Passage of Queen Anne had so much promise, and then nothing at the end. An hour wasted. I mean, I get the idea, it was literally their last cruise to death, but it was too drawn out.

    • Ha, I’m glad you enjoyed it! This one, despite my closing paragraph, was actually kind of fun to write. I’m with you on Mr. Dingle (even though it didn’t make my list, thanks to Burgess Meredith), but I have to admit, I like Jeff Myrtlebank (as you may have seen from my post on that episode). Passage on the Lady Anne is a middling episode, one that is certainly padded, but it has such a lovely cast, and an ultimately sweet resolution, that I could never put it on a worst list.

  15. As a whole, I usually change the channel for most of the Outer Space episodes. However I was shocked to see Four o’clock on your list. I love that one! I also must be one of the very few who enjoys Come Wander With Me. The tune of the song and Gary Crosby make it enjoyable for me. My husband dutifully watches The Midnight Sun every time it’s on. My 60 year old sister still is scared from The Fever(Franklin!!)When I was little, I have been watching since I was about 10, my favorite was Time Enough At Last, as an adult, The Dummy is it for me.
    So, As they say that is why they make Vanilla and Chocolate. Everyone has different tastes.

    • Yes, each to his own, Dee. Four O’Clock may not be my cup of tea, but I’m glad that you and other TZ fans enjoy it. Part of the fun of an anthology is that there’s something for everyone. I have noticed that every episode has at least one passionate defender out there, and I think that’s great. Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

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