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.
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 find “One for the Angels” sweet 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.
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:
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.
“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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
Posted on 05/22/2014, in Twilight Zone and tagged A World of His Own, Cavender is Coming, Come Wander With Me, Eye of the Beholder, Four O'Clock, From Agnes--With Love, Mr. Bevis, Mute, Nick of Time, Night Gallery, Nightmare at 20000 Feet, One for the Angels, Perchance to Dream, Rod Serling, Showdown with Rance McGrew, Sounds and Silences, The Bewitchin' Pool, The Incredible World of Horace Ford, The Invaders, Twilight Zone, What's In the Box, Young Man's Fancy. Bookmark the permalink. 40 Comments.