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.

***

Photos courtesy of Wendy Brydge. For a daily dose of Serling, you can follow me on TwitterFacebook or Pinterest

You can also get email notifications of future posts by entering your address under “Follow S&S Via Email” on the upper left-hand side of this post. WordPress followers, just hit “follow” at the top of the page.

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

 

Advertisements

About Paul

Hard-working, hard-playing fan of all pop culture, especially the Twilight Zone. Which led to a Twitter page. And then to a blog. And then to ... stay tuned. Yes, that's a picture of Rod Serling, not me. You can find the real me under the "Your Host" tab on my blog, along with biographical details that, while 100 percent accurate, sound kind of boastful and braggy. Sorry.

Posted on 05/22/2014, in Twilight Zone and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 36 Comments.

  1. I’ve been eagerly awaiting this list, Boss. You’ve talked about writing this one for a long time and I’m happy to finally see it come together. And so beautifully! I’ve read a few drafts (which I always love getting to preview – GF/BF perk!), and I had high hopes for this one. And you didn’t disappoint! Seeing the final draft in my inbox was like being handed a gift on Christmas morning. And that’s the truth. Fantastic job. :)

    You’ve got some very interesting choices here. A number of these would most certainly make my own least favourites list, starting with “The Bewitching Pool”, which is my pick for worst TZ. “What’s in the Box”, “Sounds and Silences”, and “Mr. Bevis” I definitely agree with. But for the most part, I like “The Incredible World of Horace Ford” and “From Agnes — With Love” (although I do agree with your criticisms). And my extreme dislike of Carol Burnett aside, “Cavender is Coming” is such a nice story idea (and has a good overall message) that I kind of like it too!

    But I concur with you, Boss, there are no “bad” TZs. Not really. Especially when you compare today’s shows with this wonderful classic. Give me “Mute” over Game of Thrones any day!

    There are redeeming qualities to every episode you’ve listed here, and I think that speaks volumes about Serling’s talent. Even at his worst, the man could out-write most people’s best.

    Thanks for putting this great post together, my friend. Of all your posts, I think this was one of the most fun to talk about while you were writing it. Comparing least favourite episodes is just as enjoyable as sizing-up favourite ones. This one gets the Gal Friday Seal of Approval for sure! ;)

    On to the next!

    • Glad you like it so much, GF! Your Seal of Approval is always the bow on top. Once again, your pic selection, encouragement and editing were key to assuring a smooth landing. I know round-up posts like this mean more work for you, but I think the finished product clearly shows it was worth it! :)

      As for the selections themselves, I don’t blame you for finding something to like in Horace Ford, From Agnes With Love, and even Cavender is Coming. They’re not terrible TV, they’re … hmm, subprime TZ, let’s put it that way. That’s why I was careful to caveat my criticisms. As I’ve told you before, I actually enjoy quoting almost every episode here. Just about all of them have SOMETHING to offer.

      This was definitely an interesting post to write. Some are easy, some are hard, but this one somehow managed to be both. I enjoyed doing it, but I was glad when I was finished (hence my conclusion). As long as it fuels some enjoyable debates, my work is done!

      If nothing else, it goes to show that I don’t advocate mindlessly fanning over TZ. It’s TV at its best, but we can admit that it’s not flawless.

      And yes, on to the next! Can’t wait for us to ponder the possibilities. So many episodes, so little time … :)

      • Hey, you know what they say, Boss: Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life. Round-up posts are more work, but I’m always more than happy to help out my best friend. I’ll always be here when you need me for anything. :)

  2. 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!

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

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

  5. 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.

  6. 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!

  7. 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!

  8. Running a little test, Boss. Been a busy Gal Friday tonight. You know the issues I’ve been having with WordPress commenting. So let’s see if this works!

  9. 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/

  10. 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. :)

  11. 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!

  12. 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!

  13. 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!

  1. Pingback: The Case of the Missing Twilight Zone Season | Shadow & Substance

  2. Pingback: After the Zone-a-thon III | Shadow & Substance

  3. Pingback: Serling the Serious vs. Serling the Silly | Shadow & Substance

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: