I had what you might call an epiphany the other night. It happened while I was watching “The Hunt,“ an episode from The Twilight Zone: The Complete Third Season. The story concerns an old man who takes his dog out raccoon hunting. The two of them drown, but do not realize it until they return and see the funeral preparations. They walk off, and the man almost walks right in to Hell. His trusty dog knows better though, and will not go. They walk a little further up the road, and are welcomed in to Heaven.
The first time I saw this episode, I was about 10 years old. Maybe the word “epiphany” is a little strong, but in watching the show again, I remembered how it struck me all those years ago. It was magic. I realized that genuine art could be found on my little black and white TV. Not only that, but it could be entertaining. The Twilight Zone opened my eyes, and completely changed my outlook. It set the bar pretty high, and I have probably compared everything I have seen since then to that powerful sensation I first experienced with "The Hunt."
The Twilight Zone: The Complete Third Season is a new five-DVD set from Image Entertainment, who previously released each season of The Twilight Zone to DVD in Definitive Edition sets, which included numerous bonus features. The Twilight Zone: The Complete Third Season is episodes-only, featuring all 37 from the 1961-62 season. Price is the main advantage here, as these sets are significantly less expensive than the Definitive Editions. The extras are nice, but at about half the cost, I will very happily take the episodes only.
And there are some fantastic episodes in this collection, without a doubt. Rod Serling wrote 21 of them, and was helped out by some of the best writers of the day. Ray Bradbury was one. His “I Sing the Body Electric” is the heartwarming story of a grandmother who just happens to be a robot.
My beloved “The Hunt” was written by Earl Hamner, who added “Jr.” to his onscreen credit a few years later when he created The Waltons. He also contributed “A Piano in the House,” which is a sly and disturbing tale. I always thought of Hamner as a very sentimental writer, but “A Piano in the House” shows a much darker side. It is another of my favorites of the season.
George Clayton Johnson’s name might not be as recognizable as Serling‘s, but he went on to write the novel Logan’s Run. He penned three of the third season’s scripts, “A Game of Pool,” “Nothing in the Dark,” and “Kick the Can.” All three are great, but “Kick the Can” is really something special. It concerns a group of elderly patients at an old folks home, who find eternal youth by playing a game of Kick the Can.
Charles Beaumont was another ringer, and contributed four stories. They are “The Jungle,” “Dead Man’s Shoes,” “The Fugitive,” and “Person or Persons Unknown.” I remember watching “Dead Man’s Shoes” on my little black and white television as a kid also. The episode concerns a street-guy who puts on the shoes of a dead man. The shoes transform him into the man, who was a gangster. Wearing the dead man’s shoes, the bum heads out to exact revenge.
Richard Matheson was responsible for one of the greatest Twilight Zone episodes ever with “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.” That story would be told in the fifth season however. The three he wrote for season three are “Once Upon A Time,” “Little Girl Lost,” and “Young Man’s Fancy.” Buster Keaton stars in “Once Upon A Time,” which begins in the form of a silent movie, set in 1890. Keaton is a grumpy old janitor who puts on a magic hat that transfers him to the modern world of 1960. He hated all the noise and activity of 1890, and he is even more upset with the pace of 1960. All he wants to do is get back home, and he only has a few minutes to do so. This one seems expressly written for Keaton, as it is filled with great slapstick bits.
The sixth and final outside contributor to the season is Montgomery Pittman, who offers “The Grave,“ “The Last Rites of Jeff Myrtlebank,” and “Two.” The honor of opening the season went to “Two,“ which stars Elizabeth Montgomery and Charles Bronson. These two are the only survivors of a horrible war. They are from opposing sides, and are naturally wary of each other. One of the things that makes this episode so good is the tension. It is about the aftermath of war, the devastation, and the feeling that nobody can be trusted. It is a message that would fit at just about any time, because there always seems to be war going on somewhere. But it must have felt particularly apt in 1961, during the Cold War.
The Twilight Zone is many things, but it is perhaps the definitive Cold War television show. The tensions between the United States and Russia were about as hot as they would ever get when these episodes were filmed. All-out nuclear annihilation was a very real prospect, and this informs many of Serling’s scripts. One of the best is “The Shelter.” The story begins at the birthday party of a doctor, who is taking a lot of good-natured ribbing about the bomb shelter he has just built. Then the emergency alarms go off, and his neighbors go off the rails. His shelter only has room for his family, and we are suddenly in a suburban Lord of the Flies.
“The Midnight Sun,” is eerily prescient. The sun is shining brightly in Manhattan at midnight, and it is 120 degrees. The Earth has slipped out of its orbit, and is moving towards the sun. Unprecedented global warming is the new normal. In 1961, gas cost 25 cents, and Americans drove land-yachts. Nobody thought that in less than 50 years, this way of life would lead to real global warming. Beyond that though, it is a very taut episode, and has a great twist ending to boot.
No discussion of The Twilight Zone would be complete without mentioning “To Serve Man.” It is considered one of the best episodes of the series, and first aired on March 2, 1962. Serling introduces us to an alien race called the Kanamits, who offer to help mankind. They do this by eliminating hunger, and with it most of society’s ills vanish as well. When the title of the book the Kanamits have left behind is translated, it reads “To Serve Man.” It is not until the end that we discover that this is a cookbook.
I mentioned “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” and “Kick the Can” earlier, and both were updated for Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983). The third original story in that film was “It’s a Good Life,” which was the eighth episode of Season Three. Serling wrote the teleplay of this one also, and it concerns a boy named Anthony who has what seems to unlimited mental powers. Everything must be “good,” or Anthony will do very bad things, like send people to the “cornfield,” where they never return from. Be careful, or you may wind up as a human jack-in-the-box.
There is no question in my mind that The Twilight Zone belongs in the top tier of any list of greatest TV shows ever. The world may have changed in incredible ways over the years, but the quality of this series remains undiminished. There is genius contained in these 37 episodes, but you never have to call it that. Just call it what it is, The Twilight Zone. Fifty years later, those three words still speak for themselves.