Back in the ‘Zone’
Fifty years ago today, The Twilight Zone premiered on CBS.
Though the show was a moderate hit at best, and lasted only five seasons, it definitely left its mark on Americana. Even people who’ve never seen an entire episode immediately recognize the bizarre theme song and the program’s host, Rod Serling.
There were just 156 episodes in the original series — I don’t bother to count the various attempts to remake the series over the years because some things just can’t be redone — and the writing and storytelling was so good that it’s truly hard to pick any one favorite.
If I absolutely had to narrow it down to a single favorite episode, I think I’d choose the episode that briefly served as the name of a writing blog I used to have: “A Stop at Willoughby.”
In that episode, an over-stressed ad executive who’s miserable at work and home wakes up from a dream during a train ride home in time to hear the conductor announce the Willoughby stop, a stop he’s never heard of. He looks out the window and sees what looks like a Normal Rockwell painting come to life. But before he can investigate further, he is awakened from his dream. Over the course of the episode, as his stress level rises, he becomes more and more determined to get off the train at the Willoughby stop. When he finally succeeds, it turns out that the escape he was looking for wasn’t quite what he thought it was: he was sleepwalking and stepped off a moving train to his death. The last shot shows his lifeless body being put into a hearse and as the door closes we see that the name on the back of the hearse is “Willoughby and Sons Funeral Home.”
If I had to make a top 10 list of ‘Zone’ episodes, it might look like this:
- “A Stop at Willoughby”
- “Judgment Night” — A stranger finds himself on a doomed freighter haunted by a feeling of déjà vu.
- “Walking Distance” — A businessman goes back to his hometown and finds himself as a young boy.
- “To Serve Man” — Aliens land on Earth with a variety of gifts to make our lives better…with a huge price tag.
- “The Obsolete Man” — A man who refuses to conform to a police state finds a way to make his execution have a profound effect on the government.
- “People Are Alike All Over” — A scientist nervous about a spaceflight is assured by his colleague that there’s no reason to worry about encountering people on a different planet. But his assurance turns out to be a nightmare.
- “The Sixteen Millimeter Shrine” — An aging film star becomes obsessed with a return to the way things used to be.
- “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” — Fear of the unknown turns friendly neighbors into a vicious mob.
- “Time Enough At Last” — A bookish little man longs for nothing more than time alone with some great books. He gets his wish, with one terrible dilemma.
- “The Silence” — A man makes a bet with a talkative acquaintance, but the wager backfires on both of them.
Believe me, it was difficult to make that list. I could easily have done a top 20. Or 30. I may have to watch a few of these again this weekend!